My friends and I often discuss how parenting circles have warned us about how difficult it is to raise teenagers. However, nobody prepared us for the pre-game stage: raising tweens
As a mom of one teen, two tweens, and a first grader, I can attest that there is no easy parenting stage. Each age group of kids brings their own set of challenges. Arguably, we are the least prepared for raising tweens, who, according to The Cleveland Clinic, are also known as pre-adolescents between the ages of eight and twelve. They note these years are a “distinct developmental period not only physically, but also psychologically.” Tween behaviors often shock parents and caregivers because they’ve been told that the toddler and teen years should be the most behaviorally challenging.
Dr. Candice Jones, a board-certified pediatrician practicing in Florida, mom of two, author of High Five Discipline: Positive Parenting for Happy, Healthy, Well-Behaved Kids, and host of the podcast KIDing Around with Dr. Candice, is here to help us understand our tweens and their behaviors. Which acts are typical, and which should raise concern?
Changes in eating habits.
We all know our kids go through growth spurts, times when it seems they cannot possibly inhale enough food. Other times, they seem to live on light snacks. Though a tween’s eating habits are expected to ebb and flow, any drastic and long-standing changes should cause parents to pause. A child who seems to be counting calories, who refuses to eat dinner with the family, or who seems to be sneaking food and binging isn’t healthy. According to Dr. Jones, obsessing over food, avoiding food, or consuming far more or less than usual can be signs of depression, an eating disorder, or another physical health problem.
Drastic interest changes.
Your child couldn’t get enough baseball but suddenly wants to quit their team, pack up all their baseball memorabilia, and stop wearing their baseball graphic tees. What gives?
While it is normal for a child to change interests throughout their tween years, and they may desire to switch “hobbies, activities, or friends,” when a child has no interest at all, caregivers should be concerned. There could be an underlying issue, and you need to do some digging. Dr. Jones says perhaps your child has joined “the wrong crowd” and wants to drop their interest due to “peer pressure to feel cool, popular, or respected.” This could also be a sign that the child is depressed, or there’s a “why” behind them quitting their beloved activity, such as bullying. Parents need to approach their tween with curiosity, and if there is an issue, rope in a professional.
Obsessing over someone.
“First crushes often happen during the tween period,” Dr. Jones says. However, if your tween is “excessively talking about, following, and communicating with just one person,” parents should see this as an opportunity to discuss what healthy relationships are and aren’t, while also trying to model healthy relationships and boundaries. This is also a good time to talk about self-worth and explain that talking to strangers or communicating with older kids (or adults) online in a flirtatious and secretive way is never okay. Keep close tabs on your child’s phone (if they have one), which can be a gateway to these conversations.
Complaints of pain.
The occasional headache, sinus pressure, or fever is normal for anyone. However, Dr. Jones shares that a child who complains of physical pains, like a constant stomach ache, could suffer from a mental health disorder. The problem could be physical, such as food intolerance, but stomach pain can also be a symptom of “anxiety or bullying.” According to Dr. Jones, you should take physical pain concerns to the pediatrician for evaluation and guidance.
Acting secretive or sneaking their cell phone.
Dr. Jones says that if a tween is doing this, caregivers should ask themselves if the child is responsible enough for a phone. If you decide they are, establish and enforce age and ability-appropriate rules surrounding cell phone usage, including times the phone can be used and which apps and games are allowed. If rules are being violated, Dr. Jones points out that while the child could be “seeking privacy and independence,” this could also be a red flag for hiding content. The key is communication with your child and enforcing consequences, such as losing access to the phone for a period when rules are violated.
Sudden and drastic sleep changes.
Yes, tweens and teens will have changes in their sleep patterns, especially during puberty when their bodies and brains are changing and growing. Dr. Jones notes that some of her patient’s cause of sleep changes is due to less adult supervision—parents might lighten up and allow the use of devices close to bedtime or allow the child to have screens in their bedrooms. “This is a recipe for deferring much-needed sleep,” she says.
And while a sleep-deprived kid may be “disinterested or even irritable” day to day, this isn’t the only reason a tween’s sleep may change. Dr. Jones says “physical and mental health problems,” and “recent trauma” can cause sleep disruption or deferral. She says parents need to “always investigate,” and then seek professional guidance, such as their child’s pediatrician.
Fact: everyone lies at some point. However, Dr. Jones says tweens are becoming better at lying. Trying out a lie here or there isn’t a red flag, but “excessive lying is problematic because it can damage relationships, trust, and reputation.” Dr. Jones suggests that if parents notice their tween is lying more than ever, they need to “investigate their reasons and meet their needs.” They also may need to look inward because Dr. Jones notes that kids whose parents use forms of physical discipline are setting their children to tell untruths to avoid being harshly punished. She suggests a positive parenting approach where parents hold misbehavior accountable but also “reduce the need for lying as a survival tactic.”
Sudden grade changes.
If your student has a B average in school and starts failing multiple classes, there could be a few causes. Dr. Jones says one possibility is an undiagnosed learning disability “that unmasks as schoolwork becomes more challenging or the load is heavier.” Additionally, tweens face more social pressures during their middle school years, which can distract them from focusing on academics. Another possibility is a traumatic life event like the death of a loved one. The key, Dr. Jones says, is to communicate with your child and seek extra help if needed.
Tweens inching toward their teen years will inevitably face “mood changes, testing of limits, and struggles for independence.” Dr. Jones assures us that these are typical. However, it’s how we help our children deal with the myriad of pressures and changes that can make or break the tween. Caregivers need to help their tween manage behaviors “in a peaceful and guiding way.” If parents notice that the tween’s mood shifts are drastic to the point of causing harm to themselves or others, or if “they impact functioning in daily life,” the caregiver needs to take the child to the pediatrician. If the tween has shifted into a new way of existing, such as never wanting to leave their bedroom, not even for basics like food, this is a red flag.
It’s helpful for caregivers of tweens to do research on parenting during the tween years, as well as typical tween development and behaviors. When a tween behaves in a way that’s out of the ordinary for their age group, Dr. Jones wants parents to pay attention and get help, if needed. These smaller behaviors can be “the first signals something is going wrong,” and we should take the “earliest opportunity to help them.”