Anyone who’s ever parented tweens on the cusp of teenhood knows the constant pushing for more freedom and more stuff – followed by the unwillingness to take no for an answer – can be exhausting.
According to Kids Help Phone counsellor Duane (last name withheld according to KHP policy), this push for freedom is normal and a common reason why kids call for advice and support. “We've been hearing about the issue of independence for a while. Access to WiFi or a smartphone are common requests, because that’s how they communicate. Being allowed to date is also a recurring issue.” By late tweens, Duane recommends parents begin a systematic approach to allow for more independence.
Are we talking flexibility? “I wouldn't say flexible,” says Duane, “But parents need to be willing to listen to their kids and be open to hearing their case. Kids need to feel like there is room for a bit of negotiation.”
Most complaints from callers centre around the need for more social time, whether it’s real or virtual. As parents we tend to downplay the importance of a tween or teen’s social life, but we need to acknowledge that it’s an important and normal part of their development.
“Parents may want to negotiate that time, too,” says Duane. “They can allow their child to spend time with friends, but set up some habits and routine times for home as well. For example, we're doing a movie on Friday nights or we have Sunday morning brunch. If you want to spend time with your friends, no problem, but you need to spend some quality time at home, too.”
These routines also help kids organize their social time around the non-negotiable family time, so they know what is expected of them.
Inevitably, your child will ask to go to a party or go to the mall with friends. If you don't feel like enough trust is built up, rather than issue a flat-out ‘no’, show your child that there is room for growth. “Saying ‘I don't feel comfortable with this idea right now,’ shows that you might in the future. You have to give kids an idea that they can build up to it. Each family comes together and decides what works for them and what doesn’t.” In the case of the mall, build up to the friends-only visits. Go to the mall together and shop in stores separately, meeting back together at a designated time and place. This shows your child you believe he or she can handle it. If they're late, then they're not ready for the unaccompanied visit. Try again soon.
Ultimately, this stepladder approach to independence builds kids’ self-confidence. “If kids are made to feel like no matter what they do, they're not part of that decision making, then many of those big life decisions like school, work, dating and marriage may seem harder. We want people to build confidence,” says Duane.
“There are some kids who feel like when they're at home nobody believes in their ability to make a decision. Yet, when they're at school, they're the star student, a great athlete, well liked by their peers. So everyone looks to them for suggestions and ideas. But when they get home they're told what to do and what to think and when to think it. So they wonder, who am I really? Can I make a decision or not?”
To build kids’ independence, Duane suggests a step-by-step approach. “We want to cultivate an environment for kids at home, in the classroom, or in the intermediate areas like the change room or the music room, and give them the ability to feel that they are able to make age appropriate decisions, within boundaries. Then as they grow, we expand those boundaries and give them a bit more independence.”
Two things tweens often push for:
Later bedtime – Tweens and teens need a lot of sleep – minimum nine hours a night – so a tween who wants to stay up later has a tough case to make. First do the math. If your tween needs to get up at 7:30 a.m. then 10:30 p.m. is the latest. Why does your child want to stay up later? To do homework? To play video games? To chat with friends? Try extending bedtime but with limits, such as no screens past a certain time, and lights out reverts to 30 minutes earlier if your child has a hard time getting up in the morning. Making bedtime later on weekends or in the summer can follow the same guidelines.
Going to a party – You want to do what? Go to a friend’s who I have never met? With other kids? And come home late? Absolutely not. You should be home with me, safe where I can see you.
Attending a group activity like this illustrates the importance of social connections and fitting in. This is a normal milestone in your child’s development. Again, build up to these moments by encouraging your child’s social life. Ideally, you know all of their friends. If you don't, create opportunities to meet them, such as inviting them over. Then when an invitation arrives, you feel more comfortable about saying yes. When you say no, you're telling your child that you don't trust them or have confidence in them.
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, September 2015.