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How to manage pre-teen behavior without totally losing your mind

Gone are the days of your sweet little child… enter the dreaded pre-teen. If you are dealing with pre-teen behavior like eye-rolling, lying, door slamming, and silent treatment, you might feel like throwing the same behaviors right back to your tween at this point. The beginning of your child separating from you is a natural stage of development, but when it manifests in rude behavior, it can be emotional and jarring. It’s also worrisome since you know this behavior could be a warning of the years (maybe a decade) of what’s to come.

Thankfully, there are several strategies that can help you keep your cool around pre-teen behavior. Tweens may be prone to having an attitude, but there are reasons for that, as well as ways to help.

annoying tween and dad
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Don’t take it personally

When your child lashes out at you, it hurts. Chances are, it’s not really about you, though. This is an age when kids naturally start to withdraw from their parents. “All too often parents personalize some of the distance that occurs and misinterpret it as a willful refusal or maybe oppositional behavior,” says psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair. However, this distance is totally age-appropriate.

Set boundaries

Going into this stage of life, you’ll need some ground rules. “Many families find it helpful to involve their tweens in the process of making family rules and behavior guidelines,” says family therapist Charity Eames. “Sit down as a family and talk about how you want to treat each other and what kind of behavior is acceptable. Discuss your expectations for each other and what the consequences should be for not meeting these expectations. You can even create a behavior contract that outlines your family’s rules and have everyone sign it. When tweens are involved in the process of setting up behavior guidelines they feel like their concerns and input are being heard. This makes them more likely to follow the rules and limit bad tween attitudes.”

Give quality time

While your child might want to talk to you less, that doesn’t mean you should withdraw from them, too. You still need to let your tween know you are there for them to listen, and that you are interested and involved.

Don’t push too much

“This is a time when children really start to have secrets from us,” Dr. Steiner-Adair says. “Parents who have a low tolerance for that transition — they want to know everything — can alienate their children by being too inquisitive.”

grumpy tween
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Be the parent

Remember that you are not your child’s friend, and you need to stay mature when he is acting absolutely immature. Take a deep breath and rise above, even when you’re on your last nerve. You’re modeling behavior, and it’s more important than ever right now.

Try to stay non-judgmental

“At this age, your children are watching you very astutely to hear how judgmental you are,” says Dr. Steiner-Adair. “They are taking their cues on how you talk about other people’s children, especially children that get into trouble [and] they are watching and deciding whether you are harsh or critical or judgmental.” Make sure you are showing your child that they can come to you if they’re ever in trouble and that you will accept them for who they are.

Choose an appropriate discipline and follow through with it

Eames suggests making sure tweens know what the consequences will be if they break a family rule and that the rule is tween-appropriate. “Unlike younger children, many tweens care less about small rewards or punishments. When tweens behave badly, most parents find it effective to remove a favorite activity like cell phone privileges or going to a friend’s house,” she advises. Also, stay realistic and don’t threaten a punishment without doing it. Stay consistent, just like you had to do in toddlerhood.

Pre-teen behavior help: What to do

The pre-teen years are another transition phase of parenting during which it can help to sit down and check if what you’ve been doing needs some updating. You used to pick up after your child when they were little because they couldn’t do it yet, but one day, you realized they are capable and needed to start doing it themself. You’re at a similar transition now. If your tween is starting to act out, now is the time to take stock in how things are working. Is it time for some new rules and boundaries? Some backing off or some more quality time? Have an open conversation with your tween and ask them if anything is going on with which you can help. Your child might be acting out because they need support over bullying or another serious issue. Try the advice above along with honest communication and remember that this is a temporary phase of natural development.

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Sarah Prager
Sarah is a writer and mom who lives in Massachusetts. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, National…
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