Smiths Falls, Ont., mom Jessica Dallaire,* finds disciplining her tweens to be a challenge. “My 11-year-old daughter is constantly arguing and pushing boundaries,” says Dallaire, who also struggles with appropriate consequences for her nine-year-old son. “Our kids say things we never would have said to our parents, like questioning us when we say no. We also get a lot of, ‘That’s not fair.’ Threatening to take away the iPad to get them to comply works sometimes, but there must be a better way.”
Dallaire’s experience is no surprise, considering what’s going on in her kids’ developing brains. “This is a very significant time,” says Toronto psychotherapist Alyson Schafer. “They’re seeking autonomy from their parents and challenging them as authority figures, while moving into the world of their peers.” Schafer agrees that this generation is indeed different in terms of entitlement, perhaps because parenting has shifted too far from autocratic rule to permissive parenting. “In a few more generations we’ll land in the sweet spot of democratic families,” she predicts.
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In the meantime, parents of preteens discover that some of their old discipline strategies are becoming much less effective. “Let go of anything that could be seen as a manipulation technique, like sticker charts,” says Schafer, since kids don’t want to be controlled or babied by their parents. It’s also a good idea to remove “time out” from your vocabulary. While some kids can still benefit from time on their own to calm down, at this age it’s better to try to help kids figure out their feelings in the moment. “Listen to them and help them process their own issues,” says Schafer. “Maybe something happened that day to cause them to blow up, and you can say, ‘This isn’t like you. Do you want to talk about it?’” Calm conversations about feelings—rather than threats or punishments—also reinforce that you respect them and their realities.
At this age, it’s also important to step back and give your kids space to solve their own problems, which helps foster independence and confidence. Sally Bonaldo, a mother of four in Lindsay, Ont., finds this technique very helpful with her 10-year-old daughter. “There are days where she’s caught up in what I call her ‘hormone peak’ and isn’t capable of reason. There are times I’ll ask her to calm down in her room, but usually I try to opt for a gentle approach like a hug. Sometimes I’ll draw her a bath and encourage her to figure out the problem on her own, and talk to me about it afterwards, if she chooses.”
Kids this age are very concerned with issues of fairness, so make your expectations very clear. What does “clean the bathroom” mean, exactly? Does “bedtime” mean lights out?
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She also advocates for weekly family meetings, where children are invited to provide input to the rules. “We need to renegotiate freedoms and responsibilities such as chores and allowance, and problem solve outside the time of conflict. I tell my kids that the current rules hold until they’re changed at a family meeting, and never in between. That stops all the haggling that wears parents down.”
When rules are broken, kids will learn the most from—and rebel less against—natural and logical consequences that are respectful, reasonable and revealed in advance. “If you don’t clean your room, no computer time—these things aren’t related,” points out Schafer. “You could say instead that friends can’t visit when the house is not ready for company, or that the agreement is rooms are cleaned by the weekend, and until that commitment is met, we can’t proceed with weekend plans.”
While challenging, your investment in establishing effective discipline and communication practices during these transitional years will pay off in the future. Like when they want to borrow your car.
*name has been changed
Expert tip: “The average parent makes 200 compliance requests a day; the average well-behaved kid responds to half to two-thirds of them,” says psychotherapist Alyson Schafer. “One of your best discipline strategies at this stage is to bite your tongue. In that extra moment, kids may show you that they were on their way to brush their teeth without your prompting.”
A version of this article appeared in our April 2014 issue with the headline “No more time out,” p. 58.