It’s typically between the ages of nine and twelve that our cute, cuddly little children, once so willing to climb into our laps and share their secrets, suddenly want little or nothing to do with us. A child in preadolescence is not the same person they were just a year or two ago. They have changed—physically, cognitively, emotionally, and socially. They’re developing new independence and may even want to see how far they can push limits set by parents.
What they may not know is that they need you as much as ever, because a strong parent-child relationship now can set the stage for a much less turbulent adolescence. But it won’t be easy, because you as a parent need to respect your child’s need for greater autonomy in order to forge a successful relationship with this “updated” version of your kid.
We asked some experts for parenting tips to help you keep the channels of communication open between you and your pre-teen—and have a smoother transition into the teen years.
1. Don’t feel rejected by their newfound independence
It’s appropriate for kids this age to start turning away from their parents and relying more and more on friends, but parents can take their pre-teen’s withdrawal as rejection. “All too often parents personalize some of the distance that occurs and misinterpret it as a willful refusal or maybe oppositional behavior,” says Catherine Steiner-Adair, a Harvard psychologist, schools consultant, and author of The Big Disconnect.
Beware of trying to force information out of a resistant tween. “This is a time when children really start to have secrets from us,” says Dr. Steiner-Adair, “and parents who have a low tolerance for that transition — they want to know everything — can alienate their children by being too inquisitive.”
2. Set aside special time with your child
It’s often tough to get pre-teens to open up and talk. Laura Kirmayer, a clinical psychologist, suggests establishing a special period of one-on-one time once or twice a week that you spend with your tween, where you’re providing undivided attention, and you’re not working or texting at the same time,
In doing this you’re not only improving your relationship, you’re also teaching interpersonal skills that are going to be crucial in the future. “That quality time is really key,” Dr. Kirmayer says, “and it’s something that we might overlook because our kids might be saying they don’t want it and be pulling away. And we might unintentionally collude with that tendency.”
3. Try the indirect approach
When they were younger you could ask direct questions. How was school? How did you do on the test? Now, the direct approach — carpet-bombing them with questions about school and their day — doesn’t work. Suddenly that feels overwhelming and intrusive. And it’s going to backfire.
If anything, says Dr. Kirmayer, you have to take the opposite approach and position yourself as mostly just a listener: “If you actually just sit down, without questions, and just listen, you’re more likely to get the information about your child’s life that you’re wanting.” Dr. Kirmayer says this approach gives kids the message that “this is a place where they can come and talk, and they have permission to say anything that they’re thinking or feeling.” Sometimes you’ll be able to help and give advice—but don’t try to step in and solve all their problems. Other times you’ll just be there to empathize with how hard it is to deal with whatever they’re going through.
4. Don’t be overly judgmental
“At this age your children are watching you very astutely to hear how judgmental you are,” advises Dr. Steiner-Adair. “They are taking their cues on how you talk about other people’s children, especially children that get into trouble — how that girl dresses, or that boy has good manners or bad manners. And they are watching and deciding whether you are harsh or critical or judgmental.”
She gives the example of the parent who says, “’I can’t believe they posted this picture on Facebook! If we were their parents we’d be mortified.’ Or ‘I can’t believe they sent that YouTube video around!’ They are commenting on behaviors that need commenting on, but the intensity and the rigidity of their judgment is what backfires.”
5. Watch what they watch with them.
Beginning in middle school, watching the stuff that your child wants to watch with them and being able to laugh at it and talk about it is an important way to connect and to be able to discuss subjects that would otherwise be taboo. “Don’t get too intense in how you critique the values,” says Dr. Steiner-Adair.
It’s our job as parents, she adds, to help both boys and girls recognize how the media instills the gender code—the barrage of cultural messages that tell kids what it “means” to be a boy or a girl—and to help them identify when something crosses the line from teasing to mean. But tread lightly and use humor.
6. Don’t be afraid to start conversations about sex and drugs
The unfortunate reality is that kids are starting to experiment with drugs and alcohol as early as 9 or 10. And according to Dr. Kirmayer, “Sexual development is a big part of this age, and it’s when we first start to see eating disorders arise, so these are key years for us to be building a strong foundation and giving them developmentally appropriate information.” Dr. Kirmayer suggests providing your tween with information and resources on sexuality without the pressure of a big “talk.”
She recommends books like The Boy’s Body Book (by Kelli Dunham) and, for girls, The Care and Keeping of You (by Valarie Schaefer) to introduce sexual development and Ten Talks Parents Must Have With Their Children About Drugs and Choices (by Dominic Cappello) to bring up the subject of drugs.
“They are going to be exposed to this stuff through their peer group,” she says. “You want to provide them with information that is accurate, but you want to do it in a way that isn’t overwhelming. Let them have the book on their bookshelf so that they can look through it and come to you with questions.” Dr. Steiner-Adair’s book The Big Disconnect also offers scripts and advice about how to talk to your children about sex.
7. Don’t overreact
Dr. Steiner-Adair warns against being the mom or dad who, in a bad situation, makes things worse. She gives this example: “Your child comes in crying; they weren’t invited to a sleepover. They see a photo of it on Instagram or Snapchat. The parent says, ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe you weren’t invited! That’s horrible! I’m going to call the mother.’” The crazy parent amplifies the drama, throwing fuel on the pre-adolescent’s already hyper-reactive flame. They make their kids more upset.
8. Don’t be “clueless” either
At the other extreme, don’t be a parent who “just ignores stuff,” says Dr. Steiner-Adair. You risk seeming oblivious or unconcerned to kids.
When a teenager is caught hosting a party with alcohol, the clueless parent might say, “‘Oh, that’s just kids getting drunk at a 10th grade party.’ So kids watch their older siblings getting away with everything without consequences and they think, ‘Great, why would I tell them anything? Why would I turn to them?’”
9. Encourage sports for girls
Girls’ self-esteem peaks at the tender age of 9 and then drops off from there, but research shows girls who play on teams have higher self-esteem. Girls on sports teams also tend to do better academically and have fewer body image issues.
Anea Bogue, creator of an empowerment program for girls called REALgirl, notes, “There’s a very common correlation, in my experience, between girls who play team sports and girls who suffer less with low self-esteem because they are looking within and to other girls for their value, as opposed to looking to boys for validation.”
10. Nurture your boy’s emotional side
“One of the really hard things for boys at this age is that the messages from the culture about their capacity for love, real friendships, and relationships are so harmful to them,” says Dr. Steiner-Adair. “They say that anything to do with real feelings — love, sadness, vulnerability — is girly, therefore bad.”
At the very least parents should do everything they can to encourage boys to be sensitive and vulnerable at home, while at the same time acknowledging the reality that those traits might not go over well at school. “You can tell him,” Dr. Steiner-Adair explains, “that at 15 or 16, when he wants to have a girlfriend, this is going to serve him really well.”
Finding just the right balance with your tween probably won’t be the easiest parenting job you’ve ever had. It will take some trial and error, but keeping the channels of communication open during these years is well worth the work you’ll have to put in.
If you develop trust with pre-teens you can offer them a safe place to come back to no matter what happens in the new world they’re inhabiting, and in doing that you’ll also be setting the stage for a smoother adolescence.
Juliann Garey is a journalist and novelist and educator. As a clinical assistant professor at the NYU Langone School of Medicine, she taught courses through the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Studies Department. This article was originally published by the Child Mind Institute. Get more helpful parenting tips at ChildMind.org.