It seems to happen overnight. You go to sleep and wake up as usual … only to find the sweet, cuddly, innocent child you knew the night before has become a TWEEN. While this is a gross overstatement, parents often feel blindsided by the changes in their children during the tween years.

So what exactly is a tween? In general, a tween is a youngster between the ages of approximately 9 and 13 who, while not quite a child any longer, is not an adolescent either. In a sense, the tween years are a bridge between childhood and adolescence and a confusing time for children and parents alike. It can feel as though you are living with two different people as their moods shift from loving and open to moody and difficult at the snap of a finger.

On a macro level, tweens have a lot of spending power and are constantly being marketed to on television and in social media. Hannah Montana, One Direction, and the more recent The Fault in our Stars book and movie have benefited immensely from this age group. Some child experts feel that our kids are growing up too fast, that they are exposed to scenarios of violence, sex and substance use far too early in their development. The dilemma for tweens is this: Do they shift to the fast track, or do they stay younger longer?

During this time, your child is facing multiple changes physically, mentally, socially, and emotionally. For girls, puberty can start as early as 9 or 10. In addition to the many physical changes they experience, the onset of their periods brings about hormonal changes as well. Girls at this age may become very self-conscious about their looks, the clothes they wear, and where they fit in socially. Boys, too, often feel anxious about fitting in socially and the changes that are occurring with puberty. Both feel the added pressure of school as they transition from elementary to middle school.

Given all that they are facing, it is natural that mood swings develop. For your own sanity as a parent, it is important to come up with strategies to deal with these moods.
Some useful strategies:

  1. Your children may be developmentally more able to tune in to their feelings at this stage. Getting them to express their feelings eliminates the guess work on your end and may open up the conversation more easily.
  2. Rather than talking, your children may occasionally need some time alone. Suggest listening to music, reading a book, writing in a journal, or another activity that allows them to decompress in a way that they enjoy.
  3. Do not dismiss your children’s feelings as silly or irrelevant. While we may have 20/20 hindsight as adults, our children’s feelings are real for them. Provide reassurance and support.
  4. Be sure to set limits. While you want to encourage your children to express their feelings, your expectation should always be that such expression occurs without physical aggression, extreme outbursts, or disrespect.
  5. Try not to lose your temper as your children are losing theirs. Having two angry people yelling at each other is unproductive and upsetting for all involved.
  6. Be prepared for changes, but don’t assume your children will become impossible to be around. Some children have a smooth transition, while others don’t experience this shift until well into their adolescence.

Another way to help with this time of life is to let your children see the power they have to make positive change. This is an optimal time to introduce the concept of empathy toward those around them. Volunteer with them to serve a meal at a homeless shelter, encourage them to donate to causes that are important to them, suggest they help a younger child to read. The options are numerous. Not only will this give them a sense of their own ability to make a difference in a positive way, but it will allow them to look at others with more compassion.

This stage of your child’s life can be exciting, frustrating, positive, and challenging all at the same time. Approaching it with compassion, understanding, firm limits, and a sense of humor can help ease these tween years.

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