The Preteen Years
For some, the preteen years are like the twilight years, an odd period of time between one world and the next. Not quite children and not yet teens, preteens are well known for being children one moment and then copping adult attitudes the next. They are a virtual roller coaster of emotions and attitudes, and that often makes it hard for parents to cope.
Trina Lambert of Englewood, Colo., knows exactly what that is like. Her 12-year-old daughter has become extremely moody the past few months. "She can be quite helpful when she sees that her dad or I need something specific done," Lambert says. "Yet sometimes she doesn't even respond or will break into tears that don't seem related to the situation. When I've asked her what's wrong, she just sobs and says she doesn't know."
Like so many other parents of preteens, Lambert realizes that her daughter is at an in-between stage. She tries to help her with communication and understanding, but it can be difficult. "In general we communicate well with one another, but it really does depend on her mood and how patient I am feeling," Lambert says. "Sometimes she will go on at length about her problems, sharing a lot with me. At other times she just snaps at me and doesn't want to talk."
Kerrie Laguna, Ph.D., a psychologist and associate professor at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa., says that this behavior is quite normal. "The period of early adolescence is the most stressful one for most families," she says. "In some respects, it may be harder on parents than teens. One way to understand this period is that it involves multiple transitions: physical, cognitive and social. Parents may struggle because [preteens] often send the signal that they don't need parents anymore, and they look and sometimes act more like adults than children. So parents may feel unneeded or feel like the child is ready for more responsibility than he or she can really handle. The basic problem, I think, is a readjustment of roles in the family, and since early adolescence is so fuzzy, the roles are really not clear for a few years."
Yvonne Thomas, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist in Los Angeles, Calif., says this kind of inconsistent behavior is to be expected. "It is completely normal and actually important that a preteen fluctuate between doing childish and adult-like things," she says. "Being able to go back and forth allows the preteen to make a smoother emotional transition from a kid into an adult."
Though the preteen years can be stressful, they can also be rewarding. With patient, empathic, nonjudgmental and communicative parents, this developmental phase can be exciting for everyone. According to Thomas, it is important for parents to allow the preteen to grow at a pace that feels the safest and most comfortable to him or her. This positively builds upon one's self-confidence, self-identity and interactions with others.
"I feel this phase is quite similar to toddlers who at around 2 and 3 years old feel their own emotional tug between 'I'm walking now, so I want to freely explore my world' and 'Uh oh! I've walked too far away, and I'm scared!" Thomas says. "There is a delicate volleying back and forth for the toddler between dependence and autonomy. Similarly, preteens shift back and forth, often without even being aware or conscious of what they are doing or why because they are feeling excited and curious about being the adult, while simultaneously feeling scared and uncomfortable with the newness and unpredictability of it."
Thomas believes that parents can survive this emotional roller-coaster by remembering that this time is usually short lived. Parents need to remember what it was like to be a preteen and understand that while it was never easy, kids today have even more pressures on them than pervious generations.
"Doing this can create the empathy and sensitivity needed from the parent toward their preteen so they can be both a support system and a wise teacher and guide, helping the teen navigate through this developmental phase of life," says Thomas. She gives the following tips for helping preteens survive this emotional time of life:
- Normalize this time of their life for them. Sit the preteen down and tell them that they are not alone in feeling stuck, uncomfortable, confused and probably scared being between childhood and adulthood. So often when a person of any age is going through a difficult time, one feels that he or she is the only one experiencing this kind of turmoil and upset. It is very calming and reassuring to be reminded that probably the bulk of one's peers are going through the same kind of roller coaster feelings and thoughts, and that this is usually not an easy time for anyone.
- Give the "light at the end of the tunnel" perspective, meaning use yourself as an example of how it may have been really difficult for you at this preteen age, too, but that things do get easier and you do start to find a place to fit in.
- Communication is extremely important, because it allows everyone involved to know how each other is feeling without trying to "mind-read" each other or assume things that are unspoken, which so often leads to misinterpretations and wrong judgments. The best kind of communication between preteens and their parents incudes being as direct and clear as possible, with a lot of empathy and patience.
- Repressing one's feelings at any age is not a healthy action; instead, it unnaturally stuffs down emotions that are there for a reason. The bottom line is that parents should actively keep encouraging their preteens to come to them anytime the preteen feels the need to talk or ask them questions regarding this transition time between childhood and adulthood – and about anything in general.
- Discuss with your preteen the values, morals and beliefs that you want him or her to take into adulthood. Most preteens have developed abstract reasoning and are able to understand these concepts and to use them as guides and tools to help him or her make healthy, positive decisions as he or she transitions into being an adult.
The preteen years can be challenging for the entire family, but they don't have to be horrible. Just remember that it is very normal for preteens to fluctuate between the old childish ways and the new adult ways. Then whenever your child takes you along for an emotional roller coaster ride, you can remind yourself that this too shall pass!