Sage Advice From a Former Tween
by an Anonymous Former Tween
If I could give parents one piece of advice about raising tweens, it would be...put yourself in their shoes.
One of the biggest things that I keep hidden away in my storage box of ‘embarrassing tween things never to be thought of again’ is the memory of my incredible lack of social skills from grades 6 through 8. Now that I’m a recently graduated teen, I can look back on those times with a sense of politely detached amusement and sympathy for the socially inept middle-schooler that I used to be. Until I remember a particularly embarrassing moment and slam the lid shut on that figurative box.
I imagine it’s hard for parents to understand why their formerly confident and happy-go-lucky child suddenly becomes anxious about simple social interactions and settings such as school. Thanks to the distorting lens of the years, it's easy for adults to forget childhood struggles.
But I still remember the drastic change that I went through over the course of fifth grade going into sixth. In elementary school, I was a popular and rambunctious kid that loved talking with friends and never felt shy about making new ones. However, when I got to 6th grade my confidence flickered. I no longer knew what to say to people I didn’t know, and since there were a lot more students in the new school compared to the tightly-knit bubble I'd been in before, I found my close group of friends quite diluted.
Instead of playing games on the black-top with my pals at lunch, I would stay inside the cafeteria and read a book. I hardly talked to anybody, save for answering questions in class. Eventually I stopped raising my hand.
I developed an acute fear of saying the wrong thing. I was afraid of being stared at and ridiculed. I felt out of place.
As dramatic as it sounds, I believe that this is the experience of most middle-schoolers and tweens as they find themselves in a whirlwind of new social norms and expectations. When depicted in movies, the typical tween finds themselves lost in the new, often unspoken rules that one (extremely confident) queen-bee creates and enforces over her little kingdom. But to me, this version is only partially accurate.
It’s true that during my tween-age years I was gripped with an ominous sense of dread of saying or doing the wrong thing around my peers – and at the time, I thought that I was the only person who wasn’t in on the secret rules and courtly customs. However, looking back on it, I am certain that all of my peers felt the same way. The upper-elementary and middle school years are times of change:
***nobody feels comfortable in their own skin and everybody thinks that this is glaringly obvious to anyone around them***
This shared anxiety contributes to social issues as kids pivot to blend in, making drastic changes to attitudes, styles and extracurricular activities. Tweens imagine even the slightest social misstep as life ruining and embarrassing. I know that I certainly did. But when I look back, I realize that most of the other kids wouldn’t have even noticed my blunders, let alone laugh at me for them for the rest of eternity (which was a real fear at the time).
If I could give parents one piece of advice about raising tweens, it would be...Put yourself in their shoes. Never, ever say: "stop worrying because none of it will matter in the long run!"
This kind of comment trivializes your tween’s anxiety and puts distance between you. During this crucial and impressionable time, that’s the last thing you want to do. Remember that your rationale and mindset is vastly different from theirs.
You aren’t simultaneously going through the physical, emotional and hormonal changes that your child is experiencing.
It is much easier for you, to see the social climate for what it really is.
Instead, connect with your tween by talking out their problems with them. Ask them specifically about a certain issue that you've noticed, or if they are reluctant to tell you what that issue is, start with asking about their day. Don’t take a simple ‘good’ for an answer either! By gently probing them for more information, you achieve a dual purpose. First, you will better understand your tween and second (importantly) you will be showing them that you support them, no matter what they’re going through.
Even one pillar of support from a parent during this wildly tumultuous time will make a world of difference.
Another suggestion is to try and make your home environment as comfortable and welcoming as possible. Make sure that your kid can be him or herself when they walk in the door, and that they know that you love and support them. If there’s one place that they should feel relaxed in, it should be with you or in an environment where neither of you feels rushed or self conscious - and this doesn’t necessarily have to be in your physical house.
Personally, I remember that a lot of uncomfortable (but important!) conversations took place in the car while my parents would be driving me to violin lessons. Since we were both there for awhile and usually alone, I would be more willing to tell them the truth instead of the convenient, scripted answer that I would mumble if I felt like I didn’t have enough time to lay out all of my numerous grievances.
Along with this, let your tween know that they can come to you with any of their problems without penalty. This might seem a bit scary, but isn’t it better to be confident that your child will come to you with a tough issue rather than not at all? If you start building a strong bond with your tween sooner rather than later, they will be more likely to engage with you for advice instead of with their peers or untrustworthy online sources. They might think that their friends will know better than you do, but if you make the effort to learn more about their daily struggles and insecurities, this won’t necessarily be the case. Being a tween is hard: use your compassion and love as a parent to make it a little easier.