Connecting With Your Preteen
Staying connected as kids near their teen years and become more independent may become a challenge for parents. But it's as important as ever — if not more so.
As children enter the preteen phase of life, activities at school, new interests, and a growing social life become more and more of a focus for them. Even so, parents are still important anchors in the life of a preteen, providing love, guidance, and support.
A connection to their parents gives preteens a sense of security and helps build the resilience kids needs to roll with life's ups and downs.
What Should I Expect?
This can be a difficult phase for parents. Your preteen may suddenly act as if your guidance isn't welcome or needed, and even seem embarrassed by you at times. This is when kids start to confide more in peers and request their space and privacy — expect the bedroom door to be shut more often.
As hard as it might be to accept these changes, try not to take them personally. They're all normal signs of growing independence. The best way to deal with them is through balance: allow growing room by expanding boundaries while continuing to enforce important house rules and family values. For example, a child who asks for more privacy might be allowed to earn the privilege of getting a bedroom door lock by doing household chores for a set amount of time.
Parents don't have to let go entirely. You're still a powerful influence — it's just that your preteen might be more responsive to the example you set rather than the instructions you give. Be sure to practice what you'd like to preach; just preach it a little less for now.
By modeling the qualities that you want your preteen to learn and practice — respectful communication, kindness, healthy habits, and fulfilling everyday responsibilities without complaining — you make it more likely that they will comply.
What Can Parents Do?
Small, simple things can reinforce connection. Make room in your schedule for special times, take advantage of the routines you already share, and show that you care.
Here are some tips:
- Family meals: It may seem like a chore to prepare a meal, particularly after a long day. But a shared family meal can provide valuable together time. Scheduling the meal just as you would any other activity can be a helpful way to make sure that it is a priority in your day. Whether the meal is homecooked, take-out, or somewhere in-between, sit down together. Turn off the TV and put away cellphones. If shared mealtime is impossible to do every night, schedule a regular weekly family dinner on a night that fits kids' schedules. Make it something fun and consider getting everyone involved in the preparation and cleanup. Sharing an activity helps build closeness and connection, and everyone pitching in reinforces a sense of responsibility and teamwork.
- Bedtime and goodnight: Your child may not need to be tucked in now, but maintaining a consistent bedtime routine helps preteens get the sleep needed to grow healthy and strong. So work in some winding-down time together before the lights go out. Read together. Go over the highlights of the day and talk about tomorrow. And even if your preteen has outgrown the tuck-in routine, there's still a place for a goodnight kiss or hug. If it's shrugged off or makes your preteen uncomfortable, be respectful of their physical boundaries and try a gentle hand on the shoulder or back as you wish your child a good night's sleep.
- Share ordinary time: Find little things that let you just hang out together. Invite your preteen to come with you to walk the dog. Ask if you can join them on their run. Washing the car, baking cookies, streaming a movie, watching a favorite TV show — all are opportunities to enjoy each other's company. Time spent together is a chance for kids to talk about what's on their mind. Even riding in the car is an opportunity to connect. When you're driving, your preteen may be more inclined to mention a troubling issue. Since you're focused on the road, they don't have to make eye contact, which can ease any discomfort about opening up.
- Create special time: Make a tradition out of celebrating family milestones beyond birthdays and holidays. Marking smaller occasions like a good report card or the end of a sports season helps reinforce family bonds.
- Show affection: Don't underestimate the value of saying and showing how much you love your preteen. Doing so ensures that kids feel secure and loved while demonstrating healthy ways to show affection. Still, preteens may start to feel self-conscious about big displays of affection from parents, especially in public. They may pull away from your hug and kiss, but it's important to recognize that this is about boundaries, not about you. Reserving this type of affection for times when friends aren't around can be helpful. When in public, find other ways to show that you care. A smile or a wave can convey a warm send-off while respecting important physical boundaries. Recognize out loud your child's wonderful qualities and developing skills when you see them. You might say, "That's a beautiful drawing — your art skills have grown so much this year" or "You worked so hard during baseball practice today — I loved watching you out there."
- Stay involved: Stay involved in your preteen's expanding pursuits. Getting involved gives you more time together and shared experiences. At the same time, recognize that it is OK for your child to want to do activities independently. You don't have to be the Scout leader, homeroom mom, or soccer coach to be involved. Go to games and practices when you can; when you can't, ask how things went and listen attentively. Help kids talk through the disappointments, and be sympathetic about the missed fly ball that won the game for the other team. Your attitude about setbacks will teach your preteen to accept and feel OK about them, and to summon the courage to try again.
- Stay interested: Stay interested and curious about your preteen's ideas, feelings, and experiences. Understand that it's OK for their opinions to be different from your own. If you listen to what they're saying, you'll get a better sense of the guidance, perspective, and support needed. Respond in a nonjudgmental way and your child will be more likely to come to you when tough issues arise.
- Manage electronic devices: As kids get older, they're more likely to have (and increasingly use) their own tablets, laptops, or phones. While some screen time is a helpful way for preteens to stay connected with their friends, excessive or unrestricted use can lead to challenges and reduce the quality and frequency of family time. Set limits consistent with your values while allowing freedom within those limits. Don't spy on social media and text conversations unless it's necessary for your child's safety and well-being. Settings that limit screen time and filters for apps, programs, games, and sites (like Circle with Disney) can help you enforce boundaries. Finally, make sure that you model healthy electronics use.
- Shift your communication style: Your preteen's newfound independence will probably lead to some important changes in communication. While a young child might appreciate you solving a problem with a friend by calling their mother, a preteen probably won't want this type of solution. For many preteens, the point of discussing a life challenge with a parent is no longer about parent problem-solving; it's about listening and support. You might feel the urge to solve every problem your preteen mentions (or call their teachers or friends to deal with it directly). But for small problems, remember that they might be looking for a place to vent and the support to figure it out on their own. When you hear about a problem that doesn't need an adult solution, try saying something like, "That sounds really tough, I can see why it would make you angry. I'm here for you if you need anything or want to talk about it a little more." If they want help, they'll ask you for it. Your support, listening, and empathy will help them feel empowered to find solutions on their own.