photographs by Marci Lambert
Psychologist G. Stanley Hall famously described the teenage years as a “storm.” But the teen tempest is foreshadowed by some early storm warnings during the tween years: unsettling new behaviors like blatant eye-rolling, public back-talk, and peer worship. These wearing attitudes darken the horizon like threatening clouds during early adolescence, making parents want to run for cover.
What makes previously pleasant children turn mouthy and defiant after age 9 or 10? It’s not bad parenting, says Alyson Shafer, psychotherapist and author of Ain’t Misbehavin’. But these behaviors are a form of revolt. “Rebellion only exists in relationships where people are in a superior/inferior relationship. Eventually the person in the inferior position rises up, and that’s what we see with tweens disrespecting their parents.”
If storm clouds are brewing at your house, don’t batten down the hatches. Take these steps to tame unruly tween attitudes, starting today.
The shifty slouch & shirk
Exaggerated eye-rolls, slouching, shirking parents’ gaze — nonverbal rebellion is a tween specialty. “This is a natural developmental time to push against authority, even about something as simple as posture,” notes Schafer. “Slouching and slumping are a way of defying society’s rule to ‘sit up straight’ even if you parents never asked you to.”
How to help:
Recognize that it’s not (always) about you: “Parents can take their child’s attitude personally, when the behavior is more of a general statement about all authority,” says Schafer. Treat an eye-roll or a slumped stance as an invitation to uncover what’s genuinely bothering your child.
The slick upper lip
From a mumbled “Yeah, right,” to a sassy showdown over chores or homework, back talk peppers tween language. What’s really going on when kids talk back? According to Schafer, tweens don’t consider mouthing off to be back talk — they think they’re defending themselves. “Tweens are telling parents ‘if you can talk to me that way, then I can do the same to you!’”
How to help:
Back talk shouldn’t be ignored, because it signals an underlying problem (even a minor, fleeting one like frustration over a missed soccer goal or a bad grade). But shooting back more angry words only fuels the fire.
Responding with “I can see you’re upset right now. Let’s take some time to cool off. Do you want to spend time alone, or would you like me to stay with you?” gives both parties a chance to step away from the problem and regroup. Once tempers are defused, raise the issue in a neutral tone and work toward resolution, recommends Suzanne Roberts, a licensed family therapist in Seattle.
The mall meltdown
You’re waiting to pay for a purchase or sitting down at a restaurant when it happens: Your tween unleashes a defiant diatribe that makes heads turn. All eyes are on you, what now? Public parental humiliation is a time-honored tween tactic, because kids know parents may be more likely to cave in the glare of the spotlight. “I don’t know any parent who hasn’t had this happen to them,” says Roberts.
How to help:
Too often, parents react to the shame they feel instead of the actual situation at hand. “We’re afraid of being judged by strangers,” says Roberts. Instead of getting burned in the heat of the moment, cut the outing short and remove the child from the situation. Hear your child out when everyone’s anger has mellowed, and provide a logical consequence. Prevent these trying scenes in the first place by setting parameters for the outing before leaving the house. Decide in advance how much money will be spent, how long you’ll stay, and what constitutes acceptable behavior for the trip.
The crazy mood swing
Living with a mercurial, moody tween is no picnic. One moment, your child is a sunny sweetheart. The next, an anger-filled zombie. But don’t blame your child — blame a growth spurt in the brain around ages 11 to 13 that impacts mood and behavior. With rapidly changing bodies and minds, kids lack the impulse control and emotional regulation to deal with stress adaptively, and lash out at parents instead.
How to help:
Don’t try to problem-solve when kids are at the unpleasant end of the mood spectrum. “When we’re angry, our brains are taken over by a fight-or-flight response and we can’t respond appropriately,” says Roberts. Ask your child to put a numerical value on their anger, from one to 10, and make a family rule to take a cool-down break if anyone tags their fury at five or higher.
The peer package
You used to be the epicenter of your child’s life, but lately, there’s a new focal point: peers. These days, your child is dressing, talking, and acting more and more like her pack of tween pals. Worse, she seems to prefer their company to yours. What gives?
How to help:
As painful as it may be, parents need to let out the leash a bit more with tweens, says Schafer. “Tweens will choose your company less often, so you need to find other ways to stay connected during this time.”
To maintain a strong connection that will stand the test of peer power, try meeting tweens where they are: chatting, texting, sharing computer games, shopping, or simply listening.
Ultimately, respect is a two-way street, and tweens who don’t feel respected are more likely to dish out disrespect themselves. If we can approach our children from a standpoint of curiosity instead of judgment and really work to uncover what’s driving their behavior, that’s so helpful,” says Roberts. “When someone feels understood, it changes the whole dynamic of the relationship.”
Malia Jacobson is a nationally published journalist and mom. She blogs about family health at thewellrestedfamily.com.