If your tweens’ feelings list is long and varied, we understand. It’s normal for this stage of their development. But have no fear. We have some practical ways you can meet their emotional needs during this season of life.

In the first part of our series on tween development, we explained the increasing need for them to have opportunities to grow in managing responsibilities. Part two will explore how tweens manage — or don’t manage — their emotions.

If your tween was 20 feet out in the Atlantic Ocean and he began to struggle, perhaps in a riptide, you wouldn’t respond by:

  • Yelling at him for getting too far out
  • Shouting helpful tips from the shore
  • Telling a story about how you were once caught in a riptide too

Of course not. You would race out and get him.

You would pull them into shore, hug them, and tell them how much you love them. Later, you might teach them about powerful riptides, give them guidelines for the future, and share your own stories. But in the moment, you are going to:

  • Calm them
  • Bring them back
  • Anchor them in safety

In his book The Whole-Brained Child, neuropsychologist Daniel Siegel writes about how we as parents can best respond to our children when they are in distress. Our role during these turbulent emotional times called the “tween” years is to do the same thing: to calm, to bring our kids back, and to anchor them by being a safe place for them to share their emotions.

Another incredible parenting book, Simplicity Parenting by Kim John Payne and Lisa Ross, shares wisdom that can help us as parents stay focused on four simple practices during this stage of our children’s lives. It is all too easy to get caught up in the changing tides of emotion that neuroscience tells us is normal for our children’s development at this stage. But Payne’s wisdom says to help our children balance these emotions by simplifying their lives (and ours) in four areas:

  1. Environment
  2. Rhythms
  3. Schedules
  4. Filtering Out the Adult World

The authors write: “We are building our daily lives, and our families, on the four pillars of too much: too much stuff, too many choices, too much information, and too much speed.”

Simplifying the environment where we live is simply a call to live in order. When our spaces are in chaos, it’s easy for everything else to feel chaotic too. Simply put, we can better frame our emotional responses with healthy, accurate perspectives when our spaces aren’t overwhelming us.

Simplifying our rhythms has to do with the importance of rituals and routines as a family. The authors of the book encourage, “To have moments of calm – creative or restful – is a form of deep sustenance for human beings of all ages. Relationships are often built in these pauses, in the incidental moments, when nothing much is going on.”

One idea is to keep a Sabbath — a day of rest where the entire family slows down and calls off the hurried pace of life at which we all normally live.

Simplifying our schedules has to do with quantity. Maybe you don’t struggle with this, but most families these days are struggling with too much – too much running around, trying to allow our children the opportunity for every new activity, all while our own plates are full to overflowing. It’s just too much. 

Our need for free time and play doesn’t go away when we leave behind our childhood. The authors here call for “deep, uninterrupted play.” Educators and other child development experts know that play is critical to development, and now doctors are telling us that play is good for us, essential even, at every age. 

Finally, the authors call on us as parents to filter out the adult world. Again, our tweens are on a bridge between childhood and adulthood.  “As a society, we seem to be asking the same question about childhood. What purpose does it serve? Can we speed it up? Can we better prepare our children for adulthood by treating them more like adults?”

What do you think? The authors aren’t calling us to overprotect and keep our children in some state of infantile dependence. But they are reminding us that children are not ready to bear the full load of being adults. Of being exposed to the noise that is ever-present in our culture today.

The problem is also that these “…little stresses, collectively, drag on a child’s ability to be resilient: mentally, emotionally, and physically. They interfere with concentration, with an emotional baseline of calm, with a sense of security that allows for novelty and change,” according to Ross and Payne.

“…While it may not seem like much to us (compared with the stresses of adult life), there is some sense of loss associated with these growing pains. When you imagine the incredible rate at which children change and evolve, you can begin to see how their heart sometimes resists the adjustment.” (Simplicity Parenting)

It’s up to us as parents to meet our tweens’ needs — three in particular — that they may not be able to verbalize or tell us they need:

1. Sabbath Days: A regular day each week when rest is observed

2. Grounding Times: Taking “sick” breaks for 2-3 days to rest and reconnect as a family

3. Nature: Getting outside regularly resets the “flight or fight” part of the brain

There is an old saying, “When your child seems to deserve affection least, that’s when they need it most.”

Our relationship with our tweens, no matter how they seem to feel about us moment to moment, is absolutely critical. Moments of connection are what will get us through the teen years to come.

The next article in this series will discuss our tweens’ use of technology.