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I Was Totally Unprepared How Much Tween Sass Would Set Me Off

The worst part is, I have a hard time controlling my own emotions when my kid loses control of his.

Ariela Basson/Scary Mommy; Getty Images, Shutterstock

I thought we had a few years before teenage angst arrived in earnest in our household. But as soon as our oldest turned 11, the doors immediately started slamming, usually with an eye roll and a sarcastic, “I don’t care, whatever!” attitude.

I’m supposed to be a parenting expert, so one would think I’d be better equipped to deal with the surge of hormones, and the accompanying attitude, that marks the start of adolescence. But it turns out that having the intellectual knowledge about why tweens act this way doesn’t make me very good at dealing when my own acts this way.

I thought toddlerhood tested my patience more than any other parenting stage, but I am continually shocked daily at how reactive I can be to my child’s changing body and all the raging emotions that come with it.

The thing is, I know this season is rough for my child. He’s hesitant to jump in to play with his younger siblings. The games they imagine and the things they find funny just aren’t his jam anymore. Occasionally they will draw him into a game of Minecraft or a half hour on the trampoline at twilight, but for the most part his interests are different now. He’s more likely to want to text memes back and forth or play a complicated board game that I do not understand than get on the floor and build a Matchbox car track. At family gatherings he hangs out with the adults and has insightful comments to add to conversations about history, the economy, and even politics. He can still throw a tantrum just like when he was two, though.

I am no stranger to tantrums. We once had the notorious? “three under three,” and when our youngest joined the family we had four children under the age of six. I’ve handled a quadruple tantrum in Target like a pro without spilling my Starbucks. That’s why I am so shocked at just how much these tween bursts of anger set me off. Rather than the gentle parenting we strived for in the little years, I find myself meeting his rage with rage of my own. Shouldn’t we be past this? Shouldn’t he know better? Shouldn’t I myself know better? Screaming at kids doesn’t really work and usually makes things worse, and yet I find myself in a heated standoff more days than not.

I talked to my son about what he’s going through right now when I asked him for permission to write this essay. It turns out that tension between being a little kid and a big kid is tough on him, and he lets that out when he’s in his safe space — with us. He’s sad that he doesn’t find joy in the same things his siblings do, but also feels they don’t understand him anymore. At the same time his friend group is changing. Some kids are maturing faster while he clings to things they see as babyish. His entire sense of self has been upended. So, when I ask for him to complete a simple task, tone down the attitude, or join the family for dinner, he often reacts in ways even he doesn’t expect. Later, he’s mad at himself, too. In what sounds like an out-of-body experience, he realizes he’s acting like a little sh*t without any real tools in his toolbox yet to stop it.

In talking with my own mom and reading through the stack of journals I filled during my middle school years, I remember what he’s going through. I often thought everyone hated me, felt like an alien in my changing body, and, despite being an extrovert, wanted to just be alone in my room cutting out pictures of Leonardo DiCaprio and Ben Affleck from Seventeen. For my child, this is also his last year of elementary school. Sixth grade is the year he says goodbye to the building that he’s been in since age five and all of the familiarity he’s ever known. He isn’t fully ready to let go of childhood but his body is pushing forward without his consent, surging with hormones, making him feel irrationally angry, and honestly making him a bit self-centered.

I am not sure how to reign in my own angst right now — and I have twins following right on his heels into tweendom — but I’m working hard every day to remind myself that this, too, is just a stage. We’ve weathered them before and will emerge from this one eventually, too. I am trying to focus less on the rage-inducing moments and more on the great ones, like curling up after the little kids go to bed to binge documentaries together or being able to hold an actual conversation about things that matter to him. There’s a lot of great things about tweens, despite the hard parts. If my own memory serves me, we will continue to go toe-to-toe for a few more years while he figures out just who he is, just like I did with my mom. She stuck it out with me and remains one of my closest confidants — so if I survive these years, that’s what I am hoping for us, too.

Meg St-Esprit, M. Ed. is a journalist and essayist based in Pittsburgh, PA. She’s a mom to four kids via adoption as well as a twin mom. She loves to write about parenting, education, trends, and the general hilarity of raising little people.