Parenting the Pre-Teen

Setting Limits with Love

By Emily Gallup, MFT

It was a great day to be twelve years old.  My friend and I had been out for a walk when we ran into two of the most popular girls in our seventh grade class.  We were in the middle of discussing my favorite subjects, clothes and boys, when two people in matching white helmets drove by on a motorcycle.  My parents.

Not only did they have the nerve to drive by, but they actually slowed down and waved.  I quickly looked away.

“Oh my gosh,” said Kelly, “Do you know those people?”

“No,” I answered, “I thought they were waving at you.”

When I got home, I got busted.  My mom seemed to be experiencing a mixture of amusement and shock that I’d pretended not to know her.  It was the beginning of a long summer.  It was the same summer that my father told me he wished he could freeze me for a few years and then wake me up later.  I was morphing into a teen.

I occasionally think back to my own obnoxiousness when I’m confronted with snarly seventh graders in my work as a marriage and family therapist.  Drawing on a combination of my own life experience, my training, and my clinical practice has led me to some conclusions about how to make the best of the pre-teen years:

Don’t let your child rope you into continual arguing.  Most children will argue with their parents as long as they think there’s a chance it will work.  I recommend that parents talk to their pre-teens about arguing at a time when both parties are calm.  Let the child know that you don’t want to continue spending your time arguing, and that you are going to put some new rules in place to help everyone in your family get along better.

The first rule should be that yelling, swearing, and other forms of disrespect will not be permitted.  Remember that if you are expecting this kind of consideration from your child, the same type of treatment needs to be afforded to him or her.  If the conversation starts to get out of control, let your child know that you will continue discussion when s/he can speak to you in a calm, respectful manner.

The second rule is that while some decisions are negotiable, others are not.  An example of a negotiable issue would be letting your child choose what time of day homework will be completed.  A non-negotiable issue, in contrast, would be choosing whether or not homework gets done at all.  As a parent, you have the right to tell your child that certain topics are non-negotiable.  Once you have determined that an issue is non-negotiable, explain that you will not tolerate any attempts to engage in arguing.  Let your child know that you will give him or her a warning (i.e. “If you continue to argue, you will lose one dollar of this week’s allowance”) and that this will be followed by the removal of whatever privilege you said you would take.

It is critical that if you tell your child s/he will lose a privilege (such as the dollar), that you follow through with taking it away.  Not following through with a promised consequence will teach your child not to take you seriously.  It may take a few times for your child to realize just how serious you are, but consistency is essential.  If you stick with this plan, your pre-teen will learn that when you say it’s time to stop arguing, it’s time to stop.  Both of you have better things to do with your time together.

Try not to take your child’s emotional distancing personally.  This is probably easier said than done, especially for parents who enjoyed a close relationship with their child prior to the pre-teen years.  It is an important development step for children to begin seeking the approval of their peers.  Young children depend heavily on their parents to provide them with a sense of who they are.  As they grow, they begin to seek alternate sources of feedback.  This widening circle of approval and disapproval lays the groundwork for the most important step of all: developing an internal sense of identity.

It may be comforting to bear in mind that for most children, a period of withdrawal in the teen or pre-teen years is followed by a return of closeness in later adolescence or early adulthood.  In the meantime, while your child is pushing away from you, try to readjust your expectations of togetherness to a reasonable level.  Your child may not want to cuddle on the couch after dinner anymore, but it is perfectly acceptable to insist that your child continues to participate in certain family events and rituals.  Examples of expected activities might include eating dinner together and visiting grandma on Sundays.  Remind your child that while you appreciate his or her need to be with friends, s/he continues to be an important part of your family.

Know the signs that it’s time to get professional help.  There is a common misconception that being a teen or pre-teen means being miserable.  This is simply not true.  While a certain amount of awkwardness and angst is to be expected, it is important to be aware of some common indicators of more significant distress.  These indicators include a dramatic drop in academic performance, abandonment of old friends, a significant change in eating or sleeping patterns, and thoughts of suicide.  Children are vulnerable to developing many of the same problems that plague adults, including depression, anxiety, and drug and alcohol problems.  Early intervention can prevent further progression of these problems.  Asking for help on your child’s behalf is a powerful act of love.

Emily Gallup graduated from Stanford University, and is currently in private practice as a Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT) in Nevada County.

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