Coping With Your Tween’s Dynamic Moods
Living with a tween can feel like riding an emotional roller coaster. Here’s how to rise above and be the parent your tween needs.
The tween years, from roughly 8 through 12 years of age, are characterized by big, shifting emotions and an inability to channel those feelings effectively. If you thought you were out of the woods when the toddler phase was over, welcome to tweendom: the stage of toddler-sized feelings about teenager-like situations. Here’s how to cope.
Understand Why This Stage is so Emotional
While it’s not a panacea to know why our kids are acting as they are – let’s face it, irritating behavior is still irritating behavior! Knowing the physiological causes can allow us to take a deep breath, de-personalize the situation, and blame the stage instead of the child. Two primary changes are happening during the tween years:
- Brain Changes: The emotional center of the brain, called the amygdala, is growing rapidly during the tween years, reaching its peak size by age 11. Unfortunately, the part of the brain that controls impulsive messages from the amygdala, the prefrontal cortex, is functioning poorly at this point in development. As a result, your child has a brain region that’s picking up on every little stimulus and reacting with extreme messages (“How terrifying!” “This is horribly boring!” “I’m so angry” and so on) without the filter you and I have in our adult brains. In terms of brain function, it’s similar to being drunk – and we all know the emotional decisions that are made in that state!
- Hormonal Shifts: It may feel like puberty is a ways off but, in fact, the first hormonal change happens around eight years of age, when the adrenal glands begin creating a variety of androgens. The next stage of puberty, when physical signs of puberty appear, can begin as early as nine years of age. In other words, tweens are experiencing a torrent of hormones that may be unsettling their emotional reactions against their will.
Foster Practices that Keep You Centered
It’s super easy to get caught up in the maelstrom of a tween’s changing moods – especially since they vent so much of their pent-up energy directly onto us! While natural, it’s counterproductive to model everything we don’t want to see our kids doing (read: shouting, making things personal, acting unhinged) and then feel guilty about our behavior for hours – or days – afterward.
Staying centered is key to avoiding this pattern, and daily practices called ”certainty anchors” by author Jonathan Fields can help us reach that goal. Certainty anchors include meditating, exercising, journaling, creating, and debriefing with a trusted friend. Whatever the form, all certainty anchors are done daily, allowing us to count on them even when we don’t know what mood our tween will be tossing around the house.
Finding the right certainty anchor for you is a trial and error process. You might start with one that worked in the past for you, or one that has long intrigued you. Stick with that certainty anchor for a full 14 days before declaring it a failure. You might need to experiment with the time of day and/or length of engaging in the certainty anchor before giving up on it. Researchers have found that when we try new habits, we often take on too much and in a manner that totally upends our usual schedule, leading to failure. The best certainty anchors, then, are brief, interesting, and fit naturally into our lives.
Aim to be an Empathic, Nonjudgmental Listener
With a certainty anchor in place, we’re in a much better place to be present with our tween without riding the emotional roller coaster alongside them. In other words, we can be the type of listener that our tweens need the most: one who doesn’t judge, doesn’t try to fix things, and who genuinely hears what is being said.
When I’m sitting with my 8-year-old daughter after a rough day at school, I try to channel my favorite people to talk to. These people say variations on four key phrases:
- “It sounds like that hurt.”
- “I’m sorry you feel that way.”
- “I’m hearing you say…”
- “If you need me, I’m here.”
In the world of clinical psychology, that’s client-centered therapy speak. And it works.
Importantly, while our parental nature is to go into fix-it mode – and believe me, I’m a fix-it gal to the extreme – that’s not what our tween wants nor needs. This is the stage when they’re actively reflecting on their competencies, and little undermines their confidence more than us doing things for them. They hopefully will choose to involve us in their problem-solving and strategizing, which is terrific for both bonding and modeling, but that needs to be their choice – and they rarely make that choice unless we’ve first listened empathically and non-judgmentally.
Seek Professional Guidance, If Needed
While strong and rapidly-changing emotions are common in tweens, if your child’s negative moods are persistent, impairing their functioning at school or with friends, or you simply feel like something’s not right, it never hurts to ask for a professional opinion, such as from your child’s pediatrician. Professionals can offer a sense of the norms and expectations for each age, and perform further evaluation and/or offer referrals if needed. I’ve found it to be much more stressful to wonder if something’s wrong than to simply ask a trained and trusted professional to weigh in – and we all know the tween years are stressful enough as it is!
All in all, the tween years are indeed a bit of an emotional battleground, but if you can keep yourself grounded and present to the greatest extent possible, your relationship and your child will be all the stronger for the bumpy journey.