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Why Your Difficult Tween Is Right on Track

Why Your Difficult Tween Is Right on Track

Is your tween difficult? Is she argumentative, messy, boy crazy, and lazy? These may seem like bad traits, but they're actually preparing your tween for the future. Read on for why your difficult tween is on the right track.

Mean. Mouthy. Miserable to live with. Sound familiar? That notorious reputation is how most parents of 10- to 15-year-olds sketch their once-lovable offspring. As the co-author of books about parenting tweens, I’ve heard the “Whatever happened to my sunny child?” lament repeatedly. Honestly, I raised a daughter who fit that bill, too. But throughout my decade-plus encounters with parents, teachers, experts, and the real experts—young adolescents themselves—I discovered an ironic twist: While that bad rap remains justified, “the tween ’tude” turns out to be beneficial. Butting heads actually provides positive opportunities for parents and their young adolescents. Do you remain doubtful? Here are five generally negative traits of today that will positively serve your offspring tomorrow (well, a few tomorrows down the road, anyway).


Argumentative Tweens

Some days, every conversation with an 11-year-old feels like a battle. “Back talk is your young adolescent striving for independence,” explains S. David Bernstein, Psy.D., a clinical and forensic psychologist who practices in Norwalk, CT. “Kids should be challenging and asking the ‘why’ questions.”

tweens attitude

Girls and boys move toward becoming fully autonomous human beings during this life stage. And as tween brains grow, they cognitively become capable of constructing arguments. The typical standoffs revolve around freedom, hypocrisy, and fairness. “Parents who can’t tolerate any challenge to their authority have the hardest time dealing with this kind of back talk,” Dr. Bernstein says. Rather than shut down arguments, give your child ample time to execute her case. Arguing is a critical skill that tweens desperately need as they proceed into adolescence. Think about it: To turn down a beer at a party or resist a boyfriend’s sexual advances, your child needs a strong argumentative muscle. Standing up to you serves as practice for standing up for his or her beliefs and values.


Messy Tweens

The cluttered, filthy hurricane zone known as the bedroom was parents’ No. 1 peeve, according to surveys I conducted for The Roller-Coaster Years: Raising Your Child Through the Maddening Yet Magical Middle School Years (Harmony). “It’s my room and I like it that way” is a heated refrain that reverberates in households across America. Clothes, sneakers, sports equipment, empty water bottles, electronics, snack wrappers, Barbies, Legos, stuffed animals, schoolwork—the detritus piles up, driving parents crazy.

“Early adolescents are collectors of information. Stuff accumulates because likes and dislikes change rapidly,” says James Garvin, Ph.D., educational consultant and author of Learning How to Kiss a Frog (AMLE Publishing). “Enormous curiosity is reflected in a vast array of new things and unfinished projects.” Add the fact that tweens thrust one foot into adolescence but keep the other firmly planted in childhood, and you get double the stuff. Being disorganized comes with the territory as kids go through one of the biggest growth spurts in their lives. Tweens change physically, emotionally, socially, intellectually, and psychologically, all at the same time—it’s dizzying and daunting.

Even as you set hygiene guidelines, embrace the mess. View the bedroom as an archaeological dig. The artifacts are clues to who he is and who he is becoming. When my daughter took down a map of Islip, our town, and put up a poster of Manhattan’s skyline, she tipped me off to how her worldview had enlarged.


Boy Crazy Tweens

Ten-year-old girls seem too young to be obsessed with boys and lip gloss. Many fantasize about Justin Bieber or play-act wedding vows on the playground. If your 12-year-old obsesses about her look or gets glued to The Bachelor, don’t worry. Preteen girls are just rehearsing for romance, trying to process all the new feelings swirling through their pubescent bodies. She wants to know: Am I lovable?

Her crushes, endless text chatter, and teen idol fixations are perfect conversation starters. Ask, “What do you like about him?” When crushes implode, ask, “What should you do now?” or “Do you think your best friend trying to get him back is a good idea?” Such seemingly trivial romantic ruminations set an invaluable precedent. Your talks are “romance training,” cultivating a stage-setting parent/child rapport that will continue as your daughter spends more energy in longer and deeper relationships with boys.


Lazy Tweens

Your son dangles on the couch or hibernates in his room, staring into space rather than into that chemistry book. Parents worry about unmotivated sons in particular, but a lack of motivation is actually normal for this age group. James Bjork, a scientist with the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, scanned teenage brains and found that they differed from adult brains in the motivation department. With age, the brain adds motivation capacity.

But in the meantime, doing nothing has value. Did you know that Einstein hatched his theory of relativity while lounging on the grass on a sunny afternoon? Young adolescents need downtime to process all the new feelings bombarding them. They need space to fill in the answer to the question “Who am I?”


Fickle Tweens

Crazes come and go at lightning speed for tween quick-change artists. You rent the sax and he quits a month later, the instrument lost in his overflowing closet. She joins a hockey team and then realizes she can barely ice-skate (good thing you bought gently used skates, helmet, and protective gear!).

My tween daughter lived and breathed sharks (we watched the Jaws movies more times than we played Candy Land in her younger years), hockey, the Backstreet Boys, and soccer. Years later, Skyler completed her Ph.D. thesis on a small shark called spiny dogfish, and she now works as a research associate for The University of Miami and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The truth is that tweens should experiment, explore new interests, test out new skills, and try on identities, because you never know which one will stick.

Mean Tweens

Being mean is one misbehavior that is not beneficial to your tween’s development even in the long run. How can parents deal with that mean streak many middle-schoolers suddenly seem to develop?

“Name-calling, humiliating, teasing, shunning, stalking, online and offline—social cruelty needs to be addressed again and again,” says Laurie Mandel, Ed.D., a middle school teacher in the Three Village Central School District on Long Island and founder of the Get.A.Voice Project, which inspires kids to use their voices and hearts to fight bullying.

Kids develop rules about friendship at the same time they begin dating. Thus bullying and dating violence intersect. More than a third of teen guys and girls admit that they’ve been physically, emotionally, or sexually abused, according to national survey data presented to the American Psychological Association. Bullies can become possessive or belittling girlfriends and
boyfriends. Victims or bystanders can become objects of stalking or bad-mouthing rages. Address mean behavior early on by:

  • Calling out bullying
  • Defining friendship as a place of trust and good will
  • Teaching kids not to accept nor to forgive being abused with words or deeds—they’ll have healthier expectations in romantic relationships.

So next time your child’s lazy, difficult, quixotic, flirty, or messy side gets your goat, take a deep breath and adjust your own attitude.


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Author: Margaret Sagarese is a Long Island mom, keynote speaker, and co-author of six parenting books for parents of 10- to15-year-olds, including Boy Crazy: Keeping Your Daughter’s Feet on the Ground When Her Head Is in the Clouds (Broadway Books). She has appeared on The Today Show, CBS’s The Early Show, CNN, MSNBC, and NPR. Her writing has appeared in Ladies’ Home Journal, Parents, and Family Circle. See More

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