Julie Ross, author of "How to a Hug Porcupine: Negotiating the Prickly Points of the Tween Years," says living with a tween can be like living on a fault line. Changes in the brain typically begin before physiological signs of puberty, so there's no warning when a child enters adolescence. One day your child is centered and cooperative, and then - earthquake - you have an irritable and even mean pre-teen.
Though science can't tell us when adolescence starts, it does tell us more about the adolescent mind than ever before. We know, for example, that many behaviors we see in tweens and teens are actually due to massive reorganization occurring in the brain, not to irrationality or "raging hormones," and that this process lasts through the mid-twenties.
Daniel J. Siegel, M.D., author of "Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain," says the dismantling, rewiring and pruning of connections in the brain leads to many of the behaviors parents find problematic. These include concrete or black-and-white thinking (e.g., labeling someone as "a jerk" or "nice" and being very now-focused), disorganization ("cleaning" the room while missing all the stuff behind the chair), impulsivity (tossing the ball toward that window) and favoring behaviors that stimulate the reward centers in the brain, such as posting an inappropriate video to get "likes," even when the tween knows the consequences.
This may seem scary. However, it's really a message of hope. Amazingly (stay with me, here), the mind is both a physical entity in the brain and something that grows and exists outside itself, in relationship with others. How individuals connect and behave with one another influences the development of the mind, especially during adolescence. Therefore, we can influence the growing mind of our tween!
Handle with C.A.R.E.
Because the adolescent mind is under construction, it's vulnerable. It might not feel like vulnerability when you've had a door slammed in your face, yet such behaviors are what tweens use to protect themselves emotionally when their inner experience is unstable and perplexing. Here are four ways to parent your tween with C.A.R.E.
Stay respectful in your communication. Arguing, nagging, criticizing - all are disrespectful. When we talk back to backtalk we train the tween brain for more backtalk! Nagging invites power struggles and sends the message that you don't trust your child. Criticism is unhelpful, hurtful and breeds shame and rigidity. Instead, use clear language that sets personal limits while acknowledging needs, such as, "I can see how important this is to you and I am willing to discuss it in 30 minutes, when we're both calm."
Try adopting "cool thoughts" when you're triggered. Take time to calm down and reflect; you'll also be modeling this behavior for your tween. Stop telling and start asking. "I notice you're enjoying this great weather. What's your plan for getting homework done today?" This can activate your tween's prefrontal cortex for reflection, planning and organization. It also demonstrates trust.
Get creative and use conversation starters or games at dinner or in the car, for fun ways to connect that don't feel like the Spanish Inquisition. Little notes, treats and texts are also ways to connect with a tween. Respectful communication keeps the lines open, helps all parties stay in the rational brain and integrates the mind.
Appreciate your tween. Just because he's aware that he can be goofy, negative or clumsy doesn't mean he understands why you get annoyed, angry or disappointed with his behavior. Parental regard matters, despite the growing importance of friends. Tweens can sense our judgment, frustration or lack of interest - but they often can't make sense of it.
While we don't need to adopt their views or excuse misbehavior, it's important to find value in your tween's perspective, talents and interests. Look for the sunny side of what he enjoys, even if you aren't a fan. Encourage his interest in finding new ways to do things, his sense of adventure and his growing support network. Comment on and appreciate his effort, progress and what's going well. This acknowledgement helps connect actions with results, builds motivation, fosters resilience and promotes insight.
Allow your tween to own his problems, and work together on problems you share. Early adolescence is the perfect time for kids to make tough choices and solve real problems. In a relationship, there's give and take based on the needs of each individual and their mutual needs. Tweens understand a win-win and are empowered by involvement in making agreements.
So, solve family problems with your tween and allow him to tap outside resources as well, such as taking the bus or cooking his own meal. Brainstorm, evaluate ideas and create agreements together. Then, follow through on agreed-upon consequences or allow natural consequences to occur, rather than punishing or rescuing your tween when he doesn't keep his end of the bargain. Focusing on responsibility and choice promotes resourcefulness, organization, abstract thinking, trust and self-efficacy.
Listen with your heart. When there's conflict, listen for the feelings behind the words. All feelings are okay. All behaviors are not. By helping your tween name his feelings, you actually help him "tame" them. The act of naming brings one's attention to the rational brain and out of the fight-or-flight zone. Ask questions such as "I wonder if you're feeling … ?" or "What you are doing tells me you might be feeling … " Look beyond anger, and resist making assumptions.
Empathy requires getting into another's world and tuning in to what's going on inside. Empathy does not fix, advise, indulge or "make it worse." Often, empathy is all that's needed for a tween to move to solution mode, or just let it go. When your tween feels understood, agreements stick. As you practice demonstrating empathy and naming emotions, your tween will reflect on his feelings, developing self-awareness and learning self-regulation. Hooray!
Your young adolescent is undergoing a transformation. The rewiring has begun and, inside his mind, he's gathering the strength and courage he'll need as a teen and ultimately as a capable, connected and courageous adult. During this major remodeling, some connections are temporarily "out of service," so be patient with him, and with yourself, and have faith. Before you know it your tween will be the new version of himself, and the true test of the strength in your relationship will begin.
Suzanne Ritter is a parent and leadership coach, a certified parent educator with the Parent Encouragement Program (PEP), a visual meeting recorder and mother of two teenage sons and a 7-year-old daughter. She's dedicated to helping parents and leaders turn possibilities into realities, one day at a time. @coachsuzritter. PEP offers classes and workshops to parents of children ages 2½ to 18. PEPparent.org