Being the parent of a tween can make you feel like a human punching bag or verbal dart board. Your kid spits venom for what feels like absolutely no reason, screaming “I hate you,” when you ask them to do the dishes or “You don’t understand!” when you remind them to grab an umbrella. Nothing you say is right, and sometimes what they say is so hurtful, it actually causes you physical pain.
We may be the adults, but that doesn’t mean dealing with our prickly teens is easy. They hurt our feelings and treat us with complete disrespect – and then do a complete 180, lowering their guard for hugs and snuggles. It can give us whiplash, but according to neuroscientist Dr. Alex Korb, this is completely normal. “A lot of times when we experience that conflict, it's helpful to step back and remember they’re supposed to break away. Your job as a parent is to help them become their own independent person.”
Of course, helping them requires talking to them, and that’s often easier said than done. In HelloJoey’s “Puberty: A Developing Journey” kit, we look at why our kids suddenly become so prickly when they hit puberty. We also talk with the experts to provide helpful tips for how to talk to your moody teen – even when you’d rather give them the silent treatment.
Check your attitude at the door
Sometimes it feels like your sweet, silly little kid turns into a sullen, sassy tween overnight – and it can be hard to adjust. Many of us talk to our tweens like they’re still little kids and they’re automatically going to do what we say, but those days are over. These mid-sized humans have become critically-thinking, intelligent people, and it’s time to shift from talking at our kids to talking to our kids. Speaking to them with respect and using kind words instead of harsh ones is the first step toward getting them to actually listen.
Of course, listening isn’t always the problem. Tweens love to push our buttons and know exactly what to say to get a reaction. Sometimes they start fights with us because they know we don’t have the energy and they’re hoping we might give in – and sometimes they’re just taking out their frustrations or confusion on us. Either way, take a deep breath and set your ego aside. You’re the adult in the room, and you’re not competing to win an argument with your child. When things get heated, say what you need to say, and avoid taking the bait that will blow up the conversation.
Respect their independence
Tweens are starting to test their own abilities and limits, and they want to be in charge of their own lives. That’s a tricky balance for parents, because, of course, they’re still kids, they’re still our responsibility, and they still need some supervision and guidance. However, we can step back a little and reign in the urge to micromanage or nag, handing over a little control as they become ready.
This sounds scary, but it’s actually fairly simple. Instead of asking “Did you put your practice clothes in the washer?” shift some of the responsibility to your tween. Try saying, “I think you’re responsible enough to be in charge of getting ready for practice, so let’s make a plan to help you with that. Then, I won’t nag you about your uniform or your shoes – but if you forget to wash or pack them, you’ll have to deal with the consequences.”
You also can start shifting some of the control when it comes to your tween’s social life. Instead of making unilateral decisions about what your kid can and can’t do or who they can and can’t see, open the lines of communication. Share your concerns, get your child’s perspective, and talk about the details that might make you more (or less) comfortable with a situation. By having a conversation, you can teach them how to make smart decisions even when you’re not around – and they’ll feel more prepared when sticky social situations arise.
Empathy may be the most useful tool when it comes to talking to your moody tween. “It's helpful to put yourself in their shoes,” says Dr. Korb. “Imagine if you had heightened emotional reactivity in your brain and reduced capability of actually managing that. You don't have to agree with them, but you can sympathize and empathize with how they are experiencing the world.”
Instead of telling our moody tweens what to do, we can listen without judgment and try to find ways to relate to those stories of angst. Then, we can let our kids know we’ve been there, too, and find ways support them. A few of the ways we can do that include:
sharing our own stories of embarrassment or getting our hearts broken.
talking about times we were disappointed – by our friends, our parents, or ourselves.
stressing how important our own friends were and how badly we wanted to fit in.
laughing together about mistakes we made or misconceptions we had.
respecting that, sometimes, our kids don’t want to talk to us.
To really tap into empathy for your tween, try to think back to your own tween years and recall specific memories – including your feelings in those moments.
If your child screams about hating algebra, remember how scared, “stupid,” or persecuted you felt when you didn’t understand a concept or a teacher picked on you.
If your son is melodramatically mourning a broken heart, think about your big breakup (or rejection) – and the sad songs you played on repeat.
If your daughter lashes out about her hating her clothes, remind yourself what you hated about your own appearance – pimples, baby fat, scrawny arms – and how powerless and angry it made you feel.
It may have been a while ago, but you went through puberty, too, and putting yourself back in that place can help you understand exactly where your tween is now. When you really experience what your child is feeling, their behavior stops seeming like a personal attack and starts seeming like something you can handle.
Once you understand how your child feels, you can support them by adjusting your own reactions and sharing encouragement with phrases like, “I’m here for you, and you’re going to be alright,” or “Things are hard now, but they’ll get better.” Try to resist any temptation to tell them to calm down or cry it out; those suggestions probably made you angry, and your child will likely have the same reaction.
Also, try to avoid telling your kids how they feel or explaining their emotions or behavior. Instead, gently guide them toward good decisions as they figure out things on their own.
Want to learn more about “Puberty: A Developing Journey?” Start your path to a solid parenting foundation in just 10 minutes a day. Check out the HelloJoey app.