No One Warned Me How Emotionally Unstable My Tween Could Be

by Ansley Johnson
Emotionally unstable terrn in a black shirt leaning on a window with his elbow, looking into the dis...

The other day, my tween was sitting in the kitchen, intentionally slamming and sighing. I rolled my eyes, turned toward him, and said, “What’s bothering you?” (in my most calm voiced that was no doubt quite forced). The problem? His favorite mechanical pencil—which is apparently a thing—was out of lead. I mustered up all the strength I had, trying not to let a hint of sarcasm leak into my voice, and said, “Can’t you put more in it?”

This unleashed the beast. Apparently, we were out of mechanical pencil lead, the world was ending, and my tween hated everyone and everything.

I tried to offer a simple solution. The next time we placed a drive-up store order, I would be sure to get some pencil lead. You would think I’d be met with a little relief and gratitude, and maybe even a quick “problem solved” response, but no. Instead, my kid exploded. I don’t know if on this particular day it was hormones, anxiety, entitlement, fatigue, or a combination of them all, but I sure wish someone would have warned me about how emotionally unstable tweens can be.

Let me cut to the chase here. If you don’t yet have a tween, but your days are numbered until you do, know this. Here’s a complete list of what’s difficult for tweens: everything. If you are already a parent of a tween, you, like me, are probably a little resentful that no one had the decency to warn us that it’s not the teen years we should be worried about, because kids enter the tween stage before that—and it’s no walk in the park.

Tweens are defined as kids who are eight or nine to twelve years old. This season of life is epic. One second, a tween is a little kid, perhaps playing with a toy they haven’t engaged with in a year or two. The next minute, they are demanding more responsibility, more material possessions, more freedoms—more, more, more. At the same time, they can melt down at the drop of a hat over the tiniest trigger. Case in point, the mechanical pencil—the favorite of all of them—is out of lead.

There’s no reasoning with a tween. We own no fewer than five hundred pencils. We even own other mechanical pencils that contain lead. You can’t remove the lead from one pencil to place it in another pencil? The answer is, essentially, no. That’s simply asking too much.

Tweens are on a roller coaster of emotions, while going through the early and middle stages of puberty. Their brains cannot keep up with their bodies, and their bodies cannot keep up with their brains. They begin to forget how to do basic things, things they learned as toddlers and preschoolers. They space out one second and then flip their lid the next, over a detail I would have never noticed. Basically, they can pay meticulous attention or absolutely no attention at all.

I can’t count the number of times we’ve said to our tweens, “Why did you do that?” Meaning, why did you wear boots to school in August on PE day? Why did you get into a tit-for-tat argument with your three-year-old sister that resulted in slapping each other’s hands? Why did you leave the water running after you washed your hands?

I’ve learned that asking “why” is futile. They for reals do not know why they do the things they do. Furthermore, they often deny they even did them. Maybe some of the denial is embarrassment, while most of the time, I legitimately think my tween didn’t even realize what they were doing.

We can all agree, the tween years are no joke. So what the what do we do about it? We can join in their chaos by yelling back, being sarcastic, or even punishing them—but my research and experience has told me this is pointless. You can’t punish a kid into faster brain development. Sarcasm comes across as teasing, which only infuriates a tween, and rightfully so. It makes us feel better to clap back at them, but it doesn’t accomplish anything of value.

First, know that tweens being tweens is perfectly normal. They aren’t little adults. They are barely out of diapers and learning their alphabet, yet their bodies and brains are trying to tell them to act grown. They are in one of the most confusing and inconsistent stages in life. The sooner that we adults can keep our cool and work with (rather than against) our tweens, the better. This starts by accepting that tweens are often going to be on the struggle bus.

Another helpful thing I’ve done is tell my tween that how they are feeling and what’s going on with their body is totally normal. I remember telling my tween this, and him telling me, “Really?” He wasn’t being rude. Tweens realize that there’s a heck of a lot going on within them. They need to know that they are going through a life phase that’s totally normal, but that we have their backs.

I’ve learned to make lists for the tasks my tweens consistently struggle with. Tweens do not listen to half of what you say, no matter how many times you say it. Lists can be super helpful to a tween (like all of them) who lacks executive functioning skills. Hang it on the bathroom mirror, for example, and it’s more likely to get done. Well, at least more done than if they didn’t have a list. Likewise, help them prepare in advance rather than scramble at the last minute. Lay out clothes, backpack, mask, and charge their cell phone the night before rather than panic the next morning as the bus is pulling up.

Next up, reward rather than punish. Help your tween work toward a goal rather than try to punish them out of a behavior. For example, our tween struggles to save money, then gets upset when he doesn’t have enough cash to buy what he wants. We decided to offer an incentive. If he saves his allowance for two months (rather than spend it as soon as he gets it), we would kick in some extra cash. So far, so good.

Despite how tweens act, hinting at the rebellion that’s to come in the teen years, they need firm and consistent boundaries. One of my son’s classmates is a child whose parents have hardly any rules (and they are never consistently expected to be followed). Frankly, the kid is a hot mess. They provoke authority figures, appearing to be disrespectful, when really, they are begging for adult attention (that they do not get at home). When boundaries are in place, kids are set up for success—if they have the support to do so.

Again, remember our tweens aren’t teens or young adults. They are far from having the brain development or skills to problem solve everything on their own. Even the most “no duh” situations can be difficult for tweens.

Parents, tweens need us—desperately—even when they act like we are world’s biggest idiots whose only goal is to humiliate them. Tween years are a great time to talk through situations, listen to what your tween thinks, and offer to help when the situation gets too out of hand or isn’t something a tween should handle solo. Sometimes, they just want to vent—and that’s OK, too.

Lastly, get creative with communication. If you’ve ever had a tween, you know the art of the grunt, the shrug, or the eye roll. I’ve found that offering to communicate playfully, in writing (via a journal or even texting), or just lying in bed chatting, is better than a conversation that feels like a confrontation. The more relaxed you both are, the better the conversation goes. Don’t wait until there’s an issue, either. Ask open-ended questions that play into your kid’s interests. Step into their worlds.

Even when we do all of the right things for our tween, he’s going to have hard days. This is just part of his growing up journey. No doubt there are days I’d rather clap-back or walk away than stay engaged in his emotional hurricane, but I also realize the tween years are teen-years-in-training for both us and our kid. We need to show up, keeping our heads in the game for the sake of our relationship with our child.