How to give preteens space—without it totally breaking your heart

Preteens need to start to separating from their parents so they can figure out who they are. It’s an essential milestone—but it can be incredibly hard for moms and dads.

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A few months ago, my 12-year-old son spent the night hanging out with some buddies at a friend’s house. His friend’s older sister, who doubles as my toddler’s babysitter, sent me a video of the kids playing.

I watched with a soft smile as my oldest child interacted with a few of his summer camp friends. The girls had just tried their hand at straightening his naturally curly hair, while the boys were laughing at the results. About 15 seconds into the video, my son said something to one of his friends.

I didn’t recognize his voice at first. Once high-pitched and childlike, it is now deep, with traces of bass still new to me.

In fact, I hit the back button on the video to replay that section again, just to make sure it was him that spoke. Tears filled my eyes— a visceral response to the fact that I didn’t recognize the sound of my own child.

Lately, this has been happening more often. In a mere four months, my son has grown four inches, and now his eyes are level with mine. He’s wearing the same shoe size as his father. A thin shadow of hair crosses his upper lip and his voice is that of a young man rather than the child I’ve reared for over a decade.

On an intellectual level, I know these changes haven’t happened overnight. But my heart hasn’t quite caught up to my brain, and I’m juggling this new season of parenthood with what feels like grieving a loss. The little person that once needed me for everything, relied on me for companionship as much as he did sustenance, is no more.

A tricky transition for kids and parents

A child with a number of sticky notes plastered on her face and on the wall around her. Constantly reminding and nagging? Here's when to let your kid failStarting around ages 12 or 13, kids have a yearning to “individuate”—that is, separate from their parents in order to figure out who they are as individuals. It’s an important milestone because it means they’re ready to learn how to live in the world on their own.

But that doesn’t mean it’s easy on parents. “It is the hardest thing in the world to release our children out into the world,” says Jan Harrell, a clinical psychologist and professor at UCLA. “Parents need to take some time and space to process their own emotions.” When they don’t, Harrell says, they may end up projecting those emotions onto their children.

“Many parents take this sadness and turn it into control,” says Carla Maire Manly, a California-based clinical psychologist. “Parents tend to push back by hardening boundaries and stifling their child’s newfound need for independence, which can make the transition worse.”

Feeling and processing the sadness and loss is necessary so parents can provide a firm foundation on which preteens can thrive and grow. “Parents have to face the fact that one day, our children will live in the world without us,” Harrell says. We do them a disservice if we don’t teach them how.

Giving them freedom without being terrified

The knee-jerk reaction of tightening your tween’s boundaries can cause more harm than good. Kids in this stage of life tend to react with more defiance in general—particularly when they feel like they have no freedom.

What’s more, since your job as a parent is to teach your kids how to live in the world without you, it stands to reason that tightening boundaries on preteens might actually be harmful to their development into self-sufficient adults.

This doesn’t mean life is just a free-for-all now, though. But there are ways to expand your kid’s boundaries in a way that works for both of you.

For one thing, instead of making authoritative decisions about what your tween is allowed and not allowed to do—like you would have when they were little—collaborate and negotiate instead. That way there’s buy-in on both ends and everyone understands the expectations.

And be honest about what it’s like for you as a parent. Say your tween asks for a new privilege. If you’re freaked out, tell them. “This is a time that can be new and scary for parents and children,” says Harrell. “Articulate that you’re scared or that this is all new territory.” Doing so gives your kid insight into why you’re saying no or modifying the details of the plan. It also might make the “no” easier for your tween to digest or at least give them pause.

Start small and take baby steps. Say your tween wants to go the mall and see a movie with a friend without any parents around, and you’re not OK with it. Start by taking the kids to the movies while you sit several rows away. If that goes well a couple of times, the next time you can watch different film than them at the same theatre, and eventually, you can let them go alone. Baby steps! Let your tween know right at the beginning that you’re not trying to keep them from these new experiences, but that you just need to start with something smaller and work up to the bigger events.

This “new normal,” which is constantly shifting and changing, is hard. “This is when kids push boundaries and talk back,” said Harrell. “When your beloved is now criticizing everything you’re doing and rolling their eyes all the time, it’s painful. But it is all normal. We need to deal with those emotions and remember our purpose as parents at the same time.”

No matter what, says Harrell, remember to feel the feelings of loss, but also know that if your child wants to individuate— if they need space from you and are seeking support from their peers—they’re headed in the right direction.

“Celebrate,” she said. “As a parent, you’ve nurtured them and prepared them for life in all the right ways, and that’s something to be proud of.”

Read more:
How to deal with a moody tween
How to give your older kid more freedom

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