Crossing the bridge from childhood to adolescence is an exciting time for kids—but for parents, it can sometimes feel like trekking across unknown territory filled with quicksand and wild animals. As tweens turn into teens, they can become moody, secretive, and rebellious versions of themselves that parents barely recognize.
Fortunately, parents who have made this crossing—and the parenting experts who have helped guide them—can offer some wisdom for the journey. Here are seven tips that can help ease this rite of passage from childhood to adolescence, whether it lasts for weeks, months, or even (gulp!) a year or two.
1. Don’t fight their independence.
It’s helpful to recognize that striving for independence and autonomy is an essential part of human development, not just a way for children to irritate their parents. During the period of time when tween behavior changes and they begin to turn into teens, they begin learning to take responsibility, form their own values, and figure out how to make decisions that are right for them. Their identity is a work in progress, and they express and experiment with it through their fashion choices, the music they listen to, the friends they spend time with, and the activities and hobbies they dedicate their energy to.
Letting them make these choices for themselves—as long as they are not dangerous—and even giving them additional responsibilities will go a long way toward gaining their trust and short-circuiting their resistance. At the same time, kids this age do need clear boundaries and consequences, so draw the line where it’s essential to do so, and stick with it.
2. Let them have space—but not too much.
During the teen and tween years, kids who used to love spending all their time with the family often start withdrawing a bit and choosing more peer engagement or time alone instead. Peer friendships became increasingly important as tweens turn into teens. That doesn’t mean letting them hide out in their room all day, however. Parents need to continue creating ongoing opportunities to spend time with their kids, even if they have a push a little to make it happen.
Another way in which kids start building autonomy is by having some things they don’t talk to their parents about—and that should be respected as much as possible. There’s a difference, however, between independence and risky tween behavior. When parental limits are either too tight or too loose, kids sometimes push back by making self-destructive choices.
3. Be an active listener.
Want to know what’s really going on with your “emerging teen”? Firing a whole bunch of questions at them isn’t likely to yield the details you’re looking for. This age group is notorious for the one-syllable answer—yes, no, maybe, fine.
Parents do better at gleaning information when they practice what’s known as active listening. That means looking for the moments when your child seems open to sharing, and taking advantage of them by putting your phone down and giving them your full attention. Offer empathy and understanding, but don’t be too quick to jump to giving advice and trying to fix everything. When parents take the time to actively listen, rather than thinking about their next response or trying to compose sage wisdom to share, they may be surprised by what teens and tweens are willing to talk about.
4. Allow them to fail.
More than anything, parents want to protect their children from discomfort and pain, whether physical or emotional. Yet, by keeping hardships at bay, parents deprive kids of the sense of confidence and empowerment that’s created by facing and navigating challenges. Experiencing and bouncing back from failure is a huge part of the childhood to adolescence transition.
In fact, Harvard and Stanford faculty, seeing high rates of mental health issues among college students, coined a term for what happens to children who don’t get the chance to deal with obstacles themselves: “failure deprivation.” Kids, teens and tweens who don’t have opportunities to fail and recover—part of the natural process of building resilience—may grow into young adults who have difficulty coping with everyday struggles.
5. Support tweens to understand and avoid harmful gender norms.
Despite the advances society has made around teen gender identity—with adolescents at the forefront of positive change—gender stereotyping remains alive and well. Boys are still socialized by media, peers, and parents (often unconsciously) to be self-reliant and avoid showing or talking about emotion. Too often, they are praised for their strength and toughness, and told to “be a man” or “suck it up” when they show vulnerability. Parents can encourage boys to remain open, sensitive, and emotional, and help them understand that strength and leadership can coexist with kindness and empathy.
Female tweens turning into teens face another set of gender norms, related to body image, sexuality, and popularity. Social media emphasizes all of these issues, subjecting girls to what Newport Academy’s Dr. Don Grant, who specializes in media psychology, calls “compare and despair.” Hence, one way to protect girls from these unhealthy pressures is by supporting them to learn healthy device management, so they spend more time doing IRL activities that feed their sense of self-worth rather than focusing on how they look in their selfies.
6. Stay off their emotional rollercoaster.
As tween behavior evolves, with all the biological and hormonal changes that entails, their brains are quickly developing as well. However, the adolescent brain is still about a decade away from being fully mature. The prefrontal cortex, the last part of the brain to develop, is linked to executive functions like impulse control and emotional self-regulation. That’s part of why tweens turning into teens can experience intense mood swings and volatile emotions.
The best way for parents to help is by validating those feelings without buying into the drama. Adults can get triggered not only by their children’s attitudes toward them, but also by what kids are going through. It’s easy to get emotional about your child’s experience of rejection, jealousy, anxiety, or fear, especially if it brings up something from your own past. Remember to breathe, stay calm, and assure your child that you understand what they are going through, and that they will be okay. You can feel their pain without taking it on. When they are ready to talk about it, help them find positive solutions to specific challenges, or suggest tools for staying calm.
7. Whatever you do, keep the lines of communication open.
During the tumultuous transition from childhood to adolescence, and throughout the adolescent years that follow, ongoing, meaningful connection between kids and parents is incredibly powerful in supporting children’s well-being. Researchers have found that regular communication between parents and kids decreases risk-taking behaviors and reduces substance abuse as tweens turn into teens. It may not always be easy to make those connections, but it’s vital for both teens and tweens to know that the adults in their life are there for them with unconditional love and a listening ear—even when they need to share something that their parents don’t particularly want to hear.
Finally, tweens turning into teens may need additional support to navigate this challenging time. For some parents, making sure that their children receive care from a mental health professional may be part of the journey. While taking the first step can be hard, it will ultimately make the parent-child relationship even stronger.