PSA: Moms and dads of 3- and 4-year-olds, you are going to blink and wake up to a pre-teen. It happened to me. Today is Maddox’s 11th birthday and I am seriously wondering where the last decade + 1 year has gone. At 11, I observe more of my daughter as an adult than I do as a child. Sure, there are still the moments of playfulness and whimsy, but more often than not, I see a young lady trying to navigate and understand her emerging adolescence. That girl is quiet on the drive to school, stays in her room more often on the weekends, and has interests beyond the activities we’ve encouraged her to do. But her heart is still tender. My words are still important to her (sometimes more than I realize). She still participates family activities—just with a little less eagerness.
So here I stand, parenting a pre-teen. Learning as I go. Acting as if I know what I’m doing. Reading all the articles. Desperately wanting to keep her safe as she enters the teenage years ahead. Realizing I can’t. Feeling anxious about that. Trying to panic constructively. Making a list of rules of engagement in the coming year. Sharing that list with you. Hoping it will help.
If you are the parent of a 2-year-old, or if you aren’t a parent yet at all, just bookmark this post as a one-day-I’ll-need-to-read-this-when-I’m-scared-out-of-my-mind-with-a-preteen-in-my-house kind of moment. Don’t forget about my public service announcement. Objects in the rearview mirror are closer than they appear.
1. Give space. There are mornings where a steady stream of conversation fills the car on the way to school, and there are mornings of absolute silence. For a while, I tried to fill the void with words; now I’m just allowing for empty space. Sometimes, a pre-teen needs a quiet morning to gather her thoughts and clear the fog. Her sleep patterns are changing—she stays up later and sleeps in longer if she can. So Graham and I are making sure our evenings are freed up because the most meaningful conversations of the day are happening after eight o’clock.
2. Pick your battles. The toddler years are all about training (“clean up, clean up, everybody do your share”) so that the kid years can be about implementation. Nobody tells you that a child develops an acute case of amnesia in the pre-teen years. Wait. You want me to fix my bed? Every day? Some things we’ve re-trained on, and some things we’ve let go. Because the foundational knowledge is there. She will one day fix her bed again, put her shoes away, and clean up her side of the bathroom sink. But for today, we are picking our battles so that when we have to put our foot down about something that really matters, she isn’t completely tuned out.
3. Live by example. Because there is more silence now (see point 1 above), what we say isn’t as important as what we model. When a friendship of mine fell apart last year, Maddox was incensed. How could I tell her to work it out when she had a disagreement with friends and not model that in my own life? My conversations with her about that issue became less important than my example. Fellow parents of pre-teens, our words are like old Post-It notes: they’re losing their grip. Our actions are what stick with our kids.
4. Validate her feelings. When Maddox feels glum and can’t explain why, she doesn’t need an explanation of how her hormones are changing and her estrogen levels are whack which makes for mood swings on the daily. She needs validation that what she’s experiencing is normal. She needs to know I’m available to her whether she is happy or sad. That her unpleasant mood doesn’t affect my love for her, or even my ability to like her. By affirming her feelings and being vulnerable enough to share my own, we remain connected. (It also dawns on me at this moment that my mother publicly wished I would have a daughter exactly like me. Ah, pesky retribution.)
5. Allow appropriate independence. The world is scary, and most experts agree that parenting is harder in this generation than ever before. This doesn’t give me a green light to lock my child in the house with no access to the outside world. If I believe Acts 17, that I have been intentionally situated in this time and place as a parent, then I can’t wish for the good ol’ days (which, as it turns out, weren’t quite so good after all). Maddox is a pre-teen in 2017 and I am her mother, and we are both going to get through it. So I let out the line bit by bit, and give her some slack in the chain, and allow for appropriate independence. In her school work. In her friendships. In her relationship with technology. (And then I monitor like a crazy woman.)
6. Remain culturally relevant. Truth be told, Graham does this so much better than me. Each day, after the three younger kids go to bed, he and Maddox have their time together watching shows or funny YouTube videos or listening to music. He stays relevant with tech and apps and culture in a way that I don’t, and I thank him for that. Because the day our pre-teen finds us irrelevant is the day she doesn’t confide in us as often or value our voices as much. So Graham fills me in on all the things the “kids” are watching these days, and I pretend like I care.
7. Don’t get on the roller coaster. I recently had a conversation with a mom of teenagers who said her goal, first and foremost, is not to get on the roller coaster. It’s running, it’s looping, it’s going backwards and upside down, they’re taking tickets and you’re first in line. . .but don’t get on. Because the minute you jump on that crazy train of teenage drama, it has you. And then you and your kid are riding that thing together and nobody has two feet on the ground anymore. So just don’t get on. Point taken, friend. Point taken.
8. Call in the reserves. I don’t find myself to be so adequate at motherhood that I don’t have some people on standby. I’m talking about the aunties, the bonus moms, the ones on deck to help me out. Because my pre-teen may not always want to talk to me or her father about X, Y, and Z, but she might go to someone else she trusts. And better that be her auntie than her fellow adolescent. So get your list out and let your bonus moms know that you’re plugging their numbers into her WhatsApp. Because we can all use a few extra hands during the pre-teen years.