You made it through the exhausting baby days (and, OMG, the nights) and the screaming toddler tantrums and got into a groove with the school routine. Once you get to the golden years of seven, eight and nine, you can start to feel confident—maybe even smug. You have this parenting thing nailed. But then your darling daughter suddenly disappears and is replaced by an eye-rolling, sassy tween.
Fear not. Just like you learned how to swaddle and pack a lunch, you can learn how to parent through this volatile phase. So says Lindsay Sealey, author of Growing Strong Girls: Practical Tools to Cultivate Connection in the Preteen Years. As a specialist in girls’ education and development and founder of the coaching organization Bold New Girls, Sealey has a deep appreciation for the complexity of pre-teen girls and the challenges they face. They’re sensitive and emotional and living in a world that urges them to compare themselves to others to gauge their self-worth. Although it may feel like your tweenager wants less to do with you, Sealey promises that the key to helping your daughter navigate the choppy waters of puberty is already right there: you.
1. Stay connected
In her Vancouver practice, Sealey consistently hears one thing from girls: They want to spend more time with you. While it may feel like your once-affectionate girl is pushing you away, Sealey insists that spending time together is what’s needed. Those unstructured moments should be a safe space where she can express her often-complicated feelings, untangle her day and, ultimately, get to know herself.
Drop “How was your day?” as your starting point—as you know, that doesn’t get you anywhere. Sealey suggests more creative gambits, such as “What were the three highlights of your day?” and “What were the three lowlights?” And, because girls at this age tend to ruminate, Sealey also likes to ask “Is there a thought that you’re hanging onto today?” One mother and daughter duo she worked with started a private journal they shared (with the rule that topics from the journal could only be broached in conversation if the daughter initiated them). She advises that an hour of emotional talk every day is ideal to really help your daughter dig into her emotional life on a consistent basis. An hour may sound daunting, but she reassures that this talk can be broken up into in bits and pieces over the course of a day; consistency is more important that the amount of time you spend.
2. Realize that it’s going to be a bumpy ride
“Girls get really sad, and then really hyper,” explains Sealey, drawing a roller coaster in the air. With changes to her body, brain and sense of self at play, your tween can suddenly seem unrecognizable to you. The most obvious of these shifts is the tweenager’s opera-worthy levels of drama. The mercurial nature of tween girls can mean that she is slamming her bedroom door in your face one minute and in a puddle of tears, looking for a hug, the next.
As trying as these moments are, Sealey urges parents to hold off on the manners lecture until later. “If the bottom line is your relationship, then the lesson always comes second,” she says. “Your daughter is feeling a great deal of anxiety and you’re trying to talk to her? Good luck. She’ll feel rejected. But we know that when she’s pulling you in and you’re there, she’ll trust you.”
And though this emotional seesaw has always been there, what’s different for girls now is that it’s all playing out on that stage called social media. With girls spending up to four or five hours daily on social media, they’re constantly checking their looks, achievements, belongings and popularity against, well, who knows? Rather than keeping up with the girl at the next locker at school, your daughter might be checking herself against a celeb on Snapchat. While it’s natural for kids to increasingly look to their peers for connection, the fact that it’s happening in the Wild West of social media can bring added social pressures and struggles.
3. Know that it’s all about her
The end game in raising a strong girl is a young woman who believes in herself, can articulate her goals, has confidence in her ability to work toward them, knows her values and can have satisfying, connected relationships without compromising herself. But where do you start with that tall order? Sealey believes that the key to a girl’s confidence is that she know herself. Start by talking about her likes and dislikes. In her practice, Sealey has girls create All About Me posters, listing their favourite books, movies and things to do on the weekends and then moving on to phrases that describe themselves. She asks girls to look at this question from different perspectives: How would your teacher describe you? How about your friends?
As these conversations evolve, parents can help by frequently taking note of a girl’s character. If she shares an uncomfortable talk she had with a friend, you could observe and say “That took courage!” If she has been managing to get her homework done with less nagging, tell her “You’re really becoming good at time management.” Look outside, too. Ask her about the qualities possessed by her favourite athlete or performer to encourage admiration over jealousy. Are they tenacious? Resourceful? Philanthropic?
4. Encourage mistakes (but don’t call them mistakes)
With the current cohort of tween girls, perfectionism is a real problem. “They want to be perfect at something or they don’t want to try,” says Sealey. Girls can be so afraid to admit imperfection that they keep it to themselves, like when a lesson in school goes over their heads. Remind your daughter that no one becomes the best at anything without that uncomfortable beginning stage where mistakes are rampant. In fact, Sealey recommends not using the “M” word at all but instead focusing on the learning opportunities created by failure. “It’s not failure; it’s ‘I just need to try again and try differently,’” she says.
When a girl messes up, calm encouragement from parents can help send the message that it’s OK to take risks—in fact, it’s essential in order to grow.
5. Discourage BFFs
Few relationships in life contain the passion found between a tween and her BFF. They’re fiercely possessive of each other, so when there’s a crack in their bond, it can be devastating. Sealey encourages girls to open up their notion of what friendships can be. Rather than a closed loop of two, a girl should think of an open circle of many friendships. Ideally, a girl has some friends at school, some after-school friends she knows through activities and teams, family friends, neighbourhood friends and friends who are boys. This expanded circle is a more stable base for a girl: If she experiences stress with one friend, it won’t seem like it’s the end of the world.
Why we need to stop teaching girls to be nice 6. Help her know the difference between conflicts and boundaries
With so much invested in their friendships and social position, rocking the boat can be unimaginable for tween girls. “They’re afraid of conflict,” says Sealey. “Their nightmare is social isolation and rejection.” That means that tween girls will often put up with bad behaviour rather than express their unhappiness with it.
Talk to your daughter about the difference between having an argument and advocating for herself so that the latter seems less dangerous. We can help a girl get ready to communicate a boundary (“It’s not OK when you tease me in class”) by role playing. You can give her feedback on her tone and choice of words so that she communicates clearly and matter of factly rather than complaining or criticizing. “The thing I say to girls is that it doesn’t matter about the outcome of the conversation but your willingness to have it,” says Sealey. And remember, this is a skill that she’ll be able to use in her professional and romantic relationships throughout her life.
7. Limit screen time (surprise!)
You knew this was coming, right? There really isn’t a debate among experts about the effects of spending many hours online. Girls are spending four or five hours daily on social media, and it isn’t making them any happier. Hungry for connection, they are particularly vulnerable to the Internet’s darker side. It can be tricky to explain to a 10-year-old that the cute boy who wants to create a duet with her on Music.ly might not actually be a kid at all, but that’s the reality. A more chronic issue is that social media plays on a tween’s natural inclination to compare herself negatively to others. Does her friend get more likes on Instagram because she is prettier?
Sealey says that girls go online to wind down and connect, particularly after school. “We have to teach them that it’s actually a disconnection, and it can take the form of mean posts and people not liking your posts,” she says. All that time spent online is also time away from activities that actually help girls develop, such as getting involved in sports, playing music, doing art and engaging with family and friends in person. Go ahead and be the bad cop and set a limit of no more than an hour of screen time, particularly social media, each day.
8. Don’t take her struggle for independence personally
Obviously, it’s a girl’s job to grow up. But the reality of that can still come as a painful shock to many parents. Part of your daughter’s development has to come from making more decisions for herself, and that’s a shift for everyone around her. “A lot of parents take it personally,” says Sealey. “Allow her to make choices that are reasonable. I don’t think she should be making the family vacation plans, but maybe she can decide which restaurant to go to this time.” The flip side of allowing her more room to make choices is to let her live with their consequences. “It’s OK to let her struggle and let her sit in discomfort,” says Sealey.
9. Show her the importance of gratitude
Developing a habit of gratitude in your family can help even out the emotional pinball that is living with a tween. A family in Sealey’s practice ends each day by listing five things that each person is grateful for. “Research shows that there’s an energy shift that comes with gratitude,” she says. “It generates more positive emotions because thoughts and feelings are related.” Tweens are inclined to focus on the negative and ruminate about what went wrong in their day, so it’s a powerful antidote to end your day with a positive spin.