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As your preteen changes dramatically before your eyes, adopt these sound strategies to keep the connection going with your child. As always, connection is the key to successful parenting!
ParentCircle spoke to Dr Nithya Poornima, assistant professor of clinical psychology at NIMHANS, Bengaluru, on parent-preteen connection. This is what she had to say:
Q1. What are the main emotional and social changes preteens experience?
A. During the preteen years, children desire privacy. They may start keeping their doors locked, wanting to share only select experiences with parents. Preteens 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. Also, they want to establish their industriousness in tangible ways—gaining competence in academics, sports, and other activities. “Doing well” and achieving their dreams begin to matter quite a bit.
Preteens may begin to feel more self-conscious about their appearance and actions because they feel others may notice how they look and what they do. As their bodies begin to change, preteens get curious about gender, sex, and sexuality. Their sense of humor and ways of having fun change, too. What they found funny earlier might irritate them now, and vice versa. Often, preteens experience mixed feelings and find it difficult to express them in socially appropriate ways.
Q2. How can parents support preteens through this phase?
A. Parents should familiarize themselves with the various phases of child development. While each child may develop uniquely, knowing what to expect during a developmental stage can help a parent make sense of the 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 realize that this tendency to want to be independent and different from parents is part of the healthy process of growing up. Often, taking these changes personally can result in hurt, anger, rejection, restriction, and rebellion.
Mastering the art of negotiation with your preteen can be very beneficial to you and your child. To build a positive parent-child relationship, you need to acknowledge that your preteen needs peer company while your preteen needs to know you’re always available for them. Staying calm with your child is the bedrock of keeping communication channels open with them. So, parents need to keep their emotional reserves high!
Effective strategies to connect with your preteen
So, how do you keep the connection going with your preteen? Is being more of a friend than a parent the answer? But then your child has many friends and only one mother and one father!
Fret not, here are 15 powerful ways to connect with your preteen:
1. Be a keen listener: Many preteens say they can’t talk with their parents freely, either because their parents won’t listen, won’t understand, or will overreact. You need to become that safe harbor where your child can share the turbulent happenings of their young life.
“Listen” more than talk. Be available to listen when your child wants to talk. If you put off listening to your preteen until a more convenient time, you may lose the opportunity to connect. So, when your preteen wants to talk, stop what you’re 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 judgmental 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’re worried about him.
2. Connect during routine activities: Do chores together with all family members pitching in; this 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 you spend little moments together, the easier it will be to communicate and connect.
3. Carve out special time: During the preteen years, boys seek to spend more special time with dads, and girls with moms. But whether you have a boy or a girl, you can still carve out a special time to connect.
4. Follow your child’s lead: Show interest in your preteen’s activities. Find common interests to connect and share conversations.
5. Keep a close watch: Get involved in your child’s school life, social life, and other activities. If you stay connected this way, you’ll be able to pick up on any signs of emotional or social difficulties he may be facing, such as bullying or body image issues. As social hierarchy and cliques come into play, this is the age he is most vulnerable to bullying.
6. Have open conversations on difficult topics: It’s much easier and better to discuss drug and alcohol use and sex now than later because your preteen 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’s different from yours. This way, she’ll be more open to hearing your point of view. You can discuss other sensitive topics (not in one “big” talk, but in smaller installments), such as pubertal changes, sexuality, crushes, dating, academic performance, viewing porn, safe involvement in social media, gadgets and screen time, and dealing with peer pressure. 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 you may feel upset when you sense the silence that descends on the room when you enter while he’s talking to his friends. Dr Catherine Steiner-Adair, psychologist and author of The Big Disconnect, in an interview to childmind.org, says, “This is a time when children really start to have secrets from us and parents who have a low tolerance for that transition—they want to know everything—can alienate their children by being too inquisitive.” So, keep off your child’s 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 or dinner together, it’s an opportunity to talk and bond. Eating together helps children feel they belong to a loving family, and they feel secure and nurtured. Remember to switch off the TV and put mobile phones in silent mode during mealtimes.
According to an article published by the Canadian Family Physician in 2015, eating frequent family meals is associated with better psychosocial outcomes for children and adolescents. When families had frequent meals together, the children were less likely to be associated with eating disorders, alcohol and substance use, violent behavior, 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 preteen more freedom, ensure that they follow basic rules and imbibe your family values. Set limits, organize 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 may crop up between you and your preteen, consider arguments as valuable communication. Arguments can help you understand what’s going on in your child’s mind.
11. Keep your cool: If your preteen is being rude and moody, your immediate reaction may be to scold him. Instead, stay calm and wait for the right moment to talk to your child.
12. Avoid labeling and criticizing: If you have to give your child feedback on a particular behavior or action, criticize the choice or action, not the person, and be specific. For instance, instead of calling your child “irresponsible,” tell her that a particular behavior 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 behaviors and shows your preteen you care. Appreciation need not always be verbal—it might just be a pat on the back for returning home on time after playing outside, or cooking your child’s favorite dish because he has done well at school. Such gestures 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 preteen’s friends to your home and get to know them. But avoid passing comments or judgments on your child’s friends that may upset or embarrass her. Also, help her identify unhealthy friendships where she is not being valued.
15. Show your affection: PDA (public display of affection) may be a no-no at this age. Respect your preteen’s boundaries, but make it a point to show affection physically in private. In public, a warm smile or a wave is enough to convey your love and care.
As children become more aloof and protective of their space during the preteen years, it’s vital to keep the connection and communication going. Understand your preteen 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!
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