In days gone by, important parent-to-child conversations basically consisted of “The Talk” – an awkward and one-sided lecture about sex delivered to embarrassed tweens. Things have moved on since then. We all know that preparing kids for the journey into adulthood requires more than an occasional briefing on the essentials. In fact, it takes hundreds of conversations over many years.
But even with the best intentions, communicating with developing adolescents can be hard. That’s why it’s so important to prepare yourself for the talks you’ll need to have with your tween. In these blinks, we’ll show you how to broach six of the most important tween topics: independence, money, technology, criticism, impulsivity, and sex.
The three most powerful points I took from the book were;
1. Create a roadmap to independence to build trust in your tween’s autonomy
2. Encourage your kids to develop a healthier relationship with tech by setting ground rules.
3. Help your child mature by paying careful attention to how you phrase criticism.
Learning a new lingo will help you talk to your tween.
Children and parents share a special language. For many people, the cries of infants are little more than noise. Parents, though, can detect the subtle differences that signal that their child needs to be fed, or have its diaper changed. This relationship lasts from birth until the age of around eleven, when something changes.
As kids set out on the journey toward adulthood, they pull away from their parents and begin building their own identities. Suddenly, parents and children have less in common, and the old language breaks down. Which means that, as a parent, you need to find a different way of communicating.
Shared languages bind people together. Tweens, though, don’t want to be bound into the family group – they want to explore the world for themselves. No wonder, then, that communication becomes difficult at this age. This becomes frustrating for parents, as surly silences start to replace conversations. Often, parents are tempted to turn the volume up and talk at, rather than with, their kids. But that only leads to a stormy cycle of angry lectures and teary tantrums.
So, what’s the alternative? Well, it’s important to remember that your tween’s desire for autonomy is a healthy and normal part of growing up. Plenty of evidence suggests that kids who don’t establish a strong sense of self in adolescence are much more likely to end up in toxic or co-dependent relationships later on in life. Put differently, you want your tween to become more independent!
Keeping that in mind will help you avoid a common mistake, the “shut it down” approach, which is all about keeping kids out of trouble. This strategy comes from a place of love, but it also denies your tween something important – the chance to make mistakes. Yes, greater independence means your kids are going to encounter new risks and occasionally screw up. But how can they learn to make smart decisions if you don’t let them make any decisions?
The simple fact is kids need to have experiences – good and bad. There’s just no getting around that. But that doesn’t mean you have to watch helplessly from the side lines. Your job is to help your child evaluate, process, and reflect on what works and what doesn’t. That can only happen once you learn how to talk to your tween.
Create a roadmap to independence to build trust in your tween’s autonomy.
Spending an afternoon in the park or the mall without grownups is a rite of passage, and it’s a request every tween will make sooner or later. It’s also a request that can strike fear into parents’ hearts. The world is a scary place full of dangers. A thousand things could go wrong. Is your tween ready? If you’re anything less than convinced, it’s easy to turn this request down with a resounding “No.”
But there’s a better approach. Even if she’s not ready now, your tween will be ready at some point. And you need to communicate this. You need to show her how she can become ready. Otherwise, she’s likely to feel like she’s being treated unfairly – especially if her friends end up heading to the mall without her.
When actors practice improvisation, they learn to keep sketches alive by answering questions with “Yes, and” rather than a scene-killing “No.” As a parent of a tween entering a bumpy period of development, you can take a cue from this technique. Of course, that doesn’t mean you should agree to everything your child asks for – after all, saying no is a big part of what it means to be a responsible parent. But you can think of the ever-shifting dialogue with your tween as a sketch that you’re trying to keep going.
In practice, this is all about giving kids a roadmap to independence. Here’s how it works. Instead of saying, “No, you’re not ready to go to the mall alone,” and leaving it at that, you’ll explain what milestones your child can reach in order to show she’s ready to explore the world on her own.
Start by thinking about what could go wrong – maybe you’re worried she’ll forget her cell phone and get separated from her friends, or that a stranger might get aggressive with her. What would you want her to do in these situations? Chances are, asking a suitable adult for help would be top of your list. Now consider how your tween can prove she’d be able to do that.
You might decide that memorizing important phone numbers or practicing talking directly to teachers about assignments are good markers. Whatever you settle on, make it clear that these aren’t arbitrary tests to make life hard, but milestones on the road to the autonomy your tween craves.
When it comes to talking about money, context is key.
It’s time to talk money. First, the good news. Most teenagers intuitively understand the basics of financial responsibility. Take it from a 2012 National Consumer League survey. It shows that 90 percent of all American teens save some money and 40 percent save half or more of their money.
But here’s where things get trickier. Saving is important, but personal finance is about more than just saving. It’s also important that your child learn about the context behind monetary decisions.
Kids compare their families with others, and that makes money a hot-button topic. If your tween’s classmates vacation in Hawaii or have swimming pools, he’ll want to know why your family doesn’t. Chances are, he’ll also complain that it’s unfair.
So, what’s the best way of handling these kinds of conversations? First off, avoid secrecy. If you want kids to learn about money, you have to talk about it. That doesn’t mean laying all your cards on the table and divulging details you don’t want him to share with his friends. Instead of transparency, try translucency – open and honest dialogue that deals with general concepts.
A good place to start is talking about what you can’t see. Take those Hawaiian vacations and swimming pools. Other families might have all kinds of things your family doesn’t, but that doesn’t tell you much about their financial health – they might be carrying mountains of credit card debt or failing to save for college. That brings us to the concept of value. Value isn’t just about the cost of a pool or a holiday, but how that cost stacks up against a larger budget. You can introduce this idea by explaining your own spending decisions.
Say your tween wants a new video game. He points out that it’s been reduced from $30 to $20 – an amount he knows you have. You might start by saying, sure, it’s a good sale, but that isn’t a good reason to spend $20. A good reason would be if the family needed a new game and had put aside $30 for that purpose. In that case, it’d be a great deal. But you weren’t planning on buying a game, which means that you’d end up using money you need for something else, like a school field trip. In other words, in the context of your budget, this decision doesn’t make sense.
Encourage your kids to develop a healthier relationship with tech by setting ground rules.
Exploring the world isn’t just about spending time with friends in malls or parks. Tweens also find an outlet online for their new, autonomous identities. And that can be even more worrying for parents.
It’s no wonder, either. Technology moves at a blistering pace, and the media is full of reports about the dangers posed by new apps and trends. Often, you’ll end up feeling like you’re playing catch-up and never really getting to grips with the topic.
But tech doesn’t have to be scary. Remember, it’s a tool. Like scissors, it can be used safely or dangerously. What really matters isn’t the technology itself, but how your child interacts with it.
We live in an age in which the distinction between on- and offline has grown blurry. Increasingly, the online world is the “real” world, which means the same rules apply in both. This is the most important idea you’ll want to emphasize when you start talking about technology.
A good way to start this conversation is to create a set of ground rules that govern how the household interacts with, enjoys, and relates to technology. These rules can be hashed out in a family meeting. The goal is to create a framework that you can also use to deal with smaller issues that might arise later on. This might include conversations about which apps your children are allowed to download, or questions like “Why do I have to put my phone away?”
Go into your family meeting with an open mind. If kids sense that it’s only a ruse to impose rules you’ve already decided for yourself, it won’t work, so this really does need to be a genuine dialogue. Just as importantly, the rules you adopt should apply to all household members. You can get the ball rolling with some starter questions. How can tech be useful, and how can it be disruptive? How can we tell when it’s derailing us, and what can we do instead of staring at a screen?
When you’ve figured out your ground rules, encourage all family members, yourself included, to write a personal statement listing five to ten things they want people to believe about them – think of adjectives like “kind,” “funny,” or “fair.” This statement can guide online interactions. Before posting comments, your tweens can ask themselves whether their online behaviour fits with how they want others to see them.
Help your child mature by paying careful attention to how you phrase criticism.
Tweens are some of the most critiqued people on Earth. The floodgates open up in early adolescence. At home, they face a rolling commentary on everything from what they wear to their grades and choice of friends. It’s no different at school. Judgemental peers evaluate every facet of their appearance and behaviour, while teachers, coaches, and administrators bombard them with academic feedback. As a parent, it’s part of your job to provide criticism – after all, feedback is part and parcel of the learning process. But not all critiques are created equal. Some forms hinder development, while others boost growth.
Traditional feedback isn’t as helpful as you might think. In fact, pointing out someone’s flaws can be downright detrimental. Take it from a paper published by Harvard Business School in 2017, titled “Shopping for Confirmation,” which looks at how the human brain responds to criticism.
Cognitive growth, the authors point out, is driven by the creation of new neurons and synapses. Most of this growth takes place when someone feels confident and competent. If you’ve noticed that you enjoy more success when you’re working on a task you like and are good at, that’s why. When you work on something you don’t think you’re good at, in contrast, you’re much slower to pick up tips for improvement.
What does this have to do with tweens? Well, when you’re talking with children about their strengths, their brains are busily constructing new neurons and connections. Homing in on mistakes has the opposite effect. The brain processes this criticism as a threat and shuts down. Emphasizing shortcomings, in other words, freezes learning.
This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ever criticize children. But you should be careful about how you give feedback. Say your child runs up to you mid-conversation to talk about a great idea he’s just had. A valuable critique would be, “Please don’t interrupt me when I’m talking on the phone.” A detrimental one would be, “You’re someone who doesn’t let people finish their thoughts before interrupting.”
You can take this a step further by pairing your feedback with a strength. You could say something like: “You have lots of good ideas, but I’d like you to remember not to interrupt me when I’m talking with friends.” You could even encourage your child to jot down his ideas in a notebook and tell you them when you’re ready to hear them.
Impulsivity fuels cognitive growth.
Pouring an entire bottle of expensive oil into a bath without asking. Spinning a lit firework on the ground and trying to dodge it when it launches. Inviting thirty kids for an impromptu birthday party without your permission. These are just some of the things exasperated parents have caught their tweens doing. It’s enough to make you pull out your hair or pour yourself a stiff drink – or possibly both.
There are no two ways about it: tweens are impulsive. But that isn’t a random quirk of nature. It might be infuriating, but impulsivity isn’t inherently unhealthy or naughty. Let’s start with a definition. What exactly is impulsivity? One answer is that it’s simple devil-may-care recklessness. But that’s not quite right. Impulsivity isn’t a lack of decision-making – it’s a type of decision-making. Let’s break that down.
Some kinds of decision-making are made with an eye to the future and the consequences of actions. Others are squarely focused on the present. Both serve distinct purposes. In the latter case, it’s all about the growth of the prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain responsible for risk analysis, problem solving, and critical thinking. New experiences generate new data, and assimilating this data helps the brain build new connections. Now, the brain wants to grow, so it responds to new experiences by flooding the nervous system with dopamine, a neurochemical reward that encourages us to repeat actions. Put differently, impulsive decisions drive cognitive growth.
Searching for new stimuli is called sensation seeking, and it’s absolutely critical to development. The more your tween experiences, the more she’ll learn. In the short term, that leads to lots of bad calls. But in the long term, it’ll lead to a greater capacity for rational thought.
So how do you encourage sensation-seeking while protecting kids from dangerous impulsive decisions? A good bet is to distinguish between two different kinds of impulsive behaviour. First, there are immediate threats to health and life – like a game involving fireworks. Feel free to use all your parental authority and clamp down on this behaviour hard and fast.
Second, we have less-serious cases like that impromptu birthday party plan. You can afford to tread more lightly here. Imagine you are twelve again. How would your parents have reacted in the same situation? Would it have worked, or backfired? Most importantly, try to help your tween learn from the experience by discussing what she could do differently next time.
Discussing consent early makes later conversations about sex easier.
Back in the early ’90s, small arts schools around the US implemented new policies around sex and consent. The Midwestern school the author attended was one of them. Among other rules, students were instructed always to ask for verbal permission before kissing another person. At the time, this rule was seen by many as ridiculously impractical and unromantic.
Thankfully, things have changed since then. Today, consent isn’t regarded as a punchline, and it’s become a key part of sexual education. But you don’t have to wait until tweens are ready to talk about sex to introduce this concept – in fact, it’s a good idea to bring it up in non-sexual contexts, too. Talking about consent early allows tweens to get comfortable with the concept, and that sets them up for safer sexual encounters later on.
But how do you broach this topic? Remember, consent isn’t just about sexual contact – it’s simply about deciding who touches you and when. More broadly, it’s about boundaries. Every kid is different when it comes to saying no. Some will happily tell people to stop doing something they don’t like; others might need to learn that saying no isn’t rude.
Many tweens use the strategy of conflict avoidance to avoid saying no. The author has seen this countless times at the summer leadership camps she runs for middle schoolers. Often, these children will tell unnecessary lies. If other kids press them to play but they’re too tired or just want to read a book, they’ll make something up about having to attend a funeral for their aunt’s cat. If you notice your tween telling these kinds of lies, encourage her to practice giving a straightforward, simple “no” when she doesn’t want to do something. Remind her that she doesn’t need to justify herself – it’s her choice because she gets to set her own boundaries.
Personal property is another great way of teaching consent. Tweens can often fall into a “What’s yours is mine” approach at home, especially with siblings. So, call a family meeting to discuss this topic. Lay down some ground rules about respecting other people’s belongings, and about asking permission to use things that don’t belong to you. And there you have it – simple yet effective strategies to keep talking with your tween as they move toward maturity and adulthood. Strap in for the ride!
What I took from it.
If you want to communicate effectively with your tween, you need to learn a new language. That starts with moving beyond simply saying no to age-appropriate requests for more independence. You’re in charge, but you also need to give your child a roadmap to greater autonomy. Avoid a “Do as I say, not as I do” approach by hashing out ground rules for technology that apply to the whole household. As for criticism, keep it positive and explain your reasoning to boost your child’s learning process. And when it comes to sexuality, start slow and introduce the concept of consent in non-sexual contexts.
Don’t forget about your own needs. As your children develop, they’ll increasingly prioritize people and interests beyond just you. This can be a little disorienting at first, but it’s also an opportunity. Start tuning your ear inwards and listening to your own needs. That might mean rediscovering an old hobby or reconnecting with your partner or old friends. Parenting can be hard, so pay attention to the things you enjoy outside of being a parent.