Why Parenting a Tween is Actually Pretty Great
At breakfast one morning, my 10-year-old daughter was upset. "Why didn't you wash my favorite tank top?" she asked. When I shrugged, her voice rose several decibels. "Now I have nothing to wear to school!"
Not true, I thought. I knew she had a dresser full of perfectly functional, clean clothing.
"Honey, you're acting just like a tween," I teased.
Her eyes widened. "Don't call me that," she said angrily, and left the room.
Maybe I felt my daughter was overreacting. But I've since realized that when I dismissed her feelings as typical, moody tween behavior, I reinforced a perception that kids her age are difficult, unreasonable, and overdramatic. Our parenting culture is filled with negative narratives about what it's like to raise tweens—children ages 8 to 12. On the internet and social media, attention-grabbing headlines describe how difficult it is to survive the tween years, warning us that we just might lose our minds in the process.
Such narratives are extreme, but they're grounded in reality; the tween years can be rocky and overwhelming for parents and kids alike. "There's always been that fear of middle school; it's always seen as that big time of change," says Katie Hurley, LCSW, a child and adolescent psychotherapist and author of No More Mean Girls. "We are so afraid of kids having emotions, crying, and falling apart."
But kids are supposed to make mistakes, especially during adolescence. That's because the prefrontal cortex—which governs reasoning and impulse control—is still developing. When we focus on everything that can go wrong, we miss out on the wonderful aspects of raising tweens. And it turns out there are plenty.
A golden time for learning
Because the adolescent brain is uniquely receptive to feedback, tweens are fast learners who are highly motivated to showcase their burgeoning skills. In the past year, my tween has become a big help around the house. She's learned to mop floors, make her younger sister's lunch, and use the stove and oven safely.
"Kids in this age group love to be responsible," says Hurley. "They're learning a lot, and they want to share that."
Communicating and connecting
Tweens have an increasingly advanced vocabulary and understanding of language. Unlike younger children, tweens have the words to accurately describe those big emotions they're feeling, from furious to passionate to betrayed. They're beginning to grasp sarcasm and nuances in conversations.
In the past year, my daughter and I have had more in-depth, complex discussions—and spirited arguments—than ever before. When I shared with her recently that I was worried about completing a project, she understood and was able to empathize with me. Being able to connect on this level has made our relationship stronger.
There's a reason your tween recalls where those car keys are, or what restaurant was his favorite on your last family trip. Research suggests that the brain's ability to create new memories increases during adolescence. Studies show that we remember books, music, movies, and events from the adolescent period more than from other times.
While my head is cluttered with long-lost calculus equations and old song lyrics, my daughter's brain is primed to retain new information. She's come to the rescue more than once when I've forgotten the grocery list or the name of a family acquaintance.
New interests and social growth
"Developmentally, the tween years are really about self-discovery," says Hurley. Tweens are very curious and have a lot of different interests. They're discovering what they're passionate about, from cooking to karate to music.
Children in this age group are also becoming more engaged in their own social world. Last year, my daughter got to experience her first overnight camp and sleepover away from home. Although she was a little nervous at first (and let's be honest, so was I), trying something new without her parents gave her a huge confidence boost. Bonus: My husband and I even got to enjoy a romantic dinner out!
The sweet spot between little and big
Tweens are striking the balance between little and big, says Hurley. This means that your tween might be acting silly in one moment, and sophisticated in the next. Kids this age are often good teachers for younger children, and they have a lot of informed opinions. But even as they become more independent, knowledgeable, and mature, tweens still look to us for what Hurley calls the soft landing: unconditional love and support.
There are instances when I do something my daughter considers embarrassing, like parking in the wrong spot at school pick-up, or blasting my favorite Spotify playlist while her peers are within earshot. In these moments, I realize how much she's changing and becoming her own person, separate from me. But at the end of the day, she still thinks I'm (kind of) cool. She wants to share with me what's weighing on her mind, and she's always up for a goodnight chat and hug. That's a habit I hope she doesn't outgrow anytime soon.