We often joke about how the worst moment in a parent’s life is when their young toddler learns the word “no”. Suddenly, an entire world of deviance has been opened up and a parent’s interaction with their child is never the same. To say that the difficulties around parenting a child peaks at the toddler age when this discovery happens doesn’t match reality, does it? While often frustrating, and even a little annoying, most parenting experts understand that it is during the tween and teen years that a child’s defiance of a parent’s wishes often leads to the most conflict, frustration, and even heartbreak for many parents. At this age, a simple “no” in response to a request to clean a room or finish their broccoli at dinner gives way to push-back about more concerning and important issues.
The topics of tween-parent tension are often centered on friends, school, dating, and family time. The ages from around 10 through 13 are often when parents sense a shift in how their children respond to parenting across a variety of topics and disagreements start to increase. Disagreements and conflicts often become more heated, more personal, and more stressful for parents during this time. From parents’ point of view, there is often a concern that tweens will make decisions that will put them on a negative trajectory in life, a trajectory that will find them lost and struggling. All parents worry about their tweens and teens taking this “wayward” path. Luckily experts understand some specific steps parents can take to reduce the likelihood that tweens and teens will set off on their own path in opposition to their parent’s wishes.
Understanding Identity Development
The key to understanding why many tweens and parents end up butting heads on a variety of topics is to understand a process called identity development. As adults, each of us has developed a sense of who we are and what kind of person we desire to be. This identity is how you describe yourself and the roles you take on. To get a better sense of this concept, think about labels like this: male, engineer, sister, religious, adventurous, etc. Each of these labels speaks to how you might identify yourself and each one says something about how you present yourself, how you think, and how you act. You developed this sense of identity over the course of your life. However, the period of our life when we most strongly develop our sense of identity is during our tween and teen years. This is the period in life when we start to desire a sense of being an independent person, different than our parents or siblings.
This concept is critical to understand as a parent of tweens because as tweens begin to have a sense of independence and a desire to create their own independent identity, they often wish to differentiate themselves from their parents in a variety of ways. They want to think, act, and react in their own unique ways. This desire for independence is natural and normal, but often challenging to navigate as parents still desire to both supervise and regulate their children’s behavior during this time while also teaching them the values and beliefs they believe are most important.
Tweens and teens are notoriously rebellious, but this rebellion has a psychological and developmental purpose and root. These teens are beginning to get a sense that they are unique and they want to foster that uniqueness. It’s important to understand this is a normal process. It’s also a process that parents can help their tween explore while still maintaining strong shared values.
Focusing on the Big Picture
There are many things parents can do to help reduce the likelihood that as tweens seek independence and establish their own identity this will lead to increased conflict. Experts have noted that while all children will seek to become their own individual person separate from their family, the nature of this independence is often at the heart of conflict. If tweens are seeking to establish an identity that is at odds with fundamental family values, the likelihood of conflict increases. So, what can parents do to reduce the chance of major conflict? Here are three things experts have noted.
- Focus on the things that matter most. Some of the largest conflicts that occur between parents and tweens happen when tweens push back on values, behaviors, or beliefs that are held dearly by parents. Whether they be religious values, the importance of school or the types of friends our kids associate with, these topics that parents feel strongly about have the highest potential for conflict. If something really matters to you as a parent, make sure this is a focal point of your discussions with your child and make sure you have frequent conversations about it. This may mean you need to let other things go and allow your child to create space for themselves in other areas. Figure out what matters the most to you and focus on aligning your family across those things. Starting these conversations even younger, before the tween years, is also a great way to reinforce the importance of these topics.
- Create a structured space for individuality. Every tween needs the ability to create a unique sense of identity. This is important to their overall development as an adult. One way to help create some boundaries around identity development is to create structured spaces where your children can be their own person. Perhaps you have a family independence night where everyone can do their own thing alone once a week. Or maybe you have a regular family movie night, but each family member can pick the movie on a rotating basis. Find ways in your day-to-day or week-to-week family life to allow your children to think and act on their own.
- Look for opportunities to celebrate differences. Just like identifying the big topics you want to align with your child on is important in terms of helping you prioritize your parenting around shared values, it is just as important to identify those issues and behaviors that don’t matter to you as a parent when it comes to your child seeking to be their own individual. When your child thinks or acts differently than you on something that you don’t care about, celebrate it! Make it clear to your child that it’s okay to be different and you appreciate their different point of view. Whether that’s them enjoying a television show you hate or hating a dessert you think is divine, find ways to send a clear message to your child that while there may be certain things that you want to see eye-to-eye on, there are many things and many topics where differences can be celebrated.
Simple Steps to Improving Topics of Difficulty
Despite our best efforts, sometimes we come across situations where parents and tweens disagree on fundamentally important values or behaviors in the family. These topics then run the risk of being points of contention and conflict and can undermine the overall health of the parent-child relationship. So, what can be done in these situations? What can you do to help reduce conflict in these areas and still have a core set of shared values with your children? Here are a few thoughts, again taken from some of the best research in this area.
- Seek to understand. First and foremost, make sure you are trying to understand your child’s perspective. While you may disagree, they fundamentally want to be understood. Ask questions and ask for examples. Try to understand where they are coming from.
- Find common ground, even if it’s small. Even when you disagree on the big things, see if there are small islands of safe haven where you can both stand on solid ground. See if there are smaller elements of bigger issues that you may be able to agree on. These areas of common ground will show both of you that the gaps between your views may not be as large as you thought while also giving you a few areas on which you may build toward greater unity.
- Focus on positive communication. No matter how large or small the conflict, parents should also focus on having healthy and loving communication with their tweens. This doesn’t mean giving in or changing your view, but it does mean being a good listener, providing many expressions of love, and not resorting to negative communication tricks like threats or criticism.
While every tween and parent must navigate the tricky issue of identity development and the growing independence of children who are moving toward adulthood, many parents have been able to navigate this tricky area in a way that not only avoids major conflict, but increases feelings of love, connection, and trust between parents and children. With focused energy, even topics of contention in your relationship with your child can result in a stronger and more satisfying relationship down the road.