When my daughter, Anna, got home from school the other day, I told her, "We've got to get you new shoes. Take a quick break, and then let's jump in the car. "
In response, my usually mellow and mild-mannered 12-year-old threw down her backpack and snapped, "Oh. My. God. I JUST got home and you're not EVEN gonna let me rest for five minutes? FINE! LET'S GO! "
"We don't have to leave this instant," I said. "Let me get you some iced tea."
"NO! I have to get in the car. COME ON!"
"Hey, calm down. You can rest a minute..."
"YOU rest! I've got to go somewhere NOW!" And she slammed out the door.
"What's wrong with her?" my 8-year-old asked.
"I think the hormones have arrived, " I said.
When your tween starts talking back, or yelling at you or rolling her eyes every time you start to open your mouth, you're bound to feel shock, then maybe anger followed closely by hurt. "In the beginning you try to chalk it up to a reason, just as you did when she was younger: Is she hungry? Overtired? " says Christina Bess, the mom of a 9- and a 12-year-old in Maplewood, NJ. "And then you realize the reason is, she's a tween."
"The first time I heard her say something under her breath, I was surprised," says Gamin Summers of her "extra-sweet" 9-year-old daughter. "She'll mutter, 'You clean your room' at me. I know it's normal, but when you put everything into raising them right and they come back at you with disrespect, it stings and it makes you second-guess your parenting skills," adds the mom of five, including two tweens, from Flagstaff, AZ.
This may be especially true if it seems that your kid has gone from happy to snappy before her time. After all, this is the kind of behavior you expect from 13- and 14-year-olds—not kids who haven't even hit the double digits. But the onset of sassiness is not your fault. With adolescence looming, kids naturally feel compelled to start going their own way. "They're not intentionally being disobedient," says Mary-Ann Lowry, a parenting coach and educator from Thousand Oaks, CA. "They're on a path toward 'individuation,' when they really try to figure out who they are separate from you."
And then, of course, there are myriad outside influences. Thanks to cell phones and texting, for example, tweens are developing closer bonds with their peer groups and, as a result, pushing away from their parents at earlier ages. Plus, many TV shows and even books aimed at this age group often portray adults as clueless fools—as any parent who's been on the receiving end of "Duh!" can attest.
It's worth noting, too, that regardless of when tween 'tude sets in, boys and girls tend to act out differently. "Girls get dramatic and overreact, while boys alternate between withdrawing and being defiant," says Lowry. When Maura Rhodes, a mom of four in Montclair, NJ, mentioned that she didn't want her kids to grow up to be rude or ugly, her 10-year-old daughter, Eliza, fixated on the wrong message. "You just called me ugly!" she cried, and ran upstairs to her room, threw herself across her bed and sobbed. "Of course, I was referring to ugly behavior, " says Rhodes. "But Eliza homed in on the 'u' word and decided I was referring to her appearance—because, after all, she's a tween girl, and what else do tween girls care about?"
By contrast, Dawn Blanchfield's 12-year-old son, Kyle, is now bigger than she is and has taken to playing the tough guy. "He'll do that 'Yo, dawg, what up?' posturing. It can actually be intimidating to the entire family, but I don't think he realizes that," says the mom of two from Sacramento, CA.
The Blunder Years?
Life with a tween, boy or girl, can be baffling, challenging and a little scary sometimes—but it's also rewarding. "It's been fun to watch Eliza's interests and talents emerge as she comes into her own," says Rhodes. "It's also extra gratifying when she wants to cuddle or chat."
Some tips to help you both make it safely to the other side:
Maintain Your Parental Status
This is not the time to try to be your child's friend. Despite appearances to the contrary, "he's looking to you to help him get through this confusing stage," says Linda Sonna, Ph.D., author of The Everything Tween Book. "Ultimately, he'll take his cues for how to behave from the way that you deal with a given situation."
Draw Clear Lines in the Sand
You'll need to come up with some new rules as your tween exercises his growing independence. Start by figuring out what's most important to you, like right and wrong, honesty and grades, and let go of stuff that doesn't matter in the long run-keeping his room neat or wearing clean socks.
Then "make sure your kid knows where the nuclear switch is," says Jhoanna Wade, a mom of three, including a now 13-year-old, in New York City. "I'll ignore eye-rolling or heavy sighs, but my daughter knows that it's crossing the line to raise her voice or walk off in the middle of a conversation."
Same goes in the Blanchfield household: If Kyle keeps acting up after his mom tells him that his behavior is not okay, she'll often ask his stepdad to reinforce the message that he needs to listen to his mother and act in a more appropriate manner around his baby sister. Communicate as clearly and as calmly as you can as soon as any un-acceptable behavior begins. Try not to wait until it's out of control and your kid is screaming that he hates you.
Choose a Tween-Appropriate Punishment for Infractions
When your child was a toddler or preschooler—or maybe even as recently as a year ago—you could pretty much get her to do what you wanted with positive reinforcement (praising her for being good, showering her with stickers) and the occasional time-out. With a tween, however, most parents find they have to bring out the big guns; very few older kids are likely to change their behavior based on, say, the promise of an ice cream cone if they can go a week without stomping around the house.
"I find that taking away a favorite activity, like their Xbox or cell phone, is the best punishment when my kids talk back or mumble something rude under their breath," says San Diego mom Dana Hess, who has a 10- and a 14-year-old. Whatever you do decide, she warns, follow through. "Once you don't do what you say, they'll take total advantage, and you'll lose your upper hand again."
Linda McGivern, a mom of three in Rollinsford, NH, often has to play the heavy with her son, 12-year-old Elias. Recently, they were at a restaurant with family, talking about who was going with him to a movie later, a group of pals or a girlfriend.
"We're going together," Elias said.
"Everyone or just you and Rebecca?" his mom asked.
"Who's going to the movie?"
"Why don't you talk so I can understand you? No habla ingles? " Elias snarled. With that, McGivern sent him to sit out the rest of lunch in the car.
"Elias knows that he needs to speak to me respectfully or else he's going to suffer the consequences," says McGivern. "It's exhausting, but if I don't insist on this now, I'll be doing him a disservice. Can you imagine him talking to his wife that way?"
It's essential that you remind your child that you're a person, too. "I've told my daughter that it hurts when she screams at me or says she hates me," says Susan North-Tanaka, a mom of three in Long Beach, CA. "I tell her, 'I don't hate you, but it really hurts me to hear you say that to me.'?"
At the same time, remember that respect is a two-way street-especially when you start to get caught up in an emotionally charged argument. "I do sometimes apologize, " says Wade. "If I start to speak to my daughter before she finishes her sentence, for example, I'll say I'm sorry. I realize she's looking to be treated with respect, too, and I have to hold my own feet to the fire."
Let Her Stew
When a "discussion" between you and your tween leads to screaming or hysterics (on the part of your kid, of course!), step back and wait for things to calm down. Encouraging your child to take a break from a situation is a good way to defuse high emotions all around.
I'll stay calm and say, 'It seems like I can't talk to you right now, so go collect yourself and let's talk later,' " says Wade. "Sometimes she'll be crying so hard, she'll say, 'I can't calm down!' but a few minutes alone in her room always works. She's always in a better frame of mind when she comes out."
Set Aside Some Face Time
Take your tween out for breakfast or invite him along to walk the dog, just the two of you. Don't push an agenda, but do let your child lead the conversation, even if he just wants to chatter on about that DS game he's jonesing for. You never know where the conversation might lead—and even if it goes nowhere, you'll get points for listening.
Along the same vein, be ready to talk when your tween needs to. Sometimes Anna will wander in while I'm working on the computer to lament some schism with a friend at school, say. I'll make a pointed effort to stop what I'm doing and pay complete attention to what she's telling me. Even 20 minutes of focused conversation, I've found, does a lot of good, showing her that I do care about what she's going through and that I take it seriously. If I'm right in the middle of something, I'll make an "appointment" to meet with her downstairs in half an hour. I'll put on the kettle (in our household, a cup of tea represents calm and comfort), and we'll talk about whatever's on her mind then.
Ultimately, experts point out, your tween will continue to come to you if he knows you're likely to listen to him without jumping in to judge unimportant details.
Fan the Home Fires
As much as your child wants (and needs) to begin separating from Mom and Dad, he's still a kid and wants (and needs) to have a safety net. So provide one, as Hess did. When she felt extracurricular activities were pulling her kids too far out of the family fold, she designated Tuesdays as "Family Night, " meaning no friends, no activities, no computers, no texting and no video games. "The entire family hangs out and cooks together and plays games, with no outside influence," she says. "It reminds them that they're part of a family where they're okay just as themselves. They don't have to be anything else."