Three years ago, without much fanfare, my oldest daughter became a tween. She slipped quietly over the line between child and wanna-be young adult without me noticing. Maybe I was at the dentist with my middle one when it happened, or changing the youngest one’s poopy diaper. All I know is that by the time I figured it out, I was solidly behind the curve. I scrambled to catch up, reading respected tomes on tween girls, scanning parenting blogs for camaraderie and clues, seeking wisdom from friends and becoming familiar with my wits’ end, all in an attempt to create a meaningful parenting strategy that worked for both of us.
The good news is, I’ve learned a few lessons, which I’m happy to pass along to those of you about to enter the tween trenches. Here’s what I know about raising a tween girl:
She is not me.
In middle school I was teased and bullied by two girls I thought were friends. Their nasty notes introduced me to the f-word and their gossip made me an outcast. Whenever my daughter comes to me with a mean girl story, her hurt feelings trigger echoes of mine from that time. This doesn’t do either of us any good. I have to remind myself that she possesses her own unique emotions, reactions, strengths and soft spots. My job is to give her lots of love and help her navigate her experiences and feelings as they come.
I’m that mom who waltzes in, sits on the edge of the bed and peppers her kid with leading questions about her day. Sometimes my daughter opens up to me, but not as much as she used to. More and more, I’m learning how to simply be available to her whenever she’s ready to talk. This means taking a break from my work when she wanders over to my desk or letting her 3-year-old sister watch TV so we can have a few minutes together. I’m learning to give her space while still making it clear that I’m (very) interested in how she feels and how her life is going.
Living with a tween means I’m under a constant barrage of requests: “Can I watch The Interview?” “Can I dye my hair purple?” “Can I have a sleepover on Tuesday night?” It’s tempting to say “yes” to the nagging rather than endure the pissiness and sass that follows a “no.” Sometimes I do (go head, dye your hair), but most of the time I don’t. As her social life, academics, body and emotions peak and ebb, challenge, spurt and spiral, she needs boundaries more than ever to help her feel safe and cared for. Like any rational 12-year-old, she doesn’t see it that way. She’ll thank me later.
But sometimes, say yes.
Whether I’m ready for it or not, my little girl is growing up and the rules that once held us all steady need to be more flexible now. Yes, she can stay up half an hour later than she did when she was 10 as long as she gets up on time for school. Yes, she can go see a movie with her friends on a Sunday night as long as her homework’s done. Granting more privileges means I expect her to take on more responsibilities, and that’s a good thing. It helps her build self-confidence as we build the trust between us. This will come in handy when she’s 16 and begging me for the car keys.
Remember that her emotions really do get the best of her.
I’m explaining why I don’t allow sleepovers during the week, when she purses her lips then abruptly crosses her arms. I know she doesn’t like what I’m saying, but at least she’s listening – she is listening, right? All of a sudden she breaks out in a high-pitched whine: “But all my friends do it! You have no idea what you’re talking about!” Her rudeness and disrespect infuriate me, but before I banish her to Mordor for the rest of her life, I try to remember that she can’t always control her renegade hormones and the outbursts they trigger. At this point, I usually table the discussion about her behavior and take a break from the conversation at hand until we both calm down.
Tell her you love her every chance you get.
At this age, she’s easily overwhelmed by the boggling array of changes she’s experiencing: her breaking-out skin, her outfit that was so perfect this morning that’s the “worst ever” by the afternoon, the math test she thought she’d aced she’s not so sure about. No matter what state her hair is in or how well she’s doing in class, she needs to know she’s loved. It’s also a fantastic way to diffuse a pending battle over whether or not the tight-fitting crop top she borrowed from her friend is an appropriate outfit for a boy-girl bowling party.
That would be a no – but I love you.
Now that I’ve finally gotten the hang of having a tween in the house, here’s the bad news: My daughter’s turning 13 in a few short months. Am I ready to parent a teen? Maybe not entirely, but at least I’m paying attention this time.