Pre-teen, pre-adolescent, pre-pubescent, tween… Regardless of what term is used – we’ve all been there, most of us know one, and some of us are parenting (teaching, counseling, etc.) one. As the stepping stone from childhood to adolescence, this time frame can be a tough one to navigate for both tweens and for those attempting to engage and connect with tweens.
Connecting with preteens can be especially difficult. Not quite kids, and not quite adolescents, tweens deserve more credit than we tend to give them.
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Here are some tips on making meaningful connections with tweens, doodles adopted from various sources and my own personal experience:
1. Give It Time
As children transition into adults, the long phase in between allows them space to develop into a new way of being a human: early adolescence brings new feelings, new emotions, new sensations, new perspectives, new understandings, etc. All of these changes add up to a BIG adjustment to the world around them and to the ways their new way of being impacts their relationships with others.
During puberty, major changes in the brain- not just the body- occur. Tweens have a lot to deal with as they experiment with new ways of being in the world and in relationships, all while their brains are growing to manage and grasp these shifts.
In attempting to engage or connect with a preteen, extend as much patience as you can muster. In a very real way, as kids grow and change, our relationships with them also change. Patience and a posture of openness help signal to tweens that you’re open as they navigate their inner changes and the way your relationship will change as they become more mature. Treat relationships with preteens like you would any new relationship: give it time.
2. Create Together
Whether it’s spending time creating a graphic novel, like the doodle depicts, or joining your tween for another activity of their choosing, research shows that time spent together – engaged in a shared activity – has benefits for all involved. One study observed benefits from families playing video games together. Those researchers found that relationships were more satisfying, closer, and communication was more effective.
While shared play-time at a young age is helpful to build strong bonds with caregivers, and for caregivers to practice active listening, imitation, and to reinforce helpful/positive behaviors – “shared playtime” during tweenhood is more about the practice of connection.
Creating together- whether through art, play, cooking, building, or other hobby- allows for a neutral space, where the adult is not the one making the calls, and where preteen and adult get to share focus on an enjoyable in-the-moment task. This neutral space can actually help set the stage for meaningful conversations, connections, and deeper engagement.
3. Engage Ambivalence, Listen to Apathy
Ambivalence is the experience of having split desires and we’re all familiar with it on some level. Maybe you’ve had to choose to put down a suffering pet even though part of you wanted just a few more days or weeks with them, or perhaps you’ve made a move to another city mindful of both the sadness in leaving and the excitement for new adventures. Ambivalence pulls us in two directions.
For tweens, who are in the early stages of transitioning from dependent children to fully independent adults, it’s normal for them to nonverbally express ambivalence. One day, a tween might be more childlike and dependent, while the next they seem to want nothing to do with a parent or caregiver.
Remember that this process is just like watching them learn to explore the world as toddlers: supporting them as they wander off to explore and also as they return and cling is a part of the process that allows for healthy development.
Why Apathy is Common for Tweens
For kids who feel overcontrolled by a caregiver who calls all the shots despite the tween’s growing capacity for agency of their own life, and also for kids on the other end of the spectrum who feel overwhelmed by too many responsibilities without a safe person to fall back on, there may not be sufficient space for this process of exploring-and-returning to occur.
For some tweens, this is a point where apathy may feel like the most empowering choice. When a tween’s cyclical needs for both independence and dependence are blocked or unmet, it produces a level of frustration that can easily overwhelm young brains. Without the agency to do the important work of growing up, tweens may fall back on apathy. Apathy both relieves the frustration and provides a sense of control, at least temporarily.
4. Find a Tween’s Expertise & Empower Them
Preteens can often feel both overwhelmed and vulnerable as they learn to navigate the world with more independence. This is important to acknowledge because various studies show strong connections between self-esteem, intrinsic motivation, and sense of mastery: In laymen’s terms: A person tends to have greater self-esteem (and mental health) when they feel mastery over even simply one task.
This phenomenon is so well documented that it’s the basis of some teaching theories, such as Montessori, for that very reason. Additionally, a sense of mastery has been proven to reduce anxiety; to promote perceived competence, personal responsibility, and social responsibility; and can help mediate feelings of psychological distress.
How does this relate to parenting, teaching, or counseling tweens? Let them explore their curiosities, develop niche interests, and signal that you want them to teach you about those things! Allowing a preteen to be an expert flexes this mastery muscle, empowers, and strengthens relationships.
5. Explore the “Why”
During childhood, it was the parent’s job to soothe upset emotions and make meaning from difficult experiences, but as kids mature into tweens and then teens, gradually a shift occurs in which these tasks fall to tweens or, sometimes, tween’s peer group.
Parents can support tweens in this phase by gently helping them understand the “why” of their experiences, without fixing or resolving the experience for them.
Gentle conversations that prompt deeper thought may help teens process their increasingly independent experiences with self awareness and insight. Staying present to these conversations as a tween grows can help promote emotional regulation (i.e. being able to understand and manage emotional reactions and the resulting behaviors in response to specific experiences one has). Emotional regulation worksheets or Emotion-Sensation Feeling Wheels can help to build this recognition of the “why” to what a preteen may be experiencing.
6. Shoot Straight
While little white lies are arguably standard practice (And if you’ve ever said the words “I don’t know why the toy stopped making noise” after removing its batteries to save your sanity, you’ll understand what I mean) – they will not pass with a preteen.
The flipside of tweens’ rapid growth in knowledge is that they can more easily decipher what is true and what is not. You can’t bullshit a preteen (and if you do, it won’t quickly be forgotten). While they may not need to know all the truths of the world all at once, it is important to take the time to connect with them in the moments they are seeking a truth rather than feeding them a quick line – especially because they will learn the truth eventually, so it may as well come through a direct conversation with someone they trust.
7. Validate (Authentically)
In keeping with the idea of shooting straight with your preteen, it is also important to be present, engaged, and honest with them as they share life issues with you. As an adult, it is easy to tell when a person is authentically interested and curious about your ideas, feelings, and experiences – and preteens feel similarly. Actively and purposefully listening to what your preteen shares will give you a better idea of how to support them (if they even need support – much like adults, sometimes they only need to be listened to).
A genuine, empathetic, nonjudgmental response will lead your preteen to be more likely to choose sharing issues with you whenever they may arise in the future. In engaging your preteen in this way, look for the entry point for empathy, for which “Oh, of course you…” is a powerful offering.
8. Build A Toolbox
Overall, the transition from childhood to tween-hood calls for a new toolbox of resources to be organized, as the shifts in their emotional, physical, mental, and social lives call for vastly different methods of engagement than may have sufficed in childhood.
If this phase is particularly difficult, know that asking for help and seeking outside support in navigating these new stages of personhood is a good thing. We all need a new perspective and extra support sometimes!
While there are many resources out there to add to your toolbox, my site hosts a few helpful resources for engagement, such as the Emotion Sensation Feeling Wheel (either the version for kids or the general version). Additionally, Dr. Dan Siegel writes quite a bit on connections with younger humans, such as The Power of Showing Up. Also, there is helpful information to be found on health- and development-related sites, such as this article from KidsHealth.org.
Tween-hood is a tough time. Transitioning from childhood to adolescence and navigating through all of the physical, emotional, mental, and social changes that brings is a full-time job!
Often, attempting to connect with preteens may feel like a foreign or frustrating experience; however, with willingness to adapt to shifting relationship styles and methods of engagement (and patience, lots of patience) tweens and those who care about them can thrive.
Image description for screen readers: Sketchnote titled, “Engaging pre-teen humans.” On the left side of the image, there is a drawing of a hand with text that says, “Give it time. Patience proves. Underneath is a drawing of a comic with text that reads, “Invite kids to write a graphic novel of their experience and then read it together.” In the top middle of the image are drawings of three faces: sad, ambivalent, and happy. The text reads, “Engage ambivalence.
Apathy is empowering for a kid woh feels controlled or out of control.” Underneath this is a drawing of a person with a magnifying glass looking at an orange bug with text that says, “Look for where they are an expert and let them teach you.” Under this is text that reads, “Help kids understand why. (Kids are often really distressed by their own behavior.)” The word “why” is written in orange text, highlighted by black. In the top right corner of the image is a drawing of a person with orange hair, covering their mouth with their hand.
The text next to this reads, “Don’t bullshit. Kids know. You will get caught.” Under this is text that says, “Validate (authentically). Don’t fake it.” There is a speech bubble drawn next to this text that reads, “Of course you feel…” In the bottom right corner of the image is text that reads, “Don’t try to stop problem behaviors. Build a toolbox of better resources. Look for the unmet need.” The word “stop” is written on an orange stop sign.