The tightrope of tween parenting (and how to tread more confidently)

By Tanith Carey,
updated on Jun 2, 2024

The tightrope of tween parenting (and how to tread more confidently)

Explore five challenging situations that arise while raising tweens, along with insight on how to navigate them effectively

No longer a child, but not yet a teenager, parenting a tween is a delicate tightrope walk. We now know that this isn’t just an ‘in-between’ stage in child development; it’s a phase when kids’ brains are being fine-tuned fast.

Synaptogenesis – the growth of connections in the brain, and pruning of unused brain cells – means that a tween’s brain is becoming more specialised and efficient at various skills that they practise. They are finding out what they are good at, forming their sense of identity, and thinking in more complex ways.

But, as a parent, at times these exciting shifts can feel like challenges. While they are finding out their strengths, they are being introduced to a wider world, and can fall victim to the comparison trap, experience complicated friendships and fallouts, alongside a desire to enter the digital world.

All these shifts may make you question your skills as a parent, or how you can help them through this ever-changing landscape of learning. But here I’m sharing ways parents can tread a more confident path through these challenging years.

The challenge:

Comparing themselves negatively to others

When your child was learning new skills in early childhood, whether it was how to skip, climb, colour in, or the alphabet, they probably thought they were brilliant at everything. Now, with tweens experiencing life outside their families, they are becoming more aware of what other children can do. They are also observing how certain abilities, like being ‘good at’ sport or maths will win respect from peers. If they notice that other children find things easier than they do, you may hear the first negative self-talk from your tween, with comments like ‘I’m useless’ or ‘They’re better than me.’

How to support your tween

While your first instinct is probably to say: “Don’t be silly, you’re good at lots of things,” take a moment to acknowledge, rather than dismiss your child’s feelings. You could say: “I’m sorry you’re feeling so frustrated. What makes you say that?” Or “Everyone finds things difficult at times. That doesn’t make you a loser. It means you’re still learning.”

Beyond this, if you often hear these kinds of comments, it’s a sign that your tween is developing a critical inner voice. Suggest they start to notice when they hear this ‘mean’ critic, and give them permission to question it. To help them feel more positive, encourage them to develop a growth mindset by letting them know that all their learning is ongoing. Also, notice the effort they put into things like schoolwork, which they can control, rather than the grades they get, and ensure you acknowledge that.

Tweens can also take a hit in confidence because school systems tend to celebrate a narrow range of achievement in a limited number of academic subjects, like maths and English. To maintain their self-belief, let your tween know psychologists, such as Howard Gardner who devised this theory, believe there are at least nine different types of intelligence – such as musical-rhythmic, visual-spatial, verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, bodily-kinaesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, existential, and naturalistic. Explain that we all have a unique cocktail of these, and while they still are on the way to finding out what their strengths are, only a few of these are recognised at school.


The challenge:

First friendship fall-outs

As tweens branch out from the security of the family, they seek a tribe of peers to belong to – and these relationships help them define who they are becoming. But as these friendships get closer and more meaningful, they can also become more complicated.

In the modern world, parents tend to panic most about bullying – which is repeated, one-way aggression against another child who can’t defend themself. However, most conflict at this age is relational aggression between peers in the same social groups, which is more subtle and harder to spot. This can include alliance-building against a target in the group, name-calling, labelling, back-turning, silent treatment, and leaving others out.

How to support your tween

One way to buffer tweens is to explain some of the basic social science of human relationships. Whenever humans create groups, hierarchies form; it’s inevitable people will have differences, whatever their age. Allegiances will develop and be broken, and all of this is ‘normal social conflict’ – so learning to navigate this is part of being human. Help your child understand these are power plays that occur in every group, not to take them personally, and how to move on to other friendship groups, if necessary.

Help them make or keep up out-of-school friendships, too – in the neighbourhood or through extracurricular activities. This will remind them they are likeable, even when excluded in their school friendship groups.

The challenge

Wanting to go on social media

By now, your child probably knows other kids their age who have been allowed to sign up to social networks, even though the official age limit is 13. If your tween asks to do the same, you’re likely to feel torn, because you’re worried they will miss out on building connections with their friends. But, your tween doesn’t yet have the perspective to understand the impact of entering the online world. At this age, kids tend to engage in black-and-white thinking, and will insist they are aware of the risks and know how to handle them. In reality, without the life experience to understand how the wider world works, they dramatically overestimate their ability to deal with it.

How to support your tween

It is easy to be pressured into saying ‘yes’ too quickly to social media. But you are likely to find it easier to stick to boundaries by viewing social media as a health issue for your child, given what the research is now showing about its potential impact on child mental health and anxiety.

Tweens are actually still developing impulse control and empathy, which helps to explain why one in five tweens have been exposed to cyberbullying (whether as a witness, a target, or an aggressor) between the ages of nine and 12, according to a 2022 study in the Journal of Early Adolescence.

If they want to message friends or family, set limits – allowing them only to set up closed groups on devices that belong to the whole family, such as a household tablet.

Another safeguarding suggestion is to make it clear that screens must stay in the common areas of your home, and are never allowed in bedrooms, as this is where sexting and grooming is most likely to take place.


The challenge:

Worries about the future

During the tween years, children are starting to think about the world beyond their immediate community. At the same time, they are hearing more about issues like climate change, overpopulation, as well as economic and political uncertainty. When new things aren’t fully explained, tweens use a process called ‘magical thinking’ – which means they make up a story to fill in the gaps on what they don’t yet understand. Because they also put themselves at the centre of every story, they may believe they are personally to blame for things, e.g. for the ice caps melting, because they went on a plane.

Older tweens are also realising that parents are not superheroes who can magically fix every problem, or control the world outside the home. This may make them feel disappointed and powerless.

How to support your tween

When your tween tells you they are worried about the future, it’s tempting to immediately jump to reassuring them. But instead, hear them out. Ask what they’ve heard about the issue in question, so you can clear up any misunderstandings.

With the example of climate change, remind them that it is a long process, and lots of scientists are working hard to find solutions. You can also give them hope by talking about how mankind has survived other big challenges, like quickly developing vaccines to control Covid.

Research shows young people who feel empowered to do something about climate change tend to feel better about it, and less despairing – as demonstrated in several studies, including research by the Yale School of Public Health. So, encourage them to channel their anxiety into helping to make a difference at local level – where they can see the difference they are making – whether it’s volunteering, or helping you to raise money for charity.

Ultimately, bear in mind that tweens are looking to you to see how worried they should be. So, take some time to process your own fears, so you can be a solid foundation for your child.

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‘What’s My Tween Thinking? Practical Child Psychology for Modern Parents’ by Tanith Carey with Dr Angharad Rudkin is out now (DK books, £16.99).

By Tanith Carey

Tanith Carey’s book, ‘Feeling ‘Blah’? Why Anhedonia Has Left You Joyless and How to Recapture Life’s Highs’, is out now (Welbeck Balance, £16.99 hardback).

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