Keeping the connection

Making an effort to connect strengthens the bond with your preteen

Remember the days when you couldn’t sit down without your child climbing into your lap? Or you sent him off to play alone because he was always in the way when you were trying to do laundry? Now you’re the one who gets nudged to leave the room so your preteen can hang out with friends.

Linda Campbell* remembers too. “Now that Rose is nine, I’m starting to notice some changes in her. We’re not having big problems, really, but I see that things are different.”

What’s changing

Rose’s friends and her relationships with friends are increasingly important to her, and the preteen “girl drama” is starting, Campbell says. “There are all kinds of little friend arguments and disagreements,” she says, “but they aren’t little to Rose and her friends.”

Also, Rose is more aware of her own likes and dislikes, and realizes she can challenge things she doesn’t like.

When she was younger, Rose tended to just blurt out everything that happened. Now, while she is not actually secretive, Campbell finds she may not hear about things — problems at school or with friends, for example — until days or weeks later.

“Nobody likes to be told what to do,” says Campbell, “but kids this age really, really, really don’t like to be told what to do.” Rose wants to be in charge of Rose, says her mom.

Vancouver parent educator Skye Wylie says: “Many parents have shared with me the struggles they have with their preteens. Connections that were once strong become strained. I’ve heard stories about preteens who won’t say hello to their parents when they come home, who don’t want to eat with the family, who won’t walk with their parents if any of their friends might see them. Sometimes we think it is natural for children to shift their attachments from parents to friends in the preteen years. But friends aren’t meant to replace parents. Parents need to keep a strong connection to their child so they can continue parenting.”

*Names changed by request.

Reparing the bond

If you’re sensing that the bond between you and your child is changing as she gets older, what can you do?

Wylie says the first step is having some good times together. “Family life is really busy these days, and as preteens start to spend more time with their friends, they have less time to connect with parents. Too often the only time parents and kids have face-to-face interactions is when the parents are upset about something the child has done.” That won’t do much to rebuild your connection.

One father with an 11-year-old son who came to Wylie for parenting help felt there was a real rift between them. Wylie suggested the father spend a few extra minutes with his son first thing each morning, being friendly and finding something positive to say. “To everyone’s amazement, the mornings were almost immediately transformed,” Wylie says. The good feelings initiated by beginning the day in a loving way spilled over to other times, and the son began to open up more with his father.

Campbell has done some of the usual things: organized family movie and game nights once a week, and made sure to have breakfast and dinner as a family every day with no TV on. She’s also had great success with a more unusual idea: having the entire family — including mom and dad — take piano lessons together. It’s entertaining for Rose to see her parents learning alongside her, and they enjoy playing and singing as a family (they’re currently working on a simplified version of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah).

Strengthening the bond

Getting to know Rose’s friends is also something Campbell ranks high on her list of strategies. “When we have movie and game nights, I encourage Rose to invite a friend. And I’m thinking of adopting an idea from a friend — she does ‘smoothie nights’ where she makes smoothies for her daughter and her friends while they’re doing homework.”

Wylie says handing out smoothies is just the kind of nurturing that can help strengthen bonds. “Providing food for your child and his friends, finding ways to do things for him even if he could do them himself, leaving notes on his bed and adding a favourite food to his lunch bag are all ways of helping your child feel more attached to you,” she says.

Building a better connection has a big payoff, Wylie adds. “If you find parenting your preteen is more effort than joy, or you just feel something has changed in your relationship, start by looking for times when you can give him a friendly smile, ask how things are going, and demonstrate that you care. Even small steps can lead to big improvements.”

What do you know about your preteen?

To see if you’re staying close, take this little quiz:
1. Who is your child’s best friend?
2. What is her favourite TV show?
3. Who is her favourite band or singer?
4. What is her favourite video game and at least one character in that game?
5. What is her biggest worry or fear?

Not sure? Try using these questions as conversation starters.

Bond breakers

If you want to be closer to your preteen, parent educator Skye Wylie suggests:

Don’t get into an argument about whether your child is rejecting you or not. You’ll only make him feel defensive. Instead, build on the positive.

Don’t take it personally — but don’t just accept it either. You can keep your relationship strong.

Don’t give up! “No amount of name-calling, eye rolling, door slamming or being ignored should stop you. This can be hard, but the results are well worth it. It may take a special effort to get things rolling — maybe a hiking or camping trip, or an afternoon canoeing as a family.”