There are so many changes happening in your kids through the pre-teen years. How do you navigate those years with love and grace and yet balance it with discipline and direction? It is important to go in with a plan. As with any plan, we have to hold it somewhat loosely as you discover what works or doesn’t work for your child. However, some things will remain constant. Consistency is key in all parenting endeavors. Why am I address this issue? My kids aren’t even close to those years. You are absolutely right. I really didn’t have a plan to tackle it until I was faced with it on the horizon. However, a reader asked the question of how to deal with emotional pre-teens, and I really did want to be helpful to seek out a solution. Don’t dismiss what I have to say because I haven’t experienced it. I sought wise counsel before I set out to write the article. My intuition was that what I am working on establishing in my emotional 5 year old would translate fairly easily to the emotional ups and downs of the pre-teen. After talking to my sister, who is currently in the swing of things with a pre-teen and the Pritchards, who are in the middle of raising 11 children, I feel fairly confident to begin the discussion on that matter. I think better in bullet points, so I am going to present it in that fashion. Also, I want to share with you a book that might be helpful in these years. I haven’t read it, but it looks like it might make a good read for those parents of middle school kids. It is called Middle School: The Inside Story (affiliate link), with the subheading, “What Kids Tell Us But Won’t Tell You.”
- Recognize it is Normal – Nothing is new under the sun. What you are experiencing with your pre-teen or teen is what other parents are challenged with across the globe. Each child is an individual and should be treated as such, but the change in hormones and how their brains are developing is fairly consistent with other people their age. I would always say that just because you recognize their feelings are normal, you should not use that as an excuse for poor behavior. Perhaps all the other teens you know are reacting or responding a certain way, so you may as well throw your hands up in the air and say, “Oh well! It’s just his/her age.” I learned from the Pritchards that we don’t say, “Oh, that’s just normal.” We go off a Biblical standard. It may be normal, but is it godly? We want to call them to be a reflection of their creator, and that takes a bit more work – especially during these years.
- A Commitment to Love and Show Grace – One of the Pritchard’s catch phrases is, “We love you, and we are going to get through this.” Love is unconditional. It’s unconditional from a Biblical perspective, so it should be unconditional from a parent/child relationship perspective since we are suppose to mirror how God loves the church. Make it clear to your child that your loves doesn’t waiver despite their behavior. It doesn’t mean calling for a lower standard, but it does call you to love when your child is most unlovable. You can figure out your child’s love language out of the 5 love languages established by Gary Chapman. Make sure they are being filled up in those areas. This will be a time of a lot of direction and teaching. This needs to be balanced with a sense of love in the family.
- Empathy – Empathy is one of the more important skills to teach your children. What is the best way to teach it? Have it! Try and remember your pre-teen and teenage years and relate to all they are experiencing. Be willing to cry with your child. A lot of the pain in the younger years comes from hurt boo boos that we need to kiss and make feel better. It gets a lot more complicated as they get older. The hurts run deeper and causes more damage. Make sure to listen, try to understand and empathize. Again, this is not an excuse for allowing behavior that isn’t acceptable in your home.
- Don’t Allow Disrespect or Disobedience – Just because they are navigating a myriad of emotions and trials doesn’t mean they receive a “Get out of jail free” card for their behavior. The same guidelines you were trying to establish as they were young still apply today. There will be consequences for actions. Try and enforce first time obedience. That means they obey all the way, right away. When they are young we try and teach them to obey with a happy heart. That doesn’t change. Disobeying with a bad attitude is disobedience, so you will find yourself often saying, “Try it again.” Consequences look different than when they were littler. You will be able to figure out their “currency” and use it against them. It’s not actually using it against them, however, since we have their best in our hearts. The discipline can be hard and sting, and that’s how you know it will take effect. Again, if you are out of balance with love, discipline isn’t as effective. Studies have shown that children respond best to parents who are responsive (warm, loving, interested) and demanding (having behavior controls and expectations).
- Effecting the Family = Alone Time – Part of learning how to deal with your emotions is learning how to not negatively impact the people around you. Yes, you feel a high level of emotions. Yes, your hormones might be going crazy. Yes, you might feel angry. You are allowed to feel those emotions. It is normal and healthy to experience all of those emotions. However, your feelings cannot have a negative impact on your family. Just as I send my kids to the stairs right now to sit and deal with their emotions and get a happy heart, so does your pre-teen need some time to sort things out if they are causing turmoil in your home. It’s not going to be effective if you send them to a room with their computer, a t.v. and all their other devices to keep them occupied. Find healthy ways for them to escape. They can rest, read, paint, do homework, or just think. Make it clear that you love them and would love to be with them but that they are not in control of the climate of your home.
- “Is there something I’m missing?” – This is a coined Pritchard phrase that tries to get at the root of the issues. Did something happen at school that might be causing this behavior? Is there something wrong in their diet? Is there something going on chemically beyond the normal teen stuff? I she starting her period? This is a way for you to check yourself and what you know as a parent. Go down the check list of the changes that might be going on within your home. Is dad working more? Is there tension in the marital relationship? Is there something that I’m doing that might be contributing? It’s not just a self check for you, but it’s also a check in with them. You will want to literally say to them, “Is there something I’m missing?” Keep the lines of communication open, encouraging honesty. You can’t help what you don’t know.
- Try Not to Freak Out - Part of keeping lines of communication open with your kids is having a calm response to what they are saying. Another thing I’ve learned from the Pritchards is to say, “That’s interesting, tell me more.” Try not to respond emotionally immediately. Navigate things carefully. You may want to give yourself some time before you respond. When you freak out, you add a brick to a wall you might be building between you and your child. Again, this does not mean that no action needs to be taken in dealing with behaviors or what you learn is going on with their friends, their school or in their lives. It means you need to keep your cool to be able to handle it effectively while establishing trust so they will want to return to your counsel.
- Take them On One on One Dates – It can be hard to carve out one on one time with your children. I know I want to be doing it more. It’s important for a dad to be dating his daughter so to establish how a woman should be treated. It’s important for the mom to connect one on one too. If you need help navigating the conversation, buy some discussion cards – keeping some light and some deeper. Take the time to listen and tell your child, in word and action, that you really care about who they are as people.
- Get Involved in Your Local Bible Teaching Church – Here you will find some Biblical teaching and perspective that will help ground your child. You will find other adults and kids that can love on your child. Truth will be spoken into their lives. The more adults you can have positively influencing the lives of your children is important. The most important thing, however, is that knowing Jesus changes lives. He can get to the heart of your child and build something that you would never be able to accomplish on your own.
A special thanks to my adorable pre-teen niece, Emma, and my sister, Stacie (the photographer) for providing me for pictures with this post. My niece is absolutely pleasant and couldn’t stop smiling when she was suppose to be taking the bratty pictures.