Talking to your tween: 7 surefire ways to connect

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Parenting talk

because-I-said-so-blueAh, the tween years. Even the name is angst-y. If you’ve got a daughter who is, as Britney Spears put it, not a girl, not yet a woman, you may be wondering what on earth to do with that lovely (strange!) creature.

Utah County residents Rachelle J. Christensen and Connie Sokol know a thing or two about talking to tween-agers. They both have sixth-grade daughters, and they co-authored the new book “What Every 6th Grader Needs to Know: 10 Secrets to Connect Moms & Daughters.” Christensen is a 37-year-old Santaquin mother of five kids ages 10 months to 12 years. Forty-nine-year-old Woodland Hills resident Connie Sokol has seven children ages 2 to 21 years. She’s a frequent contributor on parenting topics to the KSL-TV lifestyle show “Studio 5.”  Here, the authors share their best advice for communicating and connecting well with your tween:

1. Be mindful of “location, location, location”

The best talks start in a place where you can devote your full attention to your child, but you don’t need to be at the kitchen table. Take your tween out for a treat, go on a hike together, talk on the drive home from volleyball practice. Sokol even suggests making it cozy: Change into pajamas and talk over a cup of hot cocoa. Do whatever you need to do to banish your own distractions and focus on your tween, say the authors.

2. Start on comfortable territory

Even with serious topics, you can start with non-threatening questions such as “How was soccer today?” or “What did you think of that math test?” Christensen said. Give your child a chance to open up and relax before moving on to more serious subjects.

3. Let her guide the conversation

As parents, we tend to over-talk and over-explain, say Sokol and Christensen. One of the most important things you can do as you talk to your tween is to listen. Don’t feel the need to drive any point home too hard, says Christensen. Let your child ask questions, and then let it be.

4. Keep it short

Fifteen minutes is a good baseline, say Sokol and Christensen. You can talk longer if your child seems eager to dish, or cut the conversation short if it’s getting awkward. “Look for cues from your daughter to see if she is feeling a little stressed or if she seems bored with the conversation, or even if she is getting a little moody,” says Christensen.

5. Keep your own feelings in check

Sometimes tweens want to push the limits and shock their parents. So do your best to stay calm and keep your emotions under control (even if you need to go throw pillows around your room later). “It’s the old adage for parents of youth: If you like it, they’ll loathe it,” says Sokol. “Whether it’s a dirty word or a nose ring, stay neutral and share your feelings from a thoughtful rather than angry place.”

6. Use facts

During the tween years, kids love information that comes from a source that isn’t their parents. So use the Internet and every resource you have at your disposal. For example, Christensen says that if your healthy-weight daughter is worrying about her appearance, you could let her calculate her Body Mass Index (BMI) on the CDC’s website nccd.cdc.gov for additional reassurance that she is at a normal and healthy size.

7. Don’t expect perfection

“Some talks will go fabulously, and some will feel like a root canal,” writes Sokol in her book. And that’s OK. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Focus on loving your child and letting that love show through in your conversations with her. Conversations improve with practice … and patience. “It’s worth every effort that you put in to connecting with your daughter,” says Christensen.

Tricky topics: How to handle the uncomfortable stuff

Weight worries: Don’t talk about weight, talk about health. Set your daughter up for life by teaching her that she doesn’t need to worry about numbers on a scale. “Turn her focus toward feeling fit, strong, and healthy,” write the authors. Model good eating habits and a love for exercise, and love your own body so she will love hers.

Puberty: Explain that puberty can start as early as 8 and as late as age 13. This five-year age difference means that everyone matures at her own pace. Help your daughter know what to expect, and that the physical and emotional changes are normal. Your job is to be calm and reassuring, says Christensen. And it’s fine to acknowledge the awkwardness of the subject, and maybe even laugh about it.

Popularity and peer pressure:  During the tween years, girls start to separate from their moms and place more value on what their peers have to say. Make sure you validate your child’s need to be accepted. You can say things like, “I know how important this is to you and kids your age … ” or “I want you to feel accepted, too … ” so she knows you’re on her side. And when it comes to bullying, do get involved. “Respond to bullying with clarity and consistency. If your daughter is being maligned, whether it’s small-time gossiping or full-on cyberbullying, help her to address it decidedly. Ask her to talk with you or a trusted adult at the school — sometimes kids would rather tell someone else first,” Sokol says.

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Elyssa Andrus has worked as a journalist for 14 years, most recently as the lifestyle editor at the Daily Herald newspaper in Provo. She is a contributor to the KSL-TV show "Studio 5" and is co-author of the book "Happy Homemaking" (Cedar Fort, 2012) with Natalie Hollingshead. She lives with her husband and four young children in Utah Valley.

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