How Can You Help Your Sad Tween? Try Giving Her Space

by Amanda Magee
Originally Published: 

Tweendom was never a stage that I imagined when we started having kids. As a matter of fact, I’m not even sure I’d heard of the word when I had my first daughter 10 and a half years ago. I was ready for toddlers and school-age kids; I’d even thought about the teen years, but the space before menstruation and dating I simply overlooked. Then, about a week ago, after having thrown the term “tween” around, I realized that I actually had one.

Briar is in 5th grade. I used to worry that she wore her heart entirely too plainly on her sleeve, but that’s changed. She sits beside me in the car now, sometimes gazing at me adoringly, other times ear buds in and singing along to Taylor Swift without seeming to realize that I am even there. She dotes on her younger sisters as often as she seeks distance from them. She folds her arms across her body as she changes, and she asks me questions about emotions and life.

Last year we had The Talk, prompted entirely by her, which gave me pause about how I was talking to her about everything, including my body language. Despite having a very modest sensibility, I’ve taken pains not to immediately shield myself if one of the girls walks in on me getting dressed. I’ve talked about menstruation, mean girls, and the way life isn’t always fair.

Despite all my preparation, one thing I’ve learned is that no matter how hard I may try to script something, inevitably it will play out differently than I planned.

She woke up quietly. It was, if we celebrated such a thing, her half-birthday, exactly six months until her 11th birthday. She slipped nearly unnoticed into the armchair downstairs. I walked by and traced my hand along her shoulder. “You OK?” She nodded her head before looking up at me solemnly.

Ten years looking into those eyes and they still take my breath away with their icy blue light. Her eyebrows have gotten darker over the last year, their shape thicker than I would have imagined for her delicate features. They’re perfectly quirky and remind me of her emerging personality, still sentimental, but more wise-cracker and goofball.

I poured myself a cup of coffee and let her wake up in peace. I walked past her to feed the cats and grab lunch boxes from the cabinet. I was about to step into the kitchen when she said, “Mom, I feel gross.”

I paused. “What do you mean?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know, I just feel icky and like, maybe itchy, or just, umm, gross.” She paused and was quiet. Then she said, “I think part of it is that I feel bad that sometimes I get upset over nothing or just really don’t want to be around my sisters. I mean, I love them, but I just get sick of them and that makes me feel bad. I feel gross for it.”

“OK, how about you take a shower? Sometimes that just happens.”

“I took a bath last night, though,” she said quietly.

“That’s OK. I’ve taken two showers in one day before,” I explained while she sat quietly. “Sometimes I shower because I have a bad feeling, like anger or jealousy, and just standing in the water calms me down. I’ve also gone like three or four days without a shower,” I went on. Those blue eyes turned up to me again.

“Which would you like, a shower or a bath?” I asked gently.

“Is it OK if I take another bath?” she asked.

“Of course, or if you want I can set the shower and you can just stand there and let the water run over you. Don’t worry about washing your hair or anything, just let the water hit your skin and run down to the drain, carrying all the yuck with it. What do you think?”

“I guess I’d like to try that.”

We walked upstairs holding hands. She sat on the tiny IKEA footstool we’d bought for her 7 years before, as she’d begun potty training. There are bits of nail polish from afternoon pedicure clinics we’ve done and marker from overzealous coloring on it. Once the water was warm, I told her she could get in. She thanked me quietly, and I closed the door behind me.

I was finished with lunches by the time she came downstairs. She had on a black shirt-dress that accentuated the slightness of her frame, while hinting at the definition of a waist. She was combing her hair and had her head tipped to one side.

“Feel a little better?” I asked.

“Yes, some.” She was quiet as I sat down in a chair near the woodstove.

“Mom? Do you ever have a feeling, like a thing inside of you that makes you just feel hollow?”

“All the time,” I said honestly.

“I just, I don’t know, I’ve just lately had this feeling of wanting to cry, but I don’t understand why.”

I took a deep breath. Answering the “why” questions gets so much more complex as gray seeps in and the black and white of right and wrong weaken. Lately it feels like I am in a constant head game of whether or not to be honest and say, “This is life, girls can be mean, teachers can really screw up, so can parents,” and preserving the sure footing of childhood and essentially lying.

I thought about how sometimes we need to have a good cry and that the cumulative effect of stress, disappointment, and plain old fatigue can hit like sorrow. Saying that sadness is, to some extent, just a part of life seemed so bleak, but suggesting that life is always supposed to be happy seemed equally misleading.

“I think it’s OK to feel that, or to not feel that, you know?”

She looked down.

“Do you want a hug?”

“Kind of yes and kind of no.” She seemed ashamed of her answer.

“OK, I’m here.” We sat quietly. She picked at her toast, breaking it in pieces as she ate it and sipped on a cup of cider. There was a gnawing urge inside me to kneel at her feet, stroke her brow and offer to take her shopping or say that everything would be fine if she would just smile. I held my tongue and got up to stow her lunch box in her backpack.

“Want your phone?” I asked.

“I think I’d actually like that hug now.”

I tried not to let her see the tears spring at the corners of my eyes. I scooped her into my arms and held her. My mind raced at the realization that inside of her, there would always be a little bit of that baby that I welcomed into the world. I will always be her mom, but the distance is growing between now and the time when I could fix everything with a band-aid, a song, or feeding her from my own body.

She hugged me back, and I was surprised by how strong her body felt, still small, but genuinely strong. I wish I’d understood that when they said that it would go fast it didn’t just mean childhood, it meant these moments of consciously allowing the direction to shift. There isn’t always enough time to think and plan, sometimes it’s a split second hold-on-or-let-go equation, and after years of the former being the best choice, suddenly it is letting go that is the greatest gift.

Luckily, despite the tears, letting go can also involve hugs.

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