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Read Be-Tween the Lines: How to Talk to Your Preteen

Updated on March 13, 2011

I didn't get the memo...which one of us was wrong again?

Do you remember that age? You know what age I’m talking about…the age when you knew everything about everything and snubbed anyone who tried to tell you otherwise. We have a saying in my house: “Don’t confuse a 10-year-old with the facts.” Well, the truth is, although we may be able to remember that at some point we were that age, we don’t really remember what is was like to be that age. So, how are we supposed to learn to relate to someone who can apparently never be wrong?

You never listen to me!

Communicating with children on the cusp of becoming teenagers can be a challenging endeavor. Preteens, often referred to as, “tweens”, that is, “children between middle childhood and adolescence, usually between 8 and 12 years old,” (The Free Dictionary, 2008) can be rude, angry, disrespectful, ungrateful, and just plain mean. On the flip side, however, tweens may refer to their parents as hovering, suspicious, unfair, mean, disrespectful, boring, and probably a whole lot of other not-so-nice words they never let you hear them say. Why are parents and preteens so unable to see each other’s side of things? Why are they so opposed to everything the other says or does? The answer is simple and obvious, yet complicated and obscure all at the same time. Communication barriers exist between parents and tweens because neither side is really listening to the other. You may think you do a good job listening to your tween, but there may be different contexts involved when having a conversation with young men or women of this age. Recognizing the true intention behind the words of a tween and accepting that she is a young adult is vital to overcoming communication barriers that may exist and perhaps averting possible precarious circumstances later on.

Life is hard

In today’s world, tweens are faced with many stressful situations. Peer pressure, school, homework, chores, and prepubescent transitions are only a few of the demands your children are faced with on a daily basis. It is essential to recognize and respect her time as if she were an adult. That doesn’t mean you have to necessarily think of her as an adult; you just have to make sure you treat her like one. This is more of a challenge than you would think. Have you ever tried to have a “grown-up” conversation with a tween? Presumably, the bulk of the conversation will be your tween trying to convince you that she knows more than you, which can be extremely frustrating. This is because at this age, a tween doesn’t really know what she doesn’t know, so she assumes she knows everything and will fight tooth and nail to prove her point. Technically still a child, she is still prone to behaving in childlike ways, such as complaining, eye-rolling, or even whining when you say something she doesn’t want to hear. However, she is demanding to be treated like an adult which means she needs to learn that adults don’t behave that way, and if she continues her childlike behavior, the conversation should be postponed to another time when her behavior becomes more appropriate to the discussion. She must unequivocally understand that being an adult does not give her the right to disrespect you (O'Donnell, 2011).

Often tweens tend to talk in more literal terms than adults. For instance, when you ask your tween to do something and find hours later that it hasn’t been done, it’s not because she was intentionally refusing to do it; it’s because you weren’t specific enough with your instructions. You can’t just tell a tween to do something and leave it at that. When you tell her to do something, she doesn’t understand that you mean now; she assumes you mean whenever she wants to. Consequentially, however, when she asks you for something, she means right away. If you say later, she’ll interpret that as maybe five minutes, whereas you may have meant an hour. She also might ask why. She doesn’t ask this to be annoying. She legitimately wants a reason. To a tween, making the bed in the morning doesn’t make sense when she’s just going to mess it up again at night.

Say what you mean and respect what you hear

Other phrases you might want to avoid are, “maybe” or “I’ll think about it,” as these terms always mean yes, and when they don’t mean yes, you should be prepared to come to blows in a pointless battle of wits against the Almighty Tween of Terror! This is when she will pull out all the stops. When a tween does not get her way, she transforms into a gruesome super-villain with the unique super power of button pushing, and she knows every one of those buttons to hit.

A phrase my household hears several times on a daily basis is, “that’s not fair,” to which we respond, “life’s not fair!” Show of hands, how many of us have had this exact same conversation with our child? Conversely, how many of us can remember having this conversation with our parents? A tween always thinks everything is unfair, and whether you want to admit it or not, you were exactly the same way when you were that age. Regrettably, I’ve made the mistake of attempting to debate how fair a situation really is to my tween. I warn you: this is an impossible argument to win! It just doesn’t matter whether or not the situation really is fair. Your tween will not be able to accept anything beyond a horrible injustice being inflicted upon her, and attempting to convince her otherwise is a fruitless expedition.

All the world's a stage

Another consensus to consider when communicating with a tween is that all tweens are actors. That is, drama will prevail around every nook and cranny of her life. Every instance of anything that happens, whether it be at school or with friends, your tween will likely overreact on either extreme with no middle ground. If something good happens, she will be convinced that it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to her, and if something bad happens, her life is over. It’s important for you as a parent to prevail in her happiness, and empathize in her sadness. As ridiculous as some things might seem to you, she sees things very differently and needs to feel understood, not disparaged.

They have a voice...they just want to be heard

Now that we have a little insight into recognizing how a tween reasons, let’s now turn to the parent’s role in facilitating some of the communication hindrances present in his or her relationship with his or her tween. Parents are often quick to judge and reprimand something before hearing the whole story. If your tween is willing to talk to you, don’t push her away. Don’t tell her you’re too busy to talk right now, or anything else of that nature. Instead, give her your undivided attention, and listen to everything she has to say. Try to process what she tells you before developing a response. She will appreciate that you decided to make her a priority, even if she doesn’t act like it. She will also be more willing to open up to you when she has a problem instead of shutting you out. She needs to feel secure that she can tell you the truth (When you're afraid of losing her, 2006).

Some parents tend to dismiss their tween’s problems with the misconception that real problems only exist for adults. If the lines of communication between parents and tweens are not accessible, however, destructive behavior can often become the result. Tweens are faced with a multitude of challenges in their daily lives which lead to stress. If that stress doesn’t have an outlet, as they become teenagers, they may turn to alcohol, drugs, sex, or even suicide. According to Valenzuela (2008), “the rate [of suicide] among preteen girls has jumped to its highest level in 15 years,” (p. 1).

Be available and communicate often

Conceding their child is growing up is a difficult concept for many parents, especially since the “growing-up” age can be so young. A certain maturity level is required, not only of the tween, but of the parent as well when it comes to communication factors. Both parents and tweens must learn to listen carefully and considerately to one another, and avoid making judgments or overreacting to words that may or may not have been said. The parent’s main role is to encourage and support his or her tween with a certain level of understanding in order to develop an amicable relationship with honest and uninhibited communication. Mending these communication barriers early may help prevent potential disastrous outcomes in your tween’s future.

Just a side note:

I wrote this for a college paper recently, and it just happened to be at around the same time my 10-year-old daughter began her first period. So part of the research came from me delving into how to have a conversation with my preteen on becoming a woman. This paper was something very personal to me, but I think I got a pretty good handle on it. Please feel free to leave comments. Thank you for reading my hub.


O'Donnell, J. (2011). No More Tween Back Talk. Retrieved January 2011, from

The Free Dictionary. (2008). Retrieved January 2011, from The Free Dictionary:

Valenzuela, B. E. (2008, November 3). Suicide on the rise among tween girls: Communication is key for parents and children. Daily Press , p. 1.

When you're afraid of losing her. (2006, January 1). Daughters , 11 (1), p. 1.


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