Ahhh, the eyerolls, the snippy, sassy comebacks and that angry energy…such is the complex, (sometimes hair-raising) challenge that befalls us about a decade into our parenting journeys. What we thought we had survived in the toddler years seems to return with greater force and more agency in the preteen years, oftentimes leaving parents exhausted, exasperated, and seriously dreading the adolescent years to follow.
As our children approach the 10-13 year age range they enter the stage of development whereby they push boundaries, and try to exert independence, in preparation for entering the teen years. Navigating the pre-teen years successfully requires that we grasp various developmental and relational components, and perhaps, now more than ever, a clear understanding of our own parenting “hot button” issues. For those of us raised by very strict parents who did not allow us to question their decisions, and believed that any expression of anger or disagreement by our child selves, was disrespectful, there may be a fairly large battle raging in our heads and our hearts. We may find ourselves parenting our children in alignment with how we were parented. The voices of our parents haunt us (“How dare you talk to me that way!” and “You will do as you’re told!”). Or, we find ourselves parenting very much in the opposite way we were raised. We may want desperately to maintain a strong connection with our children, trust in their goodness and raise them to feel differently about themselves than we did. And our inner parental voice (“You’re letting him walk all over you”) may well loom large in our heads even as we strive to take a gentler, more mutually respectful path alongside our tweens through these challenging years.
Both these directions are reactive to our past. How, instead, do we consciously, intentionally parent the child we have before us? And, what of those children who might be described as “spirited” and “strong-willed?” I once told my older son, then four, “Buddy, you’re being a contrarian!” To which, he replied without skipping a beat, “No I’m not!!” Since then, he has lived out this contrariness every day and now, at ten, has reached the gold-standard of being contrarian! He can find arguments and questions to any request I give him, prompting me to choose a different path…
At this stage of development, the desire for personal power is particularly fierce which is further accentuated in the spirited child. Added to this, the need to know why something is done a certain way, and why not a different way (if the outcome is essentially the same) can lead to some frustrating conversations or even an all out war. When we view our spirited ‘tween as being obstinate and difficult, we naturally ascribe negativity to this characteristic, and we are, just as naturally, pulled into feeling exasperated with the questions and (what we deem to be) challenges to our authority.
What if, instead, we consider that today’s spirited child is tomorrow’s leader, innovator, resister of peer pressure? Can we see this characteristic as a gift and parent for the future rather than being stuck in the challenge it poses us today? Instead of expecting my son to simply do as he is told because I said so (the mere idea makes me chuckle while writing!), what if I invite dialogue, ask for his ideas on issues that have wiggle room (and, let’s be honest, most do). What if I give him some ownership for finding solutions if he doesn’t like mine? Chances are strong that his sense of belonging and significance increase, and with them, his desire to cooperate. This makes for a far less frustrating dynamic between us, and increases the likelihood that when I do have to make a decision unilaterally, cooperation is more likely.
However, nothing is perfect and once frustration does strike, as it inevitably will, how can we create a framework for how to handle it? For ourselves as parents, we can both learn our own frustration triggers and take steps to dismantle them, and we can commit to a regular, intentional self-care practice that increases our awareness of our internal states. This allows a quicker recognition of our triggers and greater effectiveness in lessening frustration and anger before it escalates. Dr. Laura Markham, author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids and Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings, has this to say,“ The best way to avoid getting triggered is to talk about your own childhood with someone you trust. How did your parents handle it when you got angry or upset? Did you get yelled at? How did it make you feel? Surface those feelings and breathe your way through them and let them go. [In doing so] you’re deactivating your triggers.”
Remaining in frustration ourselves causes stress in our children, as they sense that all is not well. Their feelings of safety and security decline. This results in them often becoming more needy and attention-seeking in order to try and settle their anxieties. They want reassurance that we have a handle on the situation. But, their neediness exacerbates our feelings of frustration and so, the cycle continues. What can we do in the moment when we experience frustration? First, we can stop talking, yelling, engaging in any way with our children. We can take some deep calming breaths to slow things down, leaving the room, if necessary. Going into another space, out of earshot, we may safely growl, or yell, or stomp, or cry. We can get out our feelings. We might also drink some water, apply a cool washcloth to our forehead, repeat a mantra that calms us down like, “I’ve got this.” We can return only once we are calm. Doing this allows our brain’s prefrontal cortex* time to re-engage and makes our executive functioning* accessible once again.
Once we have mastered our own healthy frustration management skills, we can teach and support our pre-teens to do the same, though their path may look somewhat different. Remember, simply by taking actions to regulate our emotions in the moment, we are modeling that it is not only possible but necessary to preserve our most treasured relationships.
To prepare, we can begin to help our children build awareness that frustration doesn’t “just happen.” There are usually subtle signs of irritation that are ignored because they do not reach the level of awareness, and our children only notice when their frustration gets out of control. With my sons, I created a frustration scale, as such:
- I mark off numbers along a vertical line from 0 at the bottom to 10 at the top. I draw a picture of a “cool” ice cube with sunglasses at 0, to indicate being chilled out or totally relaxed. At the top, I draw an angry face, (but could draw instead an erupting volcano or a bear on hind legs, whatever best conveys a state of out-of-control frustration or anger to my son.)
- I ask my son what number on the scale represents him feeling slightly annoyed, and indicate this on the scale. Next, I asked him what number shows that his frustration is too intense to calm down and he is heading towards a meltdown. I mark this too.
- I draw a line between the two numbers, labelling the space between as the “Action Zone,” and explained that this represents the space in which frustration reduction skills can be used to bring frustration down below the lower number.
- Finally, I create a list of “Action Zone” strategies, based on what my son said helped him to calm down. Here are some ideas to get your child started:
- Do a body check-in: Am I hungry, thirsty, overstimulated or tired? Do I need to pee or poop? (constipation can lead to aggravation!)
- Have some deep breathing ideas, like belly breathing, color breathing (visualize exhaling red, for example, for frustration, and inhaling blue, for calm until feeling calmer); square breathing (breathe in for a count of 4, pause, breathe out for count of 4)
- If the breathing methods listed above don’t get the job done, blow bubbles to slow down breathing.
- You can identify what soothes the senses, e.g. taking a shower, eating a snack, smelling a scented candle or essential oil, looking at photos of good times, listening to a favorite song.
- Engage in a safe physical activity, e.g. play soccer or basketball, go running or bike-riding.
To get the best possible use out of this scale and the “Action Zone” strategies, I would recommend having your child track her frustration level a few times a day for a week or two, even when things are calm. This will allow her to feel in her body how a 1 differs from a 4, and how a 6 differs from a 9. If her frustration is over the lower threshold, even minimally, invite her to try a different strategy each time, to see to which ones she is more drawn. She is much more likely to use these in times of stress if she has some confidence they work to help her feel better, than if she has never tried them before.
Adlerian theory* holds that children strive for belonging and significance. They want our assurance that we love them beyond measure, and we value their place in the family unit. When children do not believe they belong, or have significance or power over their world, misbehavior is the likely result, and it can intensify if not effectively addressed.
How can we as parents enrich our connection and parenting skills to successfully meet these essential needs for belonging and significance? And, how will this possibly help our children be less sassy?! Here are a few tips to keep in mind as we dance this awkward waltz with our tweens:
- We can ensure daily one-on-one time with each of our children creates a unique opportunity for us to see our kids at their best. We can follow our child’s lead in an activity chosen by him and give freely our warmth, humor and affection without attempting to teach, lecture or make a point. In doing so, a space is created in which our child can be playful, spontaneous, or directive, all the while basking in our undivided attention away from competing siblings and unending chores.
- We can give our children plenty of encouragement (which is different than general praise), conveyed as faith in their abilities and intentions.
Adlerian psychology views discouragement as the root of misbehaviour, in which a child feels unable to effect positive change from her actions and thereby elicits negative attention in a mistaken attempt to get her needs met. Being able to experience from us, an appreciation of her efforts with homework, tasks, getting along with a sibling helps our child feel seen and her sense of belonging improves. This also means listening when our children share what will help them in a challenging moment, and trusting them to know what they need. In a recent conversation with Anouck, she shared a touching story of her daughter experiencing some difficult feelings of frustration and sadness. Her daughter knew that she wanted her mom to help her cheer her up because she couldn’t cheer herself up in that moment. Her daughter knew just what would comfort her (having Anouck read her silly Shel Silverstein poems), and she was able to ask for it in a very mature way. Had Anouck not heard her daughter’s words and had she allowed her parental reaction to come from a “triggered” place, Anouck might have tried to implement another strategy that would not have resolved the upset quite as effectively as did following her daughter’s lead.
- We can offer our children the respect we ourselves would like to receive. This helps our children be more respectful towards us.
- We can give our children plenty of opportunities to learn tasks and behaviours through providing them with training and all the while offering lots of grace as mistakes are inevitably made. This helps children create healthy ideas about imperfection and striving for one’s best, rather than being repeatedly frustrated trying to reach the unattainable goal of perfection. The act of being able to do for oneself what is needed to function gives our children (as it does us) a satisfying dose of self-efficacy. Their sense of significance and positive power gets a healthy boost as well. We can help our child build this self-efficacy by not doing for him what he can do for himself. This takes significant awareness and retraining for some of us parents who are, for the sake of efficiency, naturally drawn to doing for our children the tasks we know we can get done much more quickly without their input.
- We should offer up lots of choices where all possible outcomes are acceptable to us.
This helps our children experience positive power in manageable, healthy, age-appropriate doses. As they experience power in positive ways, there is less need to seek it out in negative ways.
- We can hold regular family meetings for discussing what is working well and what the family can work on changing together, with each child having a voice and an opportunity to effect change.
- We should recognize our very limited power over our children, especially at this age. Our need for power at any cost might well get a child to give up their power, but at what cost to them?
An alternative but complementing view of this stage of development comes from Erik Erikson. Erikson’s Psychosocial Theory* describes this age as a time of great learning, one where children engage in formal schooling and begin to develop basic skills in various academic disciplines. The developmental challenge of this stage is whether or not a child appropriately develops the competencies needed to be successful in academic and social contexts.
When a child successfully negotiates this crisis of inferiority vs industry, the outcome is a child who feels and therefore is, competent. Falling short of developing skills that the child (or his parents, teachers or coaches) perceives to be important can lead to feelings of inferiority. Towards the end of this stage comes the recognition that our child’s peers’ acceptance and influence takes on much greater significance, and he will want to be seen as competent in front of his friends even more so than parents and teachers. To keep our parental influence strong, we need to encourage the initiative our child shows to develop these competencies, and while encouraging him, maintain open communication, easy forgiveness when mistakes are made, and warm acceptance of the developing personality. Additionally, we can welcome his friends into our home to create opportunities for socialization through completing a fun project, playing board games or getting physical with sports at the park. This fills the void of not having a natural place for children this age to spend their leisure time (away from the lure of screen time), allows us to observe our children’s interactions with their peers, and influence the group in positive directions as necessary.
For some preteens, socializing can bring with it significant anxiety, and therefore, awkwardness. Yet the desire for connection with peers is just as strong, so again, creating these opportunities in the home environment can model appropriate ways for both the anxious child and her peers to behave around each other, with the intention for this to translate more easily into the school environment.
The preteen stage can certainly be one that is challenging as our sons and daughters push for independence and become frustrated when they aren’t quite ready for the responsibility of having it quite to the extent they would like. However, if we can respond with respect, patience, curiosity, structure and limits, all built upon a foundation of love, grace and open-mindedness, we can certainly find joy in their humour, sense of adventure, their unique insights and wisdom, and their unbridled passion for life.
Good luck to you all and wishing you happy, mindful parenting!
*Adlerian theory is a positive psychodynamic theory founded by Alfred Adler, a one-time colleague of Sigmund Freud. Adler focused much of his research on feelings of inferiority versus superiority, discouragement, and a sense of belonging in the context of one’s community and society at large.
*Erik Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development emphasizes the sociocultural determinants of development and presents them as eight stages of psychosocial conflicts (often known as Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development) that all individuals must overcome or resolve successfully in order to adjust well to the environment.
*Prefrontal Cortex is the cerebral cortex which covers the front part of the frontal lobe. This brain region has been implicated in planning complex cognitive behavior, personality expression, decision making, and moderating social behaviour.
*Executive Functions are a set of cognitive processes that are necessary for the cognitive control of behavior: they make possible mentally playing with ideas; taking the time to think before acting; meeting novel, unanticipated challenges; resisting temptations; and staying focused. Core Executive Functions are inhibition /response inhibition (self-control—resisting temptations and resisting acting impulsively) and interference control (selective attention and cognitive inhibition)], working memory, and cognitive flexibility (including creatively thinking “outside the box,” seeing anything from different perspectives, and quickly and flexibly adapting to changed circumstances).
Vinay Gaglani is a Pacific Northwester of Indian descent who aspires to be a peaceful parent to her two amazing young boys. Vinay is a Licensed Professional Counselor by trade, and a lover of hiking and tea!