From Mommy to Mom: How to Embrace Your Preteen

Parenting a Preteen

There’s a good chance your child is becoming a preteen if your parenting conversations have morphed from diapers and tantrums to body odor and crushes. Or, maybe you find a note like this one I recently received from my 8-year-old: “I know you might not like this but, can I start calling you Mom? I think I’m old enouf [sic] to call you that. So, I love you, MOM!” (Excuse me while I grab some tissues). 

Ancient Greek philosophers were on to something when they said the only constant in life is change. Sometimes it feels like when I’ve just got my feet under this parenting thing, my kids pull the rug from under me. Luckily another parenting constant gets me through times of transition: our kids need us. Sure, their needs change. But they need our presence just the same. And they need us perhaps more than ever during the preteen years when they have one foot in childhood and the other in adolescence. Supporting our children now leads to healthier and more connected communities later.

What Exactly is a Preteen (or Preadolescent)?

Adolescence is the time of life roughly between puberty and the mid-20s. This means, preadolescence covers the time of life before adolescence – when children are between ages 9 and 12. Kids this age are often referred to as tweens because they are between childhood and adolescence.

Healthline explains: “Children enter their tween years somewhere around ages 9 to 12. The exact age range can vary, with some children exhibiting signs as early as 8. Some tweens may be in this stage until they’re 13 years old. Regardless of the exact age, tweens all have one thing in common at this stage of life: they experience significant changes as they approach puberty.” 

What Changes Can I Expect During the Preteen Years?

Some of the changes will be visible – think increased body hair, growth spurts, larger feet, acne, breast development. Others are more subtle as your child begins exploring different aspects of their identity to determine how they fit in. They may ditch some hobbies to test out new interests or try out a different hair or clothing style. Perhaps they’ll display greater self-consciousness or embarrassment and an increased desire for privacy. Emotional ups and downs may be experienced. These changes signal identity development and brain growth. They are developing skills to make good decisions and build their resilience. Help them practice these skills by giving them space and time with their peers.

For more on what to expect, check out Healthychildren.org

How Can I Support My Preteen?

Perhaps the most important thing to do during preadolescence is to reassure your child that change is normal and your love is constant. Also, consider these five suggestions:

  • Let them be kids. They still need unstructured time to play and use their imagination. Try not to over-commit to structured activities. Downtime sparks creativity and curiosity. 
  • Have empathy. Show compassion for all of the changes they are going through. Give them space to process their feelings and help them find opportunities to positively engage with others. Remind them you are always available if they want to talk.
  • Be a good role model. Young people learn by watching. Show them how you take care of your body through exercise, healthy eating, and getting enough sleep. Demonstrate how you learn from mistakes and lean on others when you need support.
  • Guide their decisions. Preteens are developing their decision-making skills. Help them weigh the pros and cons of different choices. Let them bounce ideas off of you.
  • Consume with them. Watch what your children are watching. Read what they are reading. If you don’t like what you see or hear, use it as an opportunity to talk about why not. For age-appropriate media suggestions, check out Common Sense Media.

The preteen years bring on a host of changes for children and parents alike. Be on the lookout for new and exciting developmental milestones. Continue celebrating their budding abilities just as you did their first steps. Create the kind of environment where your preteen is allowed to take positive risks and figure out who they are. As bittersweet as it may be, this year, I’ll be trading Mommy for Mom as my daughter swaps Barbies for friendship bracelets. Supporting our children’s growing independence builds a stronger future for all of us.

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About Elyse Salek

Elyse Salek, M.S.Ed. is an Administrative Director of Research at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Her degrees are in Psychology and Human Development from Middlebury College and the University of Pennsylvania School of Education. She is the proud mother of two children.

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