The rate at which girls can go from sweet, plays-with-dolls angels to snarky, eye-rolling strangers can make your head spin. At least this is what I have heard from many friends and clients in my parenting classes. It seems that as soon as our daughters hit those tween years around 9 or 10, their split personality suddenly reveals itself. I must emphasize the ‘it seems’ part here, because in truth, this didn’t come out of nowhere. Our little darlings have been observing those around them for quite some time – you, your friends, her friends, and siblings and their friends. And then as this age-appropriate time of increased independent thought, opinions, and peer awareness takes hold, she often flips through the files in her mind and rolls out the approach that she thinks best fits the moment.
In my daughter’s case, she most often tried out things that she saw friends do that seemed so exciting. She had a specific friend who was very sassy to her mother, her back-talk was never addressed. I was always big on respect and kindness in the way we speak to one another in my family. So when my daughter was an early tween, I vividly remember asking her to do something and getting an over-the-top snotty reply. Now I am generally fairly quiet and even-keeled. So when I spun around and asked her who she thought she was talking to, her face dropped and she quickly said “I don’t know where that came from, I’m sorry.” A couple more attempts by her to imitate the snarkiest people she is aware of were met with more level-headed parenting. I told her that I’m sure it seems exciting to think that she can start talking like her friend or the cool girl on her favorite show, but it is just not okay in our family. Certainly some attitude sneaks out of my sweet girl, but lucky for me (and her!) I headed it off early enough and consistently enough that it has not been an issue.
Some level of defiance is very common in the tween years. Girls are beginning to care a lot more about what their peers think of them, and they often make clumsy attempts to show how cool and not “babyish” they are now. While this is all very normal, there are ways you can minimize negative behavior, help her navigate the challenge of this phase, and keep from getting on each other’s nerves.
Don’t label her. How many times have you heard parents say “she’s my little hellion,” or “she’s got quite the mouth on her,” right in front of their child? I think sometimes well-meaning parents say these things to head off criticism. If someone later said “wow, she’s a mouthy kid” this parent could say “I already told you that!” But kids tend to live up to their labels, and meet the expectations we set for them. I know there are worse things to say to or about your daughter than mentioning how the early tween years are a scary preview of what she’ll be like as a teenager, but the truth is by setting a negative tone, we are conveying the belief that we expect her to be bratty and to suddenly not get along with us. Avoid negative labels, and maybe even try to say positive things around her, mentioning how much you are enjoying her new levels of interest in this or that, and how much fun she is to be around.
Lay the groundwork for her. Once you get a glimpse of how your daughter’s defiance presents itself, find ways to let her know what you expect, and how to express herself. All tween defiance doesn’t look the same. Some girls just try on different personas to feel older, but don’t give parents too much trouble. Some girls really ramp up the attitude and can be quite a handful. Don’t just brace yourself for her harsh words and attitude and get mad when she has an outburst, really examine what this looks like and what you need to do about it. Let her know that you don’t mind her expressing an opinion, as long as it is done with respect. If she says “I hate taking out the trash” when you ask her to do this chore, it’s okay to just say “I know you don’t enjoy taking out the trash, thank you for doing it anyway.” In this pick-your-battle scenario, you are letting her know that it’s okay to express an opinion, but not to scream it or yell at you. If she chooses instead to demand that you get another child to do it or smashes the bag around on her way out, you need to intervene. Let her know that you understand she doesn’t enjoy this chore, but her behavior is unacceptable. Explain that she can tell you she doesn’t like what she’s doing in a calm voice, but that you expect her to complete the task without arguing or being disrespectful. And then in a non-conflicted moment, tell her that you understand that she has a lot of opinions about things now, and that she may express them but lay out what is okay and what’s not: Asking why she has to do something? Fine (if it is actually fine with you), but as a way to get information, not talk her way out of something. Yelling? Not okay. Negotiating alternatives? Okay, as long as she accepts the outcome. Slamming doors, stomping around, etc.? You get the idea. Give her some room to grow but make sure to give her the parameters to keep things in check.
Reinforce the positive. This can make a huge difference. It’s funny how simple this is, and how elusive it can be. Maybe your daughter is having friends over and you’re worried that she is going to be rude to you to show off. You white-knuckle it through the party waiting for the sass to begin, and can’t believe it when it never does. You are so relieved, and surprised, that she didn’t back-talk you once! You breathe a sigh of relief and wonder when her attitude will rear its unpleasant head again. Sometimes when we are surprised by the lack of a negative behavior, we forget to reinforce the positive that occurred! It could make such a difference to tell her after the party “honey, I am so happy with the way you talked to me today. When you offered to help clear everyone’s dishes and said you would try to keep the noise down when I asked, it really made me happy and proud.” Of course there are those of you who do remember to recognize the positive, I’m not suggesting otherwise. But I know I have been guilty sometimes of being so shocked by the lack of something I was suspecting would occur that I don’t think to acknowledge it. Telling your daughter what she did (be specific!) that you liked goes a long way toward increasing the chances that it will happen again.
The tween years can be so trying for both girls and parents. Increased school and social pressure can cause girls to try to assert personality traits that they don’t really understand or even want. And while it seems that they are trying so hard to separate from mom or dad, this is exactly who will help them get through these years. My book, Between Baby Dolls and Boyfriends, was written as a passion project to support the relationship between tween girls and their parents in order to raise the happiest and healthiest girls possible. Strengthening this relationship maximizes the benefits for not only the tween years, but many years beyond. I would love to hear what you and your tween struggle with as well as what you have found most helpful to overcome it.