The Pre-teen Series: 15 ways you can connect better with your child
As your pre-teen changes dramatically before your eyes, adopt these sound strategies to keep the connection going with your child. As always, connection is the key in parenting.
By Aruna Raghuram
Madhavi is finding it difficult to understand and accept the changes she has been noticing over the past year in her pre-teen daughter Aarti, 11. So full of life and affection until recently, Aarti seems to be withdrawing into a shell. Earlier, she would hug her mother and jump onto her lap whenever she felt like it. Nowadays, she is pulling back when her mother hugs her. She is frequently keeps her room door locked, and answers in monosyllables when asked questions. She seems to be constantly preoccupied with school and friends. Madhavi worries she is fast losing that all-important connection with her daughter…
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Many parents, like Madhavi, feel helpless and anxious when their pre-teen (9-12 years) withdraws from them and seems to prefer peer company. This is a difficult change for parents to get used to. Parents may take it personally – feel hurt and rejected. What they need to realise is that while it may seem their child no longer requires their help, this is far from the truth. In fact, during these confusing and difficult years of transition into adolescence, children need their parents more than ever. As their lives move into unchartered waters, parents are the anchors that support them and provide them with love, guidance, and security.
The pre-teen period is like a preview of the upcoming teenage years. A strong parent-child relationship during this period can ensure a smoother transition into adolescence. This is the period when children develop strong values and morals – a sense of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. So, parents who establish a good connection with their pre-teen can become effective influencers.
Connection is 80% parenting. Because without the connection you won’t have influence over your children.
Dr Laura Markham, parenting expert and author of Peaceful Parents, Happy Kids
According to Dr Markham, “All parents need to repeatedly reconnect with their children, just to repair the daily erosion created by life’s normal separations and distractions.” This connection should involve five positive interactions for every negative one, recommends the expert. If your child’s need for connection is not met within the family, he will start relying more and more on his peer group.
Why is it difficult to keep the connection going?
Parents of pre-teens need to be their child’s ‘secure base’ and ensure that the parent-child bond does not weaken. Bonding and connecting with a pre-teen is easier said than done. If there has never been a strong foundation of communication between parent and child, and they have been connecting only at a casual level, the relationship can run into trouble in the pre-teen years.
Connecting with your pre-teen may prove to be challenging for the following reasons:
- A pre-teen is not necessarily the same person he was, even just a year ago. He is changing everyday – physically, cognitively, emotionally, and socially
- Hormonal changes may make pre-teens emotional and sensitive. They may experience strong emotions, which may take parents by surprise
- Mood swings (children may become more erratic and irritable) and tantrums may become more common
- Pre-teens may start to emotionally withdraw from parents – sharing feelings or showing affection less often. They may cringe and feel embarrassed if a parent physically demonstrates affection
- Pre-teens may develop a strong desire for privacy and may not appreciate intrusive parents
- Pre-teens become more independent, sometimes even rebellious
- School activities, new interests, and friends become very important. Spending time with, and talking to parents may not remain a priority
- Children during their pre-teen years may start relying on their peer group, not only for companionship, but also for guidance
As an adult, the responsibility to connect with the child lies primarily with the parent. However, many parents are unable to understand and accept the changes in their child. This can result in a sudden change in communication style – parents can get suspicious, intrusive, authoritarian, and harsh. So, often it is the parent who becomes responsible for the breakdown in communication.
EXPERT TAKEParentCircle interacted with Dr Nithya Poornima, Assistant Professor of Clinical Psychology at NIMHANS, Bangalore on the subject. This is what she had to say:
Q. What are the main emotional and social changes pre-teens experience?
A. During the pre-teen years, children quite evidently desire privacy. They may start keeping their doors locked and want to share only select experiences with parents. Pre-teens definitely want to connect more with peers than with parents. They like to exercise their independence in many ways, such as deciding what to do on a holiday, or wanting to cycle around the neighbourhood alone. This is also a time when they would like to establish their industriousness in tangible ways – gaining competence in academics, sports, and/or other extracurricular activities. ‘Doing well’ and achieving begins to matter quite a bit.
Pre-teens may begin to feel more self-conscious about their appearance and their actions, because they feel others may be noticing how they look and what they do. As their bodies begin to change considerably, a fair amount of emotional and social adjustment is also required. They can get curious about gender, sex and/or sexuality. Their sense of humour and ways of having fun change too. What they found funny earlier, might irritate them now, or vice versa. Many a time, they may experience a mix of feelings and may find it difficult to express these feelings in socially appropriate ways.
Q. How parents can support pre-teens through this phase?
A. It is useful for parents to familiarise themselves with the various phases of child development. While each child may develop uniquely, knowing what to expect during a developmental stage can help parents make sense of changes they may be noticing in their child. In India and many Asian cultures, while parents may expect children to be more ‘responsible’ with increasing age they find it difficult to accept that growing children want to exercise their minds in making choices and decisions. Parents need to realise that this tendency to want to be independent and different from parents is part of the healthy process of growing up. Taking these changes personally often results in hurt, anger, rejection, restriction, and rebellion.
Mastering the art of negotiation with your pre-teen would be very beneficial for your child and for you. Acknowledging that your child needs peer company, while knowing that you would always be available when needed, can help strike a new balance in your relationship. Staying calm with your pre-teen is the bedrock of keeping communication channels open with them. So, parents need to keep their emotional reserves high!
STRATEGIES TO CONNECT WITH YOUR PRE-TEEN
So, how do you keep the connection going with your pre-teen? Is being more of a friend than a parent the answer? According to psychologist and author, Dr Carl Pickhardt, writing in Psychology Today, parents cannot be just friends to their children because of their “governing authority”. Besides your child has many friends but only one mother and one father!
Not to fret, here are 15 ways to help you connect better with your pre-teen:
- Be a keen listener: Many pre-teens and teens say they can’t talk with their parents freely, either because their parents won’t listen, won’t understand, or will over-react. You need to become that safe harbour where your child can share the turbulent happenings of his young life.:
- ‘Listen’ more than talk. Be available to listen when your child wants to talk. If you put off listening to your pre-teen until a more convenient time, you may lose the opportunity to connect. So, when your pre-teen wants to talk, it is advisable to stop what you are doing, ignore electronic distractions, and give him undivided attention
- Practice ‘active listening’, where you listen to your child’s feelings, not just the words. Listen with empathy, state what you observe, and avoid evaluative or judgemental comments. This will encourage your child to come to you with his problems
- Avoid bombarding your child with questions and unwanted advice. Remember not to force your child to talk, even if you are worried about him
2. Connect during routine activities: Do chores together – where all family members pitch in; it gives children a sense of belonging and reinforces the value of teamwork. Chat with your child while driving her to school or extracurricular activities. The more little moments you spend together, the easier it will be to communicate and connect
3. Carve out special time: The pre-teen years are a time when boys seek to spend more special time with dads, and girls with moms. But, whether you have a boy or girl, you can still carve out special time to connect.
- Go on parent-child dates – activities you both enjoy. Sharing an activity helps build closeness and connection. It could be a walk on the beach, a visit to the zoo, playing a board game, or curling up on the sofa and chatting
- Have fun and avoid directing or disciplining your child during these moments of quality time
- Special time could also be a ‘family meeting’ of sorts where you get together to plan activities and sort out problems
- A bedtime ritual is also special time. As your child has probably outgrown being tucked into bed, you could tweak the bedtime ritual to include reading together, talking about the day gone by, and a goodnight hug
4. Follow your child’s lead: Get interested in what your pre-teen is in to. Find common interests to connect and share conversations.
- Watch with your child a film or TV show that she wants to watch. This is not just a good way to bond – a casual discussion on taboo subjects can follow
- Watch games and sports together
- Read books and listen to music your child likes
- Learn something from your child. Let’s admit it – your pre-teen is probably more tech-savvy than you. So why not get his help in becoming digitally savvy yourself? According to Dr Pickhardt, you can ask your child to show you how to play a particular computer game. Not only does this explaining become a vehicle for connection, but it also builds self-esteem in your child, he says
5. Keep a close watch: It goes without saying that you need to stay actively involved in your child’s school life, friend circle, and other activities. If you stay connected this way, you will be able to pick up any signs of emotional or social difficulties your child may be facing – such as bullying or body image issues. As social hierarchy and cliques come into play, this is the age your child is most vulnerable to bullying
6. Have open conversations on difficult topics: It is much easier and better to discuss drug and alcohol use and sex now than later, because your pre-teen still listens to you and is more likely to incorporate your values. Remember to make it a two-way discussion, not a one-way lecture. Listen and be open to your child’s point of view, without judging, even if it is different from yours. This way he will be more open to hearing your point of view. Other sensitive topics that can be discussed (not in one ‘big’ talk, but in smaller installments) are pubertal changes, sexuality, crushes, dating, academic performance, viewing porn, safe involvement in social media, gadgets and screen time, dealing with peer pressure, and so on. Having these difficult conversations helps build closeness and trust in the relationship.
7. Value your child’s privacy: It may be hard to find your child’s door locked most of the time or, sense the hush that descends on the room when you enter while she is talking to her friends. According to Dr Catherine Steiner-Adair, psychologist and author of The Big Disconnect, this is the time when children start keeping secrets from parents. Parents, who do not adjust to this transition and want to know everything, can alienate their children by being too intrusive. So, keep off their drawers, diaries, and chats – those are off-limits to you. If you have reason to be suspicious about something, you may need to investigate, but be discreet
8. Eat together: When family members have breakfast and/or dinner together, it is an opportunity to talk and bond. It helps children feel they belong to a loving family and this helps them feel secure and nurtured. Remember to switch off the television and put mobile phones on silent mode for the duration of the meal.
According to a 2015 Canadian review, eating frequent family meals is associated with better psychosocial outcomes for children and adolescents. In general, when families had frequent meals together, the children were less likely to be associated with with eating disorders, alcohol and substance use, violent behaviour, and feelings of depression or thoughts of suicide. There was a positive relationship between frequent family meals and increased self-esteem, commitment to learning, and better academic outcomes
9. Provide a reasonable family structure: Even as you allow your pre-teen more freedom, ensure that basic rules are followed and values are imbibed. Set limits, organise routines, make expectations clear, supervise their activities, ask them questions, and provide direction as you would to a younger child. They need this reassuring structure in their lives
10. Value arguments: If you want to stay connected despite the differences that might be increasingly crop up between you and your pre-teen, consider arguments as valuable communication. This is the way you can get to know what is going on in your child’s mind
11. Keep your cool: If your pre-teen is being rude and moody, there are two things you could do. The immediate reaction may be to berate the child. The preferred, second response is to stay calm and wait for the right moment to talk to your child
12. Avoid labeling and criticising: If you have to give your child feedback on a particular behaviour or action, criticise the choice/action, not the person, and be specific. For instance, instead of calling your child ‘irresponsible’ tell her that a particular behaviour is not acceptable and explain why. Avoid lecturing and nagging at any cost. They are connection killers
13. Appreciate your child: Every child wants to be noticed and appreciated. It encourages positive behaviour and shows your pre-teen you care. Appreciation need not always be verbal - it might just be a pat on the back for returning home on time from playing outside, or cooking her favourite dish because she has done well in school – but it will make all the difference. Often a simple ‘thank you’ will also do the trick
14. Welcome their friends: At this age, peers start to matter a great deal. Invite your pre-teen’s friends to your home and get to know them. Make sure you avoid passing comments or judgments on her friends that may upset or embarrass your child. Additionally, help your child identify unhealthy friendships where she is not being valued and cared for
15. Show your affection: PDA (public display of affection) may be a no-no at this age. Parents have to respect their pre-teen’s personal boundaries. But make it a point to physically show affection in private. In public, a warm smile or a wave could convey your love and care
As children become more aloof and protective of their own space during the pre-teen years, it is vital to keep the connection and communication going. Understand your pre-teen and equip yourself with a list of strategies to help you keep the channels of communication open with your child. Bridge the gap and connect with trust!
In a nutshell
- As pre-teens are increasingly drawn to their peer group, school activities, and independent pursuits, they start distancing themselves from parents
- It is up to parents to make the effort to keep the connection alive, to understand and support their child through the turbulent period of pre-adolescence
- There are several strategies parents can adopt to connect better, such as - being available to listen, welcoming their child’s friends, having family meals together, and so on
- Parents could use this connection and healthy relationship with their child to effectively influence their child’s behaviours
What you could do right away…
- Start a journal with your pre-teen where both of you enter your questions and responses. Some things are easier to put down on paper than to talk about
- Form a ‘Parent-Child Club’ and share your favourite books, music and movies with each other
- Make time to spend 15 minutes everyday connecting lovingly with your pre-teen
- Start knocking on the door of your child’s room before entering. Soon she may stop keeping her door locked
About the author:
Written by Aruna Raghuram on 20 September 2019.
Raghuram is a journalist and has worked with various newspapers, writing and editing, for two decades. She has also worked for six years with a consumer rights NGO. At the time of writing this article, she was a consultant with ParentCircle.
About the expert:
Reviewed by Meghna Singhal, PhD on 7 November 2019.
Dr. Singhal is a clinical psychologist and currently heads the Content Solutions Zone at ParentCircle. She has a doctorate degree from NIMHANS (Bangalore) and holds a post-doctorate in parenting from the University of Queensland (Australia).
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