Ep 236: Navigating the Tween Years

Michelle Mitchell joins us once again for a deep dive into the tween years—the topic of her new book Tweens. We explore cognitive development, body development, and the common skirmishes parents with tweens might face. 
It can be jarring to raise a tween. One day they are our cuddly kids, and the next day they seem to want nothing to do with us! They start saying our jokes are lame, our style is dated, and we just “don’t get it.” 

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Full show notes

The tween years can be a contentious time for both parents and tweens. Our kids are taking the first steps into adulthood, and as scary as it might be for parents, for tweens it might feel awkward, uncomfortable, and lonely. Their bodies are changing and so are their brains. Tweens, in addition to developing more complex thinking, start experimenting with who they are. Hence why they might seem wildly different month to month, day to day, hour to hour! Tweens might argue more as the desire for autonomy peaks, and they might even practice lying. 

But it’s also an incredible experience for parents: they are witness to the extraordinary process of a young person figuring out who they are in the world. 

To help us untangle the confounding changes happening in the tween years, we’re joined by Michelle Mitchell, author of the new book Tweens: What Kids Need Now, Before the Teenage Years. Michelle Mitchell is an educator, author, and award-winning speaker who has conducted extensive research, surveying over 1,600 parents and 600 tweens, for her latest book. (We’ve spoken with her a few times before on the show about self harm and puberty.)

In our conversation, Michelle walks me through the transition in tweens thinking, as well as how to talk to tweens about their emotions, confidence, same sex attraction, technology, body image, and lying. We will also explore how tweens and parents think differently about friends, plus the differences between concrete and complex thinking in tweens and how to support tweens in their cognitive development. 

Spiking Autonomy

The tween years for most kids are defined by a heightened desire for autonomy which might show up as more arguments, more omissions, and a general pull away from family life and toward other social groups. Fortunately, the need for autonomy peaks around age fourteen—it won’t last forever, and by keeping lines of communication with our tweens open, we can lessen the growing pains of autonomy. 

Michelle offers some insights she gleaned during research for the book to ease tensions caused by heightened need for autonomy. Michelle reminds us tweens are still looking for guidance from adults, but they might feel awkward about asking us. Just because a tween doesn’t ask their parents questions, doesn’t mean they don’t have any!

Michelle shares with us the most commonly asked questions from tweens in conversations about puberty and sex—two topics the tweens she spoke with felt most uncomfortable about. Many tweens feel awkward about topics related to their own developing bodies. In knowing ahead of time what questions our tweens might have, parents can be prepared to bring up the topics if their teen doesn’t. 

At the same time, tweens will inevitably ask questions that parents might find awkward, basic, or uncomfortable. It's important to approach our curious tweens with compassion. Kids need to be taken seriously and given room to ask their questions free from judgment. Otherwise, parents risk sending the message that they can only handle certain topics of conversation. 

Keeping Communication Flowing

The tween years are full of experimentation with who one is and, let’s face it, a lot of self-consciousness! This increased wariness about others’ opinions, could mean teens share less with their parents for fear of being judged. And clamming up and self-isolating for people in general, but particularly with tweens, can lead to mental health issues beyond normal feelings of loneliness, anxiety, or sadness. 

If a tween comes to us with a big emotional claim, Michelle emphasizes the importance of validating tweens’ emotions. Even when a tween’s feelings seem out of proportion, validating and then seeking to understand how they’re feeling proves you can be trusted to listen without judgment. (Moreover, this approach helps tweens build their confidence in their own abilities to handle their emotions.)

Michelle additionally emphasizes the importance of creating a supportive environment to encourage tweens’ exploration of who they are. Tweens are beginning to compare themselves to others more often and might give up on pursuits if they don’t feel they are the best at a skill. 

For example, maybe a teen really loves musical theater—but they couldn’t carry a tune if it was given to them in a bucket. We could encourage a teen to consider other ways to be involved in musical theater besides being on stage. There is set design, directing, music composition, theater management, box office ticketing—any could be an avenue for exploring what lights them up. By encouraging our tweens to stay curious and explore different opportunities, we can help tweens find their budding passions and unique superpowers. 

When speaking with your tween or teen about their interests, Michelle notes that this generation holds high values of diversity and inclusion. Parents are wise to keep an open mind and ask their teen why they are drawn to specific pursuits, before jumping to conclusions about if it’s good, bad, distracting or worthwhile. Tweens might act tougher than they used to, but they still have their child-self inside. 

In the Episode…

As usual, I had a great time chatting with Michelle! It was wonderful to have her on again and learn from her expertise. 

We covered a range of topics in the interview for a bird’s eye view of what the tween years might look for. In addition to speaking about autonomy, communication, and emotional maturity, we also discussed:
  • How to communicate limits around technology
  • Tween’s unique forgetfulness when it comes to staying safe
  • How to help your teen with body confidence
  • Why tweens need their family’s unconditional love (even if they say they don’t!)
Thanks so much for tuning into this week’s episode and for more Michelle Mitchell, you can find her on her website, and on her other discussions with me on the podcast! We’ll see you next week!

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Creators and Guests

Andy Earle
Andy Earle
Host of the Talking to Teens Podcast and founder of Write It Great
Michelle Mitchell
Michelle Mitchell
Michelle has been termed the ‘teenage expert’ by the media and is sought after for her compassionate, and grounded advice. Her innovative work has been featured on The Today Show, Today Tonight and Channel 10 Morning News and Sky News, as well as countless print media including The Age, The Courier Mail and The Daily Telegraph. You can hear Michelle on radio in Australia on a weekly basis.
Ep 236: Navigating the Tween Years
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