Ah, the pre-teen years – the time between being a kid and becoming a full-fledged teenager. Being a tween comes with a lot of confusing and embarrassing changes, which yield a host of frustrating – and frankly terrifying – changes for the parents. Tween puberty is more than just physical changes. They are neurological, social, and emotional – the descent into the dark years of parenting a teenager. One of the most frustrating aspects for parents is that it’s impossible to control tweens once they’ve started to assert their independence and identity.
The most important thing to remember is to never, ever stop trying to communicate. Though a tween can’t be controlled, boundaries and communication give parents a fighting chance. No matter how repugnant a tween’s behavior is, remember the words of Dr. Tad Pu, a child psychiatrist at Beijing United Family Hospital’s Psychological Health Center: “As soon as you cut off the lines of communication, you’re finished.”
Kids go through a lot of physical changes when they hit their tweens. Hormones and oil production increase, bodies grow and develop hair, and even brain structure changes. Up until a decade ago, the general belief was that an increase in hormone production was responsible for mood swings. However, neurologists noticed that the brain begins a massive reorganization around 11 or 12 years of age, around the same time that reproductive organs are busy becoming fertile. The prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for executive function, decisions, and reasoning, undergoes a reconstruction process characterized as “pruning and blossoming,” which trains neuron connections and weeds out those that are unnecessary.
While the prefrontal cortex is busy pruning itself (it usually doesn’t finish until ages of 22 to 24), the limbic system – which hosts functions like emotion, behavior, and motivation and is usually controlled by the prefrontal cortex – takes over. This makes kids emotional, moody, rude, and self-centered. While dealing with such behavior is not generally considered one of the highlights of parenthood, take comfort in the fact that these changes are both normal and temporary.
A child’s moodiness is no excuse to stop communicating. In addition to changes in their brains, tweens’ bodies also undergo massive change, including growth, breast development, and menstruation for girls, and facial hair and voice changes for boys. Tween boys and girls will both need to learn the importance of good hygiene when they enter puberty. In addition to acne, tweens develop body odor. Many parents will notice their tween’s very distinct scent, which the tween may not even realize they’re giving off. They’ll need to establish a new hygiene routine to counteract hormonal changes, and parents are key to helping form these good habits.
Tweens should bathe or shower every day, and always after exercise. Tweens may be loath to do so, but parents should explain the importance of showering. Many parents of tweens and teens find it difficult to make sure their child showers every night. It may turn into a constant battle, but it’s usually a phase that they will outgrow. Establishing a routine and letting a child know that not showering is not an option can help, but parents may have to fight the battle for a long time. Kids may also have to start using deodorant, but may not realize the need for it. It’s up to the parent to breach the topic of deodorant usage tactfully and without judgment.
It’s absolutely necessary for parents to educate their kids about the changes they will go through before they undergo puberty. Topics like menstruation or nocturnal emissions (read: spontaneous ejaculation) can be fraught with embarrassment for both parent and child, but this makes talking about them all the more necessary.
The best way to cover puberty-related issues is to sit down with your child before they enter puberty to explain basic anatomy and sexual reproduction. The talks should occur frequently and with digestible amounts of information offered each time, instead of one formal sit-down in which all information is unloaded and never spoken of again. Kids need time to process and ask questions, and a formal one-off talk will make them tune out or feel embarrassed.
Keep in mind that girls generally begin menstruation around the same age as their mothers, so parents can anticipate the change and arm themselves with information, tips, and pads or tampons. Boys will need talks from male figures about changes to the sexual reproductive system, especially around sensitive topics like wet dreams, which often result in feelings of shame and confusion. According to Dr. Pu, testosterone can increase in boys by up to 1,000 percent during puberty, leading to sexual urges and more dominant and territorial behavior.
Regardless of your child’s sex, emphasize that the changes their bodies are undergoing are both normal and temporary, and encourage them to continue asking questions. Talk openly about what’s happening to their bodies and remain judgment-free. Kids can sense if you are nervous or embarrassed; they take cues on how to feel about their bodies from parents.
Consistent dialogue is also important for their mental health. Dr. Pu points out that only 10 to 20 percent of teens report being happy most of the time. Have plenty of empathy for your child, make an effort to understand what they’re feeling, and guide them through tough times. A major factor in keeping the lines of communication open is establishing a routine in which the family converses, whether it’s at dinner every night or a designated time in the evening.
Wading In Deeper
All the physical changes that tweens go through have a significant impact on their behavior and psychological state. Dr. Pu points out that “before [tweens hit puberty], everyone their age was physically the same. But when puberty hits, there are big differences and they are more aware of their bodies.” If a child grows faster or slower, gets facial hair earlier or later, develops smaller or larger breasts, these can seem like dramatic differences that make the tween feel overly sensitive and self-conscious.
When it comes to deeper topics like sexuality and desire, it’s murkier territory. Each family has its own values. Naomi Taylor, a counselor and parent effectiveness training (PET) teacher, recommends that parents take cues from their tween about what they feel comfortable talking about. Taylor also suggests being aware of what you feel comfortable discussing and use books to support the conversation if needed. “Do not underestimate the power of playground talk,” she cautions. “These conversations will definitely take place in school among peers.” If a tween doesn’t learn from a parent, they’ll learn it from their peers – and peer information can be utterly false or completely at odds with the family’s values.
When it comes to going out with friends (and potentially being exposed to situations involving drugs, sex, or negative peer influences), parents may need to step in right away. Parents must accept that kids lie, says Dr. Pu. There’s no need to call them out on every falsehood; parents need to assess whether the lie is of great consequence.
Before the behaviors surface, topics like drug use or sexual behaviors need to come up in regular communication. “You do not want to turn sensitive topics into taboo subjects, otherwise you run the risk of your child not feeling able to share their concerns with you,” says Taylor. Dr. Pu suggests using third party examples to make a point, such as reaching out to a family acquaintance who has dealt with drug use or bringing up a scene in a movie. “As parents, we often fear the worst may happen,” says Taylor. “If you can be honest [about what]specifically concerns you, you may find yourself surprised when your tween talks openly.”
If a tween asks if a parent has ever tried drugs, Dr. Pu advocates parental honesty and suggests using your experience as a learning tool. Taylor prefers a more cautious approach. “Parents should consider whether they would like their child knowing certain details of their past,” she suggests. It’s also important to account for what a tween can handle emotionally. “Some tweens may feel overwhelmed by too much information too soon, while others may feel comfortable knowing that their parents were not always sensible.”
Combining insecurity with the media’s definitions of beauty ideals can prove a rough combination for tweens who are just starting to establish their identities and looking to become sexually attractive. According to Dr. Pu, 50 percent of girls and 25 percent of boys engage in disordered eating behaviors like fasting, skipping meals, using diet pills, inducing vomiting after eating, or using laxatives. Monitoring your child’s behavior again comes down to communication. Because kids start taking advice from their peers during the tween years, they need to hear from their parents what a healthy body needs and what a healthy body image is.
As their bodies change, tweens will also experiment with clothing and will have to learn what is appropriate. Dr. Pu suggests being a role model by enforcing a dress code at home or when the kids are with their family. It will be more difficult (or nearly impossible) to stop kids from wearing what parents consider to be inappropriate clothing when they’re out of the house, but continuing to set boundaries and model appropriate dress will lay the foundation for how your tween dresses.
When there is a clash of values, Taylor recommends discussing concerns directly. If a tween wears something that the parent deems inappropriate, the parent should voice their concerns, including their feelings on the situation and the potential impact on the tween.
Taylor recommends staring the conversations with: “I am worried that wearing such a short skirt may attract attention that will place you in a difficult situation.”
Parents should keep talking, even though “most of the time the teens won’t listen. Parents have to get the message out, keep the channels open, and avoid being too harsh or pushing their teen out,” suggests Dr. Pu. Though it may be that tweens won’t always listen, keep talking to catch them when they are.
Dealing with the typically unpleasant behavior of teens and tweens will test every parent’s patience. Dr. Pu offers some tips to dealing with a teen’s mood swings, anger, or all-around bad attitude. To remain effective, parents must strive to maintain thoughtful control by seeking a balance point between being permissive and authoritarian. He suggests that parents maintain high warmth: not cold or disengaged, but not too enmeshed. Remain empathetic and care about the tween’s feelings. Finally, maintain communication and encourage exchanges that are calm and respectful.
Taylor agrees that communication is the key to a successful relationship with your tween. “Talk openly, do not blame, and do not pass judgment,” she says. “If your child is behaving in an unacceptable way, then you can almost guarantee that they have a need that is not being met. Your job is to help them find out what this need is without assuming you already know what it is.”
When a tween acts out, parents should avoid engaging in similarly rash behavior. Dr. Pu recommends the CALM strategy: Cool down, Assess your options, Listen with empathy, and Make a plan. As the adult with the fully-developed brain, it’s up to the parent to be in control of their emotions. Once both sides have calmed down, step in with some suggestions, but listen closely and work together to form a plan. It’s not always easy, but training yourself not to react to crazy emotions and continuing to listen are the best ways to maintain effective communication.
Dr. Pu recommends these books:
- Getting to Calm: Cool-Headed Strategies of Parenting Tweens and Teens by Laura Kastner and Jennifer Wyatt
- Yes, Your Teen is Crazy – Loving Your Kid without Losing Your Mind by Michael Bradley
- The Whole Brain Child by Daniel Siegel
- Let’s Talk About Sex by Robie H. Harris and Michael Emberly
- National Institute on Drug Abuse (teens.drugabuse.gov)
Illustration by Sun Zheng
This article originally appeared on p57-59 of the beijingkids August 2013 issue.
Check out the PDF version online at Issuu.com