Communicating with your Preteen/Teen

feature blog post by Gayatri Subramaniam who facilitates “‘Tween/Teen Parent Support Group” on Tuesday afternoons


Gayatri Subramaniam Registered MFT Intern Supervised by Jonathan Bartlett LMFT

Last week, I was preparing to make a presentation about parenting in the pre-adolescent years. I did my research, started to put together my PowerPoint slides, and then decided to ask my now 16-year-old what she thought I should include. The response was quick and earnest – “tell them that even if your kid acts as if she hates you, she really doesn’t.” Now she tells me…!

As our kids get older, we hear a lot about what can go wrong during the teenage years – drinking, unprotected sex, drugs, and the fear of dropping grades and never making it to college. We’re so busy building our intellectual and emotional armor to face an adolescent that we tend to overlook the crucial stage that precedes it. Pre-adolescence is a time of growing independence but it can be as scary for our children as it is for us. Even as the peer group seemingly becomes more important than you, your child still needs you, even if she tells you otherwise. It is crucial that you stay in touch with your child now, so your communication is robust when she hits her teen years.

Understanding Brain Development

To communicate better with your preteen, consider how the brain is developing at this age. By age 6, the brain is at 90% of its adult size, but between the ages of 12 and 25, the brain undergoes extensive reorganization. Development proceeds from back to front, and begins in the brain stem, which regulates much of the instinctual functioning of the body, such as breathing and swallowing. The limbic system, situated on top of the brain stem and below the cortex, is a complex set of structures that regulates emotional responses, and is highly active in adolescents. The amygdala, for instance, alerts the body to danger, and its development, along with hormonal changes, may make your child feel intense but unfamiliar rage, fear, aggression and excitement. What might have been an ordinary comment from you before is now likely to misinterpreted, and a rational discussion might seem impossible in the midst of all the tears and frustration that the comment elicited.

The prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for rational thinking and planning, is the last to develop. Eventually, the limbic system comes under greater control of the prefrontal cortex and your child will be better at controlling impulses, balancing desire with rules and ethics, and generating more complex and sensible behavior. Until then, be prepared for some reactivity.  The next time your ’tween comes to you with an issue, here are some things to try:

Downplaying the Drama

  • Breathe for at least 10 seconds before responding to what he is saying. As tempting as it might be to say, “What the hell were you thinking,” you can have a more rational conversation if your child feels safe opening up to you.
  • Acknowledge, don’t solve. “Wow, sounds like a frustrating day” will go a lot farther than “well, you should have…” Your ’tween wants to know it’s okay to feel the way she does. At an age when they are trying on new identities and are confused by their changing bodies and emotions, children need to hear someone normalize their experience.
  • Help them label their emotions. In elementary school, most children learn the words mad, sad, and happy. As they get older, more complex and unfamiliar emotions, such as jealousy, rage, and embarrassment come into play. Giving the emotion a name gives them a way to process and handle it.
  • Empathize. My children love to hear about times when I might have experienced something similar to what they are going through (I suspect they just like hearing the embarrassing stories, but if that makes them feel closer to me, I’ll offer up a few!) Your children want to connect with you, and they want to know that even you, now the rational adult, has made a bad decision or two.
  • Don’t overreact. I’ll confess. I’m guilty. When my daughter was in middle school, another parent mentioned with twinkling eyes that she heard my daughter liked a boy. It was a good thing I heard about it before my daughter brought it up, or I could not have practiced the “wait for 10 seconds” rule I just mentioned. My mind raced – how could she not have told me? Who said she was allowed to date, anyway? I’ll just have to move back to India and … (ok, I didn’t go that far). In the end, I found out that at that age, it just meant they sat next to each other at lunch, and I could stop planning her wedding. Good thing I didn’t overreact, right?

Keep the Dialog Open

Yes, your child is a little different now, but you can still engage him as long as you are willing to adapt. Try to find one-on-one time, where you’re providing undivided attention. That’s right – no paying bills or texting during that conversation! It can happen in the car or in your kitchen while you’re cooking side-by-side. In fact some kids, boys in particular, may prefer this to an invitation to “sit and talk.” It helps if you connect through their interests. For example, ask what they like about the music they listen to, even if you are not a fan of their music. Watch the shows they watch without getting too critical. It’s an opportunity to discuss the barrage of cultural messages and gender codes that they receive through media, but if they sense judgement on your part, they are likely to shut down the conversation.

Sit with the Silence

It’s developmentally appropriate for kids to start turning away from their parents and relying more on friends, but parents can take their preteen’s withdrawal as rejection. If your child is not very talkative now, let her know you can accept that, and that you are comfortable with it. It’s easy to alienate a ’tween by demanding they share everything. Lastly, keep the conversations short and simple. We’ve all done it – the lecture that starts with homework and ends with every transgression of the week. Remember when you were a kid and you thought, “I got the point. Why is Dad still talking?” Stop before your child gets there.

You can do this!

Even if it sometimes feels as if you have lost all influence over your children, in reality you are their role model. When you respond to his negative emotions with calm and caring, you are teaching him an important lesson about how to respond to adversity. If you do lose it and yell, give yourself a break. After all, you are human. An apology at a time when things are calmer sends an important message to her. It tells her that you can own your inappropriate reactions and you respect her enough to acknowledge that you could have handled it better.

And when all else fails, do what I do and pull out your kid’s toddler photos until the storm blows over. It’s the best reminder that your sweet child is still in that preteen body, and will re-emerge when the prefrontal cortex has conquered that pesky limbic system!

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