How to deal with a moody tween

What to do when your sweet child becomes a door-slamming, eyeball-rolling, potty-mouthed preteen.

Photo: Courtesy of Aimee Howes

My 11-year-old, Olivia, lay sobbing in bed after I refused to buy her a pet hedgehog. “My dreams never come true!” she cried. I thought of her pony, cat and bunny, outside on our farm, and I swear I could hear my parents laughing. At her age, I was always on the verge of despair; Mom and Dad coped by pretending my drama was its own TV show, which they (kind of) affectionately dubbed “Preteen World.”

Most kids go through an angst-ridden phase sometime after age 10, which can give them the emotional volatility of a rock star in a hotel room.

Ever since her son William turned 12, Joy* from Saskatoon says he gets moody about things like being asked to eat at the table. “He stomps and pouts when I get him to move,” she says. Given that her expectations aren’t unreasonable, Joy is frustrated with how reactive her son is now.

While people often blame raging hormones for moodiness, Lesley Vaters, a registered clinical counsellor in Mount Pearl, NL, says that’s an oversimplification. “A preteen brain is still maturing, and the ‘emotional’ brain often takes over for the still-developing ‘logical’ brain,” she explains. Vaters says tweens are not finished learning self-control and how to express their emotions appropriately.

Ashley Miller, a child psychiatrist at BC Children’s Hospital in Vancouver, says, “Kids often manage their unpleasant feelings with rude talk and tossing feelings back on parents through insults or blame.” Parents can set limits, such as “no swearing,” but Miller recommends not focusing on the words themselves but on the underlying emotions.

Listening to kids talk about their feelings allows them to move through emotions quicker, decreasing problem behaviour in the long run. “It strengthens the parent-child connection and helps kids find their own solutions to problems,” she says.

Parents can mitigate some of the stress that contributes to moodiness by brainstorming with tweens about ways to balance their school work with physical activities and fun. “Although kids this age may act like they don’t need parents, they do,” says Miller. “And listening to tweens non-judgmentally is one of the best ways to stay close—even as they’re gaining independence.”

Also make sure your tween is getting enough sleep, as it impacts their mood. Many kids are chronically sleep deprived, especially when they have electronic devices in their rooms at night. Stash tablets and cellphones outside your kid’s room until morning, and set regular bedtimes—even if tweens protest, “But I’m not a little kid!”

How to talk with your tween about secrets When should there be consequences for tween tantrums? Vaters encourages parents to look at the big picture before doling out punishments and to consider whether the child is tired or under pressure at school or home. As adults, we sometimes need to cut tweens some slack if they get thrown off-kilter.

That said, sometimes a consequence, such as losing screen time or other privileges, is required. “No matter what tweens are going through, disrespect shouldn’t be tolerated,” Vaters says. She encourages parents to resist debating or yelling back, and instead set aside time to discuss the situation, when their kid is calm. “If you start a conversation in the heat of the moment, often feelings escalate and preteens shut down, limiting the chances of a positive outcome.”

Educating your kid about their changing body, brain and sense of self is also helpful, particularly if they struggle with shame after an outburst or feel afraid of the intensity of their emotions. Give them strategies to manage their anger, such as breathing exercises, journalling or repeating a calming mantra. “Teach preteens that it’s important to express their emotions,” Vaters says, “but also that the way their emotions are expressed shouldn’t be harmful to others.”

If moodiness becomes the norm or is accompanied by other troubling and persistent symptoms, it’s possible that there is a bigger underlying issue. “All kids get emotional, and parents needn’t worry unless a low or irritable mood lingers and is accompanied by other changes, in sleep, appetite, energy, concentration, thinking, socializing or school work,” Miller says. At that point, it’s best to consult your family doctor or paediatrician to investigate possible mental health challenges and a more structured treatment plan.

As for my daughter Olivia, she eventually dried her tears, let go of her shattered dreams and joined me on the porch to pet her cat. We made fun of the fat feline; she told me funny stories about her school day; and I revelled in the company of my little girl, knowing it might not be long until the next dramatic episode of Preteen World. I was not wrong. “I was thinking,” Olivia mused, as she snuggled in. “Maybe I could get a chinchilla.”

Read more:
An age-by-age guide to disciplining your kid
Do you know what your tween is doing online?

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