A guide to the 'tween' years

During this time of rapid change, parents need to be a stable and consistent support

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Wave, November / December 2013

You thought this day would never come. Now you're not sure you're ready!

When your children are preschoolers, they demand a big chunk of your time and energy. Life is so busy you forget that one day your children will grow to be more independent.

Suddenly you're there: your son or daughter is 10 years old, approaching puberty and growing up so quickly. She now has her own interests and her friends are becoming more important to her. You've noticed he is getting taller. Maybe you've also noticed changes in behaviour and attitude. The early years of adolescence, sometimes called the middle or "tween" years, are interesting times for both parents and children. It is a time of rapid growth and change. The tween years, somewhere between 10 and 13 years, are important years. So even though you may be feeling both a push and a pull from your middle-years child, he or she will benefit from you maintaining and building a strong relationship with them, while supporting their growing independence.

So what is going on with your tween? Middle-years children are known for their energy and zest. Physically, young adolescents experience growth spurts and hormone changes signalling the onset of puberty, which can leave them feeling self-conscious or "moody." Their self-concept is developing so that they are beginning to see themselves as having a particular personality, interests and capabilities. They can swing from wanting to sit on your lap and snuggle like a child one minute to demanding to make grown-up decisions the next.

While science has shed some light on the growth and development of the adolescent brain, there are still many unanswered questions. We do know that the brains of young people change and develop in many ways until they are like an adult's in their early 20s. In fact, the capacity of the brain to change, called neuroplasticity, continues throughout life but decreases with age.

That is why a healthy environment is so critical for young children. It is theorized by some researchers that the areas of the brain that develop in later adolescence include those areas that involve reason and control. Parents who are sometimes at the receiving end of impulsive and seemingly irrational behaviour from their tween would likely tend to agree. Other researchers disagree with the notion that the adolescent brain is irrational and say our culture and expectations of youth have more impact on adolescents' behaviour. In either case, parents still have a huge influence in the lives of their tween.

During this time of rapid change and growth, parents and caregivers need to be a stable and consistent support. Your relationship with your tween is vitally important, as it sets the stage for the upcoming years of older adolescence when your child will have greater autonomy and freedom.

Studies have confirmed that children and young adolescents who are well connected to their parents and have a strong, healthy relationship with their family are less likely to get involved in risky behaviours such as drugs, alcohol and sexual activity.

As your child moves out of childhood and into adolescence, they naturally want to gain more independence and make more of their own decisions. Parents, on the other hand, can find it challenging to relinquish some of the control and let their child test out their abilities and decision-making. This can lead to tension and conflicts.

Try to avoid a battle of wills by letting them know that you want to support them to gain independence in safe ways. So perhaps instead of saying "no" to something right away, consider saying "yes, with the condition that…" For example, they may not be ready to be home alone for several hours, but a 12-year-old can legally be home alone for a shorter period of time if reasonable steps are in place, such as knowing who to call if they need help. This type of structured positive support and guidance by a parent in helping children learn new skills is referred to as "scaffolding" by developmental psychologists.  This approach is viewed as a win/win, since it sets a child up for success and is more effective than focusing only on what a child is doing wrong.

There is a delicate balance of allowing and even encouraging tweens to become more independent by supporting and guiding them to make sound decisions for themselves. A strong attachment between parent and child will mean that children will feel confident in taking steps toward being more independent while still being comfortable reaching out to their parent for support when needed.

Your goal is to help your child develop effective problem- solving and decision-making skills, so that when the time comes for them to make decisions, they will have practised on less crucial matters. Ultimately, while your role as a parent to your adolescent will gradually shift over the next several years, it is important to remember that the love and connection you have to your child will always be there, no matter what their age.

Laurie McPherson is a mental health promotion co-ordinator with the Winnipeg Health Region.

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