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5 Ways To Build a Bulletproof Connection With Your Tween

Strategies to ensure a rock-solid relationship with your growing tween - before the teen years hit.

The time for spoon-feeding and toilet training may be long gone (and that’s probably a relief). But if you’re parenting a tween between ages 8 and 12, new challenges are on their way. The most notorious of them all – the teenage years.

A strong relationship is vital to influencing our precious teens. Unfortunately, our chance to build a connection is already dwindling as they grow. According to Australian survey data. a large majority of kids aged 10 to 11 (70 to 80%) say it’s “definitely true” that they enjoy time with their parents. Sadly, this drops down to only 50% by ages 14 to 15.

Parenting coach Karina Lane agrees the tween phase is the perfect time to invest in a stronger parent-child connection.

“Tweens are still quite available to us,” she says. “They’re still invested in our relationship, whereas when we get to the teens, our children want to pull away. They want more independence, more privacy. So the tweens offers a great time to really shore up that relationship and strengthen the connection.”

Be interested, not judgemental

In these tween years it can feel like one minute you’ve still got a cuddly baby koala on your hands, and the next a fierce mini-adult. So how do the needs of our 8- to 12-year-olds compare to what they needed as littlies? Especially with the curve balls thrown by digital technology that didn’t exist in our own youth?

Karina says that one of the most important things our tweens and teens need is to feel confident that we as parents are there for them, and will listen non-judgmentally to whatever they dish out.

“As they always have done, tweens need our support, our understanding, and our empathy to meet them where they’re at. Find that balance between being interested in what they want to share, but not judgmental,” she advises.

 

Recognise my attempts to connect

When life feels chaotic, a lack of one-on-one “quality” time can weigh on our conscience (with the rest of the to-do list). Good news – that’s one thing to stop feeling guilty about.

Karina says that noticing everyday moments to connect trumps simply spending more time together.

“Children use what’s called ‘bids for connection’, which is anytime they share something about themselves,” Karina explains. “They might say, ‘I watched this funny video on TikTok the other day,’ and part of us might kind of roll our eyes.

But what they’re actually saying to you in that moment is: ‘I want to tell you something about my world.’ And that’s our moment to go, ‘Oh yeah, tell me about what happened.’”

Bids for connection can be obvious or subtle, and seem positive or negative.

For example:

  • Showing you their homework – “I’m doing Cartesian coordinates in maths.”
  • Complaining about school – “Ugh, we’ve got PE today, it’s so hot!”
  • Pointing out your favourites for you – “Look Mum, dragon fruit.”
  • Asking to bake something – “Can we make brownies again?”
  • Whining about food – “Mummm, there’s nothing I want to eat in here!”
  • Relating a story – “Tilly is getting a pool at her place!”
  • Sharing a problem – “All my friends play handball, but I don’t want to.”
  • Support getting a job done – “I’m too tired to tidy up.”
  • Inviting you to play – “Can we play 20 questions/UNO?”

You may not be able to respond positively 100% of the time – no parent can. But aim to stop and tap into your empathy as often as possible. No matter how busy you are in that moment.

 

Come into my world

As parents, we have so much wisdom to offer our tweens, right? We’ve been where they are and successfully made it to adulthood. Well, hold the hard-won advice – our tweens aren’t interested.

“A lot of parents want to keep using their own “map” of the world and their own perspective, and get their tween to see their point of view. But that’s not going to be useful for the tween. They need us to go into their world and sit with them in that world,” explains Karina.

Of course, this certainly applies to any tricky conversations that come up. But even in everyday situations, Karina encourages showing an interest in what they’re excited about. For example, entering your tween’s world by reading the series they’re reading, so you can discuss it. Or asking for a lesson on their video game.

When our big kids do share something they’re grappling with, hold back your unwanted advice with a question. “Ask, ‘Do you want me just to listen? Or do you want my advice?’” suggests Karina. “That can be a really useful catchphrase to help parents to listen more than talk. Often the answer is going to be ‘just listen.’ Because once we start talking, then it’s all about us and our child will generally check out.”

Ultimately, Karina says, we should aim to respond in a way that gets our child to tell us more.

 

Don’t try to be my best friend

If we’re working hard on seeing the world through their eyes and listening more than talking, some parents worry that their authority as parents will be lost. Karina agrees that our goal isn’t to be BFFs with our child.

“It puts a lot of pressure on the child to be our friend, and our child’s job isn’t to be our friend. Just as our job isn’t to be a friend to the child. Our child’s job is to just be the child and to look to us for direction and for taking charge. As they get older, certainly they rely on us to set those boundaries – as much as they might protest.

So it’s really important not to steer into that friendship avenue, but to find that beautiful balance, which is the Holy Grail of parenting. I can be loving, warm and kind but I can be firm when I need to, and to marry those two together.”

 

Don’t take it personally if I’m not at my best

Proactively shoring up our relationship should make for smoother sailing through uncomfortable conversations. But there will still be times when emotions are high and we can feel hurt by how our tweens react.

“I would say no matter what your child says to you, they need you,” reassures Karina. “So anytime your tween says, ‘I hate you, go away,’ that is just them expressing their anger. It’s not about you.

Even when your child’s behaviour is at its most challenging you’re going to have to be strong and get in there and keep offering that support.”

Parenting tweens can come with a new set of challenges, but connecting now can pay dividends in the teen years ahead. By tuning into your tween’s world, offering both warmth and firmness, and seizing little moments for connection, you’re setting the stage for a solid relationship as they grow.

Karina Lane is a Sydney-based parenting coach and author, who helps mums embrace no-stress, guilt-free parenting, and raise amazing, connected kids. Her book, Chilled Out Mum is available here.

By Louise Wedgwood, freelance health and sustainability writer

 

Would love to read more about top tips for handling challenging behaviour? Read our interview with Gen Muir here. 

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