How to parent your tween

Tweens

At a glance

  • Children become ‘tweens' between nine and 13 years old.
  • Hormonal changes indicate the first steps towards adolescence are occuring.
  • Parents can gradually allow more independence while providing a guiding hand.
  • Peer pressure intensifies.
  • Boundaries become important.

Find out how to manage your tween's rapidly expanding list of needs and personal demands.

If you're familiar with Sims and Wii and know their ‘bestie', then your child has probably grown into a ‘tweenager' or ‘tween'.

It's that weird and wonderful time the experts say occurs between ages nine and 13, but which experience suggests can stretch out to anywhere between ages eight and 15.

Profile of a typical tween

  • They are no longer little children but haven't quite morphed into adolescents either.
  • Friends are beginning to outdo family.
  • Life is all about sleepovers and secret meetings.
  • Dressing and undressing suddenly requires privacy.

At this time, children's bodies and brains are beginning to change and it can be shock for everyone – not least for mum and dad – particularly as the changes rarely occur in synch.

Leichhardt parent Anne Kwasner, whose son Ari is 11, says it's disconcerting tracking the physical signs of adolescence when Ari's inner world hasn't yet changed so much.

Parents need to prepare their kids when it comes to increases in responsibility. Kimberley O'Brien Developmental psychologist

"He's still very much a little boy, which means sometimes the physical changes are more adult than the mind."

So how best to parent tweens – providing guidance and security when so much adjustment is going on, on all sides?

It's all in the brain

Although the most obvious transformations are occurring on the outside, there are also physiological reasons why children tend to act in certain ways at this age.

Hormonal changes are beginning to occur, says Professor David Bennett from the NSW Centre for the Advancement of Adolescent Health, at The Children's Hospital at Westmead, and kids get "hyped up" by changes in the brain. Girls become more social and care about the opinion of their peers, and boys become impulsive and take more risks.

At the same time, the executive functions of the brain, so the areas at the front of the brain, which control impulse, decision-making and strategic thinking, are not yet fully formed.

A guiding hand

Because of the temporary imbalance – which can last well into adolescence – tweens remain vulnerable to excess risk, meaning parents need to pay particular care when it comes to safety.

Developmental psychologist Kimberley O'Brien says it's best to allow tweens to explore their increasing independence – having more sleepovers and perhaps going to the movies without adult supervision – while continuing to feel secure.

"It's usually a period of time when the parent takes a step back and the peers become even more important in the young person's life, but parents need to prepare their kids when it comes to any increases in responsibility – working towards that over time with incremental increases in independence," Kimberley says.

Parent Anne says Ari has begun walking to school by himself. She is comfortable because the route passes through the main street where he is already well-known.

"He walks up to school with friends and on his way home he might drop into the bookshop and have a milkshake or a chai. He knows people there, so he has people outside us who he hangs out with and talks to."

Minor desires

The term ‘tween' was originally coined by savvy marketers late last century as a label for a new and lucrative source of customers for everything from electronic goods to dolls, movies, clothing and music. 

This is because children at this age are paying growing attention to what their peers are reading, eating, watching, wearing and listening to. Peer pressure grows substantially at this time, says Kimberley, and parents can provide a good backstop.

"It's good for parents to tell them that it's nice to be an individual and they don't need to have the same as everybody else. ‘Be positive about what you have and not what you want'."

Tween boundaries

In particular, Kimberley says the use of technology can become an issue, and it's important to think about setting boundaries – perhaps providing a small reward for successfully limiting screen time.

When it comes to boundaries – whether it's to do with technology or independence – making decisions before it becomes an issue can help. But of course, in the real world that is not always possible, as Anne has already discovered.

"Some things just come out of the blue and you have to deal with it at the time," she says.


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