Tweens’ Frequent Switching Between Wanting Protection And Independence Doesn’t Make Them Crazy, It Makes Them Tweens
In our therapy with both tweens and their parents, parents often talk to us about tweens and young teens being labile, meaning they can switch quite quickly between wanting closeness, intimacy and protection, while also wanting freedom and independence. New York Magazine recently tapped Tribeca Therapy for our expertise treating adolescents for a gift guide for 12-year-olds. While the guide gives some practical suggestions for parents on how to engage tweens, including “gifts that are tools for inquiry” related to what a specific kid this age is into, including, as our director Matt suggested, “climbing gear, books about identifying plants, coding kits and tools for building projects,” the article also hits on a critical issue for parents of young teens and tweens.
The Parenting Dialectic: Freedom Versus Supervision
For parents, particularly parents of tweens and young teens, there is the dialectic between freedom versus supervision and accountability. In this usage of dialectic, the idea here is that there are two complimentary points of emphasis existing with a sort of reciprocal tension. In parenting, we are often working to do two complimentary things at once. At times, health dialectics can feel like balancing two opposing forces, and for parents grappling with this, they can feel pulled in two directions.
It’s important to note that each parent might also be focused on opposite priorities. In this case, parents may need help to recognize that both, in concert, are what their child or children need(s).
Accepting A Tween’s Contradictions By Being With Them In Their Ambivalence
Often a tween’s switch between wanting freedom and protection can be quite stark. Because of much of the rhetoric around teenagers, which certainly plays out with tweens, there are readily available cultural mechanisms through which to pathologize and dismiss a tween’s lability. Resist this! Rather than understanding this as crazy, it’s important to see a tween’s ambivalence as a sort of deep emotional and relational grappling.
At times, there is also a tendency to demand that these ambivalent and contradictory positions be resolved. In a sense, it’s tempting to say to a tween: “Make up your mind, already!” But that simply does more for an adult’s desire for order and predictability than it does to actually attend to a tween’s needs.
So what should parents do? Accept the contradiction. Embrace it. Adults most meaningfully say to kids in this phase: “Ok, I’m cool if you want different things at different times.” The fundamental task, like all relational imperatives, is to be close and be with the young person in their ambivalence–to say, “Ok, got it. I’ll hang in there with you through this.”