Why So Many Parents Coast Through Their Daughters’ Tween Years, and Why It’s a Big Mistake

During the years between around 9 and 12, many parents breathe a little sigh of relief. Though she is still far from grown, she is a little more self-reliant. She likely remembers more of what’s going on at school and can keep her assignments and backpack together with little reminding from mom and dad; she may even do homework without being asked.

At some point during these years, you may start to feel comfortable letting her go to the park or even the mall and other activities with a group and minimal or no adult supervision. She can do a lot around the house to help, and to take care of herself. She can entertain friends without you orchestrating every detail of their time together. Basically, she doesn’t require as much of your time or attention as she did just a few years ago, but she is not yet a teenager who requires the watchful eye of a parent looking out for risky business. And many parents find relief in this and begin to parent on auto-pilot.

It’s tempting, I know. But it’s also a mistake. It’s tempting to see these years as more latent than the years before and after them, and not realize the value of what you can and need to do as the parent of a tween girl. Don’t miss the opportunity to focus on these aspects of tweenhood:

       Negotiation– I honed my negotiation skills while learning to shop with my daughter. She became very interested in what was trendy, and some of this was not acceptable to me. I set expectations prior to a shopping trip- what we were looking for, how much we were spending, and what I was unwilling to buy (anything too short, anything with writing on the butt, etc.). Some back and forth on opinions, and a lot more creative alternative, and we left with some great items, a budget intact, and still smiling at each other.

       Staying connected to parents– So many people complain that once their children become teenagers, communication and closeness to parents either changes or diminishes. Use the tween years to get closer or stay close! Make sure to find meaningful time together to talk, listen, listen some more, and do fun things together. If she learns that you are easy to confide in, understand her experience, and are fun, the closeness will carry on into the teen years.

       Building trust– similar to being connected to her parents, this is a great time for your tween to understand how to build and keep trust with you. Because this is the time that she will start to spend more social time away from you, she will learn that making good choices and doing the right thing allows you to trust her, which often translates to more privileges. Again, a great foundation for the teen years.

       School is cool– it is so frustrating to watch the proud students and high achievers of the early elementary years begin to avoid academic interest in order to avoid a nerd label. The middle school years tend to see a dumbing down of some kids who trade academics for the pursuit of social acceptance- not believing that the two can exist together. Use this time to acknowledge that you understand the importance of friends and the social scene, but emphasize that there is nothing cool about bad grades and find role models to underscore this point.

       Conflict resolution– oh boy, this is a big one. The tween years see the emergence or escalation of friendship dramas and the mean girl phenomenon. The earlier you teach your daughter how to navigate conflict, the more comfortable she will become. Use the minor incidences she encounters to teach her how to stick up for herself, stick up for others, and not be a part of the problem. There are many good books on this subject (including Between Baby Dolls and Boyfriends, written by yours truly). It’s never too late to work on these skills with your daughter, but the difference in how a 10 year old receives your message versus a 16 year old…. well, you can imagine.

       Drugs and alcohol– I remember my daughter’s early tween years. We had always followed the recommendations and school programs that taught that drugs were bad, etc. But talking about drugs and alcohol knowing that some kids were already bragging about having tried a drink or demonstrating a clear understanding of what drunk or high person looks or acts like, and knowing that more serious realities were lurking around the corner was frightening. I felt like I was bursting a bubble: “honey, put down your American Girl doll so we can talk about drugs.” I hated it, but I did it anyway. There are websites and guides galore to having these discussions. Don’t think that talking about these things will rob her of her innocence and spark an interest in them- quite the contrary, it clarifies a serious issue that she is already aware of to some extent, and allows you to share your family’s values and expectations around them.

       Boys– tweens often use these years to announce “going out” with each other. You are probably aware that this usually means very little, other than the title. Most “couples” may not even speak to each other, but still manage to have a little relationship drama. Some kids, especially toward the end of the tween years, may interact more or even become physical in different ways. The tween years are great for talking about your family values, morals, rules, and expectations around relationships. Teach your daughter what it looks like to be in a healthy relationship. If she allowed to have a boyfriend, don’t just tell her what she can’t do (no kissing, no touching, no whatever…). Tell her what she can do (write him a note, phone calls while in the room with a parent, have him over with a group and parental supervision, etc.). Clear expectations of what having a boyfriend will mean avoids a great deal of conflict and confusion later on when she meets, like, the coolest boy ever.

Wow, we have a lot to do during these few years! Of course I don’t mean to suggest that any parent has been slacking off during the tween years. And to varying extents, you have probably been doing plenty of what I describe above. My hope is that instead of viewing this time as the years between the all-eyes-on-kids years and the white-knuckled teen years, we see them as years that can keep us close or bring us closer to our tweens and fortify our relationship for happy and healthy years to come.

So tell me- which area described have you focused the most on? Which would you like to spend more time on? Are there other subjects that you would add to this list?

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