Kids at this age are getting more independent and are being exposed to ever more influences. They’re learning in bigger classes, from wider groups of people; have social problems that you might never have heard of; and they’re seeing and exploring things that could give you an aneurysm, thanks, Internet and social media (even if you haven’t given them a smartphone or a tablet, you can bet a friend at school has one).
Common problems parents report from their kids include arguing, yelling, defiance, lying and that ever-popular one: Peer pressure. So as a parent, you need to lay stronger ground rules to deal with these possibilities — without crushing your child into a lifeless zombie. How?
1. Communication — be ultra-clear
As with much younger children, tweens need short and clear directions. “Your child is navigating the world of peer influence, demands at home and at school. Give clear instructions that your tween will be able to follow through on,” says Dr Hana Ra Adams, trained family therapist and counsellor who is currently working with the German European School Singapore.
She says that as a rule of thumb, “The smaller the child, the smaller the sentence. So for a young child you wouldn't say ‘Don't hit mummy because it hurts and you don't want to hurt people.’ You would say, ‘Don't hit mummy. It hurts.’”
So when you communicate with a child aged 8 and older, she says, you can progress to two- to three-step commands such as “Take your clothes to the laundry basket. Take a shower. Then brush your teeth.” That child will be able to retain the information — and your rules can get more complex.
“But a 5-year-old, you would give them one step, let them finish and then follow with another direction.”
2. Involve your child in laying down the rules
“As your child becomes older, he or she will want to be more independent and push the boundaries. Sit down with your tween and come up with rules together. Adjust them according to age,” says Dr Adams. For instance, she reminds parents that as schoolwork increases, time spent on chores may need to be adjusted.
A good way to negotiate this is to sit down with your child before the school year starts, and discuss things. Perhaps you allowed 10 minutes a day on the computer when they were younger, but now she will need to do research on her social studies questions or he may need to look up a topic for science?
Your child can help provide lists of needs, and perhaps things they would be willing to do to get more computer time, for instance — sweeping his bedroom or a similar chore. Your child can also help you to set consequences such as refusal to do homework leading to the loss of bicycle privileges, perhaps.
Write these out and post them where the child can see them easily — children are much more likely to keep to limits that they helped to set. “By working together, it helps you to keep communication lines open and also helps you to be able to point out to your child that the consequences have been set and agreed upon mutually,” says Dr Adams.
Natural consequences can be a great help, too. Say your daughter has a dance class early on Saturday but she wants to stay up late on Friday — consider letting her try it. If she’s so tired that she cannot keep up with class on Saturday, she may remember it when she next wants to argue.
3. When talking out the consequences, be direct but positive
Consequences should be directly linked to the behaviour so that you can say “if you do this, then…” Don’t use random consequences such as sending your child to bed early because he insisted on playing instead of helping to clear the table; tell him, “If you help clear the table, I will have time to take you to the park to ride your bike.”
And where possible, think positive: Don’t warn him (“If you don’t help to clear the table, you can’t play!”), turn it to an incentive (clear table, play in the park!).
4. Taking away privileges
An oldie but goodie: Having a phone or using their tablet is a privilege, not a right, says Dr Adams. “If your tween hasn't followed through with a rule, take their privileges away. Restrict technology time or access to whatever is deemed a privilege in your home.”
You’ll need to set yourself and your child a deadline for this: Usually removing a privilege for 24 hours is enough to make him think twice about repeating the behaviour. Or give her a weekend (6pm, Sunday, for instance) to earn back her phone. And don’t take away all privileges — you don’t want your child to feel desperate.
5. “Calm down” time is even more vital
Dr Adams says: “When children are younger, time outs can be effective. A minute for every year (5 minutes for 5-year-olds, and so on — use an egg timer if the child’s grasp of time is wonky); but as children get older, it may be more difficult for you to enforce time outs. Instead try break times.
“If your tween is engaging in a verbal argument or has not followed through with a task, have them go to their room to cool down or take some time to think about their actions. When they are calmer, and — importantly — you are calmer, sit down and talk through the situation.”
6. Rewards can help especially when clearly laid out
Seriously, this could help your tween prove to you that they are capable of responsibility. Does he want a phone? Does she want to go to the movies with friends without — gasp! — parents chaperoning?
One way of teaching a child to be “responsible enough” would be to establish a set of guidelines that your child will need to follow for a specified period of time — before earning a specific privilege. So if he comes home every day and does his homework without prompting for a month, maybe he’s showing that he could be old enough to earn a PlayStation session, perhaps on Saturday afternoons, with you?
7. Your child learns from what you do
If you yell at your child, guess what? Your child learns to yell back. If you tend to swear when you’re angry — ahem. If you leave clutter everywhere, don’t expect a neatnik. If you tell fibs on the phone to your mum… Get the picture?