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How to Deal with Pre-teen/Tween Attitude

The pre-teen and teenage years can be hard on the parent and child relationship. The tween/pre-teen years are between ages 10 and 13. My eldest is now a tween and we are learning this new chapter together. I’ve taken time to do some research in regards to this new age as I want to understand my child more and be there for her accordingly.

Most tweens pick up snarky attitudes. They may come across as ungrateful, disrespectful and selfish. This leaves parents worried over their children’s welfare. The seemingly sudden change in attitude displayed by tweens can be shocking. It would do a lot of parents good not taking their child’s behaviour as an attack against them. However, that’s not to say that rude and disrespectful behaviour should be condoned. Most tween behaviour reflects their feelings and is actually not an attack on the parents.

Causes of tween attitude

  • Changes occurring in the tween brain causing increased impulsivity and heightened emotions, leading them to get overly angry or sad and out of proportion to the event (from the parent’s perspective).
  • The tweens’ need to begin separating from their parents and forming their own identities.
  • A developmental and subconscious need for children to test the limits of their power with parents and in doing so, get confirmation that parents will reliably hold their ground and keep their children safe.
  • Tweens being pre-occupied, distracted, and consumed by their ever changing bodies and social world and not thinking about their parents’ emotions, needs, or reactions.

It is important to emphasize that undesirable tween behavior should NOT be encouraged or condoned. Rather, parents need to understand that these behaviors are a part of this stage of development and as such, will be difficult for them to correct quickly or easily.

Behaviour to expect from tweens

  • Eye rolling
  • Sighs
  • Huffs and puffs
  • Back talk
  • Complaining
  • Questioning why you do things the way you do
  • Challenging your beliefs
  • Overreacting and easily becoming anxious or angry
  • Criticizing and nitpicking

Typically, this behavior will come and go. Tweens may be spewing back-talk one minute and will be genuinely kind and sweet the next. In many ways, this stage of development is much like the “terrible twos” and this type of behavior is a part of how they are developmentally wired. 

While challenging to their parents, it is actually healthy for tweens to express their feelings in this way in order to move to the next level of maturity. It’s advisable for parents not to take it personally.

Responding to tween attitude

In light of the various developmental causes of tween attitude, parents will do well to:

  • Not react immediately to the behavior.
  • Keep their wits about them, remembering that this is just a phase, and practice methods for staying calm (such as deep breathing and keeping a sense of humor).
  • Use episodes of disrespectful behavior as teachable moments. Help increase your children’s awareness of what happens when their impulses control them and how that behavior impacts others.
  • Choose carefully which issues to address in more depth at a later time. Sometimes the best response in the moment is no response. Parents don’t have to address every issue with their tween at the exact moment that it presents itself. It’s much better to go back to it later when all parties have had a chance to calm down.

Finding out if the parent is part of the problem

While tween attitude must be taken with a big grain of salt and a sound understanding of how it fits into their stage of development, it’s wise to look at each individual situation to confirm that the attitude isn’t a symptom of a bigger problem.

In assessing for this possibility, parents should also take a look at how their behavior may be contributing to the problem.

The following questions can help parents determine if their behavior is helping to turn down the tone in the household or making it worse:

  • Do you talk to your child respectfully? 
    Even if you’re angry? Since parents are role models, regulating your emotions is important and it keeps the conflict from escalating.
  • Do you react to your child’s attitude with your own attitude? 
    While this is an understandable human reaction, it only results in heightening the conflict and rarely leads to satisfactory resolution.
  • Do you engage with your tween’s sassy attitude in any way? 
    The mumblings under the breath, the pouting, sulking, and complaints about how unfair life is are powerful hooks that easily pull parents in. Giving increased attention to this behavior usually just exacerbates it.
  • Do you overreact to your tween’s attitude? 
    If so, this may indicate that there are problems outside the parent-child relationship that need to be addressed. Parents may be reacting to external stressors, internal conflicts, or bigger issues in the family that need some attention.

When parents realize they are taking their tween’s attitude too personally and getting their buttons pushed continually, it may be time for some outside help from a trusted friend or counsellor.

How to help tweens to adjust their attitude

While attitude from tweens may be normal, ignoring too much of the undesirable behavior for too long isn’t helpful to the child or the family. Parents can help train tweens to tame their responses by looking for opportunities to help them hear themselves and learn how their attitudes are impacting those around them.

For example: A parent might say something like: “I know you are frustrated and we need to talk about this. Right now your tone of voice and your facial expressions are making it very hard for me to hear your point of view.” Or more simply, “Can you try that again but without the tone?”

Keep in mind that:

  • Tweens are often unaware of their own tone of voice and do not hear the tone in the same way that parents hear it.
  • Parents are role models and will need to monitor their own tone of voice as well.

Can tween attitude be a symptom of something else?

It is suggested that parents take a closer look at their tween’s attitude if:

  • The irritability and disrespect doesn’t happen just at home, but consistently occurs with other adults and kids.
  • Your child’s attitude causes problems in school or with friendships outside the home.
  • You notice other changes in your child’s behavior, such as diminished interest in activities, loss of friends, or changes in academic performance.

If any of these things are going on, consider having a heart-to-heart talk with your child and possibly getting outside professional help to sort through the problem.

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