Why Your Tween Just Isn't That Into You

Is your tween too cool for you now?
Is your tween too cool for you now?
©iStockphoto.com/Jani Bryson Studios, Inc.

You mustered through diapers and potty training. You outlasted the "terrible twos." And it was all worth it -- the past decade with your child has been fun, exciting and full of precious bonding experiences.

Then one morning, a different person comes down to breakfast. He or she looks like your child; he or she sounds like your child; but he or she acts like a stranger. Suddenly, everything you used to enjoy together is lame. Your usually sweet kid disses you privately and publicly. Your formerly open child sees questions about the day as suspicious intrusions. Your cheerful cherub is rude and sullen, shutting you out of his or her life, thoughts and room.

Welcome to the tween years. Your child is taking the first steps on the long, confusing road from childhood dependence to adult independence. Tweens are suddenly experiencing explosive changes in appearance, brain function and emotions -- and you're in for some changes, too.

You've probably noticed your child's physical changes. What's going on inside your tween's brain is even more dramatic. Your child may say or do things that make you think he's losing his mind. Actually, tweens are only losing part of it. About half of the frontal cortex, to be specific.

Around age 11 or 12, the frontal cortex of the brain begins a dramatic reorganizing process. Tweens build thousands of new synapse connections every day, shedding masses of underused ones. Thinking gives way to feeling as brain function shifts from the construction zone to the amygdala, which is the emotional center of the brain. Judgment and rational decision-making fly out the window. Emotion rules.

These physical, mental and emotional disruptions can have a profound effect on your relationship with your tween. See how on the next page.

Relationships Between Parents and Tweens

Your tween might want a little more space.
Your tween might want a little more space.
©iStockphoto.com/eyecrave

Developmental changes force tweens out of childhood -- sometimes unwillingly. In struggling to sculpt a new person from their old selves, tweens become a little self-centered. They constantly monitor their appearance and thoughts. They go over events again and again, wondering: "Should I have said this or done that?" The way friends and peers think about them -- or at least they way they think friends think about them -- becomes more pressing than their relationship with you.

Do you do things that embarrass or alienate your tween? Maybe. But remember, your tween's having an identity crisis. While emotions rule their brains, for instance, tweens frequently misinterpret facial expressions. You show fear or surprise -- they see anger. As a consequence, tweens think parents are always mad at them. Keep that in mind when your tween melts down during a conversation, and you're standing there wondering: "What just happened?"

To complicate communication further, your tween's evolving brain works differently than your mature brain. You approach issues logically, while your child grapples with them emotionally. Rational thoughts grate on tweens, often prompting the "You just don't understand!" wail.

When your tween tells you he or she needs "space," don't take it personally. Tweens learn at rocket speed. Their thinking shifts from concrete absolutes to abstract concepts. They really do need time alone to absorb new thoughts, ideas and feelings. Separateness also protects their emergent identity. They need time to learn to live with this new person.

Remember that while adolescence is a growth and development phase with room for some changes, tweens still need limits. Adolescents might scoff at limits, but they're necessary for security and comfort. Your job now is to monitor your tween's expanding maturity and gradually ease limits as he or she grows toward independence.

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Sources

  • Feinstein, Sheryl. Inside the Teenage Brain: Parenting a Work in Progress. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Education, a division of Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2009.
  • Kastner, Laura S., Ph.D, and Jennifer Wyatt, Ph.D. Getting to Calm: Cool-headed Strategies for Parenting Tween & Teens. Seattle, WA: ParentMap, 2009.
  • Lippincott, Jennifer Marshall and Robin M. Deutsch, Ph.D. 7 Things Your Teenager Won't Tell You and How to Talk About Them Anyway. New York: Ballantine Books, 2005.
  • "Teenage Brain: A work in progress (Fact Sheet)." National Institute of Mental Health. NIH Publication No. 01-4929. Last reviewed September 10, 2010. (Accessed 01/09/2010).http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/teenage-brain-a-work-in-progress-fact-sheet/index.shtml