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Connecting with your tween: Tips from a pediatrician and mom

How to survive the eye rolls and door slams? Watch, listen and try to understand.

For the past 20 years, first as a middle-school teacher and now as a pediatrician, I’ve witnessed the intense and confusing shuffle toward adolescence in all its variations.

Walking in and seeing a 15-year-old boy slumped on the edge of the exam table, disappointed that there hadn’t been upward acceleration since our last visit with the same concern: “discuss height.”

Listening to a 13-year-old girl confide in me that despite answering to the contrary with her parent in the room; she had in fact already gotten her period, but just didn’t want her mom to know about it yet.

Talking to a patient about how we can stop his periods, a painful trigger for his gender dysphoria. He was as desperate to start on testosterone therapy as his mom was desperate to “not do anything we’ll regret.”

The physical changes tweens and teens experience are symbolic of the shifting emotional landscape that goes far deeper than acne and sprouting body hair. Parents and kids are seeking their bearings; it is often intense, and always dynamic

With my older daughter, Anya, on the precipice of tweenhood, it’s becoming apparent that, as with all previous stages I have experienced from the parenting seat, the “answers” will be more muddy than clear. Damn. Still, with as much humility as I have knowledge, I will attempt to give some advice. Because this is what I know: Our kids need our guidance now more than ever.

Here are a few ideas on how to survive the door slams and eye rolls and show up for our tweens and teens:

Seek first to understand. I recently asked a 13-year-old patient in foster care, “If you had a magic wand, what would you most want to change about your life?” — “My hair,” he answered. I chuckled until I saw his stricken face. The most critical step for aligning with our kids is to understand their perspective. We don’t have to agree, but listening to their dreams and struggles without judgment can create genuine intimacy. Rarely do our children need a quick fix when swimming through the social calculations of worthiness. Instead of prescriptive advice, try, “tell me more,” or “what was that like for you?” and if you’re lucky enough to be trusted with their deepest insecurities and fears, “I hear you.”

Spend time together. If your relationship is primarily based on your child asking for a ride or money and you telling them what to do, it’s not going to feel good to either of you. Figure out how you like to spend time together and make it happen regularly. It doesn’t need to be an expensive date, but maybe a TV show you binge-watch together.

Provide solid information. I talk a lot in clinic about critical thinking and “checking your sources.” This is crucial when it comes to puberty and body concerns. Unfortunately, the innate goals of adolescence may prevent them from seeing you as a credible source. Facilitate time for your child with someone they look up to and trust, like an older cousin. Check out library books and casually leave them around. Many kids have more trouble with face-to-face conversations, so the car or bedtime is an ideal place to have visits.

Know your child. Focus on your child’s passions rather than their achievements. Watching a tween can be a bit like watching a summer storm — they move fast. When a parent cites grades or athletic achievements as the greatest source of pride in their child, I often see deflation in my patient’s body language. In contrast, when a parent tells me, “They are an artist, they are working to find their voice, they have a good heart,” the child beams. We all want to be seen for who we are and feel a sense of belonging. As parents, can we get curious about how this person before us is evolving and have less ego invested in the outcome? Easier said than done, I know, but it’s critical.

Take care of yourself. In order to be able to keep your sense of humor and take your child’s individuation less personally, you’re going to need some serious gas in your tank. Devote the time that you once spent on bedtime and changing diapers to give back to yourself. Exercise, restart therapy, visit the doctor, reconnect with a friend, or any other activity that feeds your soul.

Watch your media diet. I tell my patients that I care just as much about what they put into their gut through their mouth, as I care about what they put in their minds and hearts through their senses. This is the first generation being raised with social media and smartphones. Asking tweens to limit their own media use is like asking a gambling addict to play just one round — their neurodevelopment is not there. Help your child edit when and what they watch, and digest the input. If they’re on social media, introduce them to body-positive accounts. Let them earn more screen time by watching shows together and dissecting the messages as a family. Be brave enough to pull the plug for a media cleanse when needed. They won’t like it, but your kids need you to be the parent.

Focus on healthy habits. I see patients for eating disorders and obesity and everywhere in between. Whether a child needs to gain weight or take it off, I often say the same thing: it’s not about the food. This is not to say that what you eat doesn’t matter. Eating “real food” or “food that our ancestors would recognize as food” is the best medicine and impacts everything from mood to bones. However, when it comes to disordered eating, food is only the vehicle for struggles of control and love. Dive into the emotional issues beyond the food. Put the focus on practicing healthy habits rather than hitting a number on the scale. The same standards for healthy lifestyle should be in place for a heavier kid as for their beanpole sibling. Ask kids how they feel from the inside. Speak positively about your own body. Your kids are listening.

Start these conversations early. Parents often ask when is the right time to have “the talk” about sex and puberty. Instead of “the talk,” envision a series of conversations that will take place over years. The best way to raise a teenager with a healthy sense of self is to foster knowledge of their bodies and preferences from toddlerhood. And don’t worry that you need to get it right the first go-round — looping back later or making a necessary repair is a powerful way to model authentic living.

The best part of my job is watching families evolve. The single dad who brings his daughter to ensure she knows how to use a tampon and the family who proudly tells me that they stopped buying Capri Suns after our last visit inspire me. It may be uncomfortable, but the reward for parenting from a place of connection is high.

If it’s any consolation, as Anya hits double digits, I will be right there scratching my head alongside you.


More on "tweens" and middle school:

Middle-school advice for kids with, or without, phones

Advice from a former middle-school misfit: Keep trying things