How Do I Handle My Tween's Tantrums?

Arguing and negotiating rules is a healthy and normal part of being a tween, but Parents Ask Your Mom columnist, Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., says there are ways parents can respond to support their growth and the parent-tween relationship instead of adding more frustration.

How to Deal with Tween Tantrum
Photo: | Zoe Hansen

My 10-year-old has always had a strong personality, but lately she tends to argue about every rule and guideline—even the ones that she's happily followed for years, like doing homework before any screen time, or going with the family to church services on Sundays. I know the push back is normal, but its getting really frustrating. How to I let her explore and set her own boundaries without crossing mine?

-Tween Tantrums

I hope it comforts you to know how not alone you are! I have heard this exact scenario in my office with mystified parents, and have lived it in my own household, also touched by the potent combination of hormone shifts and strong personalities. As frustrating as this new phase may be, it is full of potential for learning and positive growth—for you, your daughter, and your changing relationship. As surprising as it might be to discover that 10-year-olds may indeed be starting adolescence, it helps to view their behaviors through this developmental lens, and then work with her instead of against her to find new boundaries that benefit everyone.

Puberty Starts Earlier Than We Expect

As a child psychologist well-versed in child development, I was still shocked to learn in real time as a mother how soon puberty really starts (average age of onset is 8 to 13—yes, as young as 8). In his excellent book about the adolescent brain, Age of Opportunity, Laurence Steinberg, Ph.D, explains that adolescence is starting sooner than ever as onset of initial puberty symptoms for boys and girls has inched younger and younger over the decades. In fact, I had not heard of the earliest stage of puberty, adrenarche. (I always remember it sounds like anarchy, because that kind of feels like what's happening.) Adrenarche causes a hormone surge that occurs between ages 6 and 8 as a precursor to puberty. It doesn't always cause mood and behavior changes, but it can.

Adolescent Development

The primary task of adolescence is figuring out identity, and pushing against family norms is a natural and necessary part of the identity formation process. Whether or not your 10-year-old is biologically a teenager yet, she shows behavior typical for adolescence because of what teenagers are supposed to be accomplishing in the teen years. Adolescence marks a period of re-negotiating roles and boundaries in the family, which happens through, well, lots of negotiations! And arguing. Your child has internalized your family rules and expectations well for her life, and now she questions them. She's actually doing her developmental "job."

The Good News

Research shows that teens who negotiate and argue rather than obediently comply with parents are actually healthier and more skilled in the long-run. Debating rules and expectations practices critical thinking, verbal skills, and social skills that all contribute to positive social development. Beyond this skill development in thinking, communicating, and building social relationships, evidence points to better emotional health as well. Tweens and teens who do not feel safe arguing with their parents are more likely to break rules in risky ways since they cannot openly question them, and be depressed and anxious. When my own daughter goes into argument mode, I remind myself, "she feels very safe!"

Next Steps

I realize all of the knowledge from puberty and child development research can feel like cold comfort in the real life of managing a newly argumentative child. The mindset, "this is normal" may help a bit, but it does not totally eliminate the aggravation of a child suddenly not following the rules. I felt very fortunate that I started this fun, new stage with my own child at age 11, while I was writing a book about autonomy-supportive parenting, a science-backed framework for parenting toward autonomy instead of controlling our children (spoiler: controlling doesn't work out well). This framework provided some much-needed guidance that I used with my own early teen, with success.

Some autonomy-supportive tools to guide you in optimizing these arguments for everyone's learning and growth:

  • Start with a curious and open state of mind to help you not only understand her better, but even more powerful, for her to feel understood by you: "I'm noticing lots of arguing lately about rules we have had as a family for years, like homework before screen time. Tell me what you think about these rules."
  • Express empathy and perspective-taking. Based on what she describes, reflect back her experience as you hear it. This makes sure you are getting it right, and she can explain again in case you aren't. It also shows her you want to understand her experience instead of just lay down the law.
  • Review rationale for rules. Maybe the rules have been in place for so long, everyone has forgotten the why. Research shows that when parents offer rationale for rules instead of simply handing down edicts, children respond more positively by complying, or at least arguing less, because they adopt the rationale as reasonable.
  • Involve in problem-solving and decision-making. Ask your child for their ideas about how to modify the rules. This is where the magic can truly happen, both in your relationship and in her internal motivation to follow household expectations. Integrating a sense of choice in this process has been shown to be a key ingredient in a child internalizing rules as their own rather than feeling forced to do things they don't want to do.

While following these steps, be open to changing some rules, if reasonable. With homework before screen time, for example, invite your daughter to create a routine she prefers with the expectation that she completes her homework. Try it out for a week to see what happens. As kids get older, the amount of structure they need changes, and it's important for us to see this potential for them to provide their own structure instead of relying on us. If she chooses to do an hour of screen time when she gets home because her brain feels tired from the school day, she may feel more motivated to then show you she can be responsible with her homework. There may be some non-negotiables, but in finding areas for flexibility, the more likely your daughter will stop railing against every rule.

The Bottom Line

These parenting approaches grant your daughter a sense of agency that she is likely searching for due to her age and development. Finding more mastery over aspects of her daily life long dictated by her parents helps her grow her own sense of competence. Within the context of an open and loving relationship with you, you are ultimately nurturing your daughter's autonomy through encouraging exploration instead of sticking to the rules with "no ifs ands or buts." Converting conflict into discussion and collaborative problem-solving may help you both find new boundaries, with less push-back and frustration, and more understanding.

Submit your parenting questions here, and they may be answered in future 'Ask Your Mom' columns.

Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., is the author of The Art and Science of Mom parenting blog and the upcoming parenting book Parenting for Autonomy. She is a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois, and a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents.

Read More Ask Your Mom columns here.

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