Ep 284: Understanding Your Tween: The Journey of Growth

Andy Earle: You're listening to Talking to Teens, where we speak with leading experts from a variety of disciplines about the art and science of parenting teenagers. I'm your host, Andy Earle.

We're here today with Tanith Carey talking about tweens.

We're going to dive deep into situations that often happen with tweens, and we're going to look at how you can respond to these situations in a way that is productive and helpful.

We're going to see that the key lies in helping your child to fully understand what they're going through and the complexities of all the emotions that are happening under the surface, so they can start to question some of the ideas and beliefs that are being given to them by their friends, by the culture, and they can really start to think for themselves and make the best decisions.

Tanith Carey is an author and educator. She's the author of numerous books, including What's My Child Thinking? What's My Teenager Thinking? And the new book What's My Tween Thinking?

She's back on the show today to discuss her work. Tanith, thank you so much for being here.

Welcome back to the Talking to Teens podcast.

Tanith Carey: Hi, Andy, how are you?

Andy Earle: Oh, fabulous. I'm so excited to be speaking with you again. This is really cool. You have written a ton of books. And some really cool stuff we talked about previously with teenagers.

Now you've got this new book focused on tweens. What makes you feel like this was something that's still needed to be talked about or something that needed more information on?

Tanith Carey: So we had written the book What's My Child Thinking for the 2-7s. And then we had done the teens from 13 to 18.

And interestingly when we did those books, initially, it wasn't felt that the tween phase was needed, which is really interesting, and It suddenly has come into the foreground. I think traditionally we think of the tween years as a kind of latent period where not too much happens between childhood and the more turbulent teenage years.

Now we recognize that actually there's an awful lot going on, and that if we could teach tweens some really key skills that could make for easier teen years.

A lot of tweens are in crisis, so we wanted to head that off and give that some thought and some preparation and lay some groundwork.

Andy Earle: That's so true. We think, hey, we've got kids and we've got teenagers and then we've got adults. I guess maybe to me there's this kind of phase in between there but we don't really give it a lot of thought. It's its own unique phase. And I thought it was interesting in the book, you actually even further subdivide the tween years into, so we've got the 8 to 10 and then the 11, 12 year olds.

So you're even further breaking it down as like early tween and late tween. What I thought that was really interesting. Why have you done that? And what do you think is what are the differences between the early tween and the late tween phases?

Tanith Carey: The later tween years you're going to be facing the impact of puberty.

So then you have hormones and more obvious brain developments kicking in. We have to realize that the tween years are very fast moving. There's an awful lot of difference between an 8 year old and a 12 year old. In the same way, there's a lot of difference between a 2 year old and a 7 year old.

There's not a lot of difference between a 13 and an 18 year old. The book, it's a way of organizing the scenarios. All the books take real life scenarios, and organize the scenarios in the order you are most likely to see them. So that's also part of it.

Yeah. It's impossible to put a, really firm dividing line between those two sets of years, but it's a general guide.

Andy Earle: What would you say are some of the big themes of the tween years? Or things that are really common patterns?

Tanith Carey: The tween years are a lot about identity development. They're the time when you really see the personality of the child start to come out. It's a time when they are working out what they're good at. They're also starting to compare themselves to their peers. So that comparison makes a big difference to tweens.

When you've got a little kid, they think they're great at everything. And then you start to see the first seeds of self doubt and insecurity coming in the tween years. So that's sad. And they're also starting to look outside the home for relationships, which are non familial.

So they are trying to find where they belong in their peer group. And then with that becomes more complicated friendships and more relationships. So you'll probably see your first major friendship fallouts. And you'll see more clear defined friendship groups.

And we know when humans get together, they tend to form hierarchies. And even though that's uncomfortable for us to think about with kids, unfortunately, that does happen. So it's good to give kids perspective and overview. Parents get upset in the tween years about friendship fallouts because they're very still very protective of their child.

They think their child is just an innocent little angel. But there are power plays going on even now in tween friendship groups. And it sounds like you're bringing home harsh realities to kids that don't need to hear it. But it's important we tell our tweens that social conflict is what humans do.

They'll be able to work it out. There'll be people trying to go up, trying to go down. Because it's their first experience of that kind of conflict, they tend to take it very personally. They tend to get very upset. So if you start to give kids the bigger picture views on a lot of issues, that's good armory for the future years.

We tend just to think, oh, tweens don't need to hear about that. But actually it's a great time for them to hear stuff. When they're really receptive to your values, they're really listening, and they're identifying with you. Now is a good time, actually, to get some really good messages across, as long as you've sorted out those messages for yourself, yeah.

Andy Earle: What are some of the ways also in which teens to separate and divide themselves and see themselves as more kind of different from the family or not as attached to their parents? And how might they be defining that?

Tanith Carey: One of the most painful things for parents is when you're walking with your tween down the street and they've always wanted to hold your hand and now they're going, Oh, don't hold my hand.

Andy Earle: You're embarrassing me. Come on. Actually, could you just wait and I'll walk the rest of the way.

Tanith Carey: Exactly. Yeah. I remember when my own daughter like I used to drop her at school and she would like. I'd have to drop her on the corner so that she looked like I wasn't anything to do with her.

So that can feel painful as a parent, because you've had this little child and they've looked up to you and you're a hero and a heroine and you're the most beautiful mommy or daddy in the world. And then suddenly it seems like they don't want to know you in public.

The cornerstone of all the books is that if we understand the developmental shifts, stuff feels less personal to us. And then we can behave in a more regulated way. Because emotional regulation is one of the key skills we can teach our kids at this age.

And the best way to learn that, and I know this sounds like a big ask, but is to regulate ourselves and be conscious of our own thoughts and responses and biases. Slow it down so we don't overreact, or we don't lash out, or we don't say things that probably we shouldn't have done. When you get that little trigger, that little, Oh, it's a good indicator that it's time to take a deep breath, notice how you're feeling, and step back a little bit and think about your responses.

And that's also what the book helps with.

Going back to mom, you're so embarrassing.

Andy Earle: Yeah, how do we handle that? They don't want to be even seen with us anymore.

Tanith Carey: Tweens at this age, they are looking towards a peer group outside the family.

If we see it as a part of healthy separation from us, because ultimately that's what we need our kids to do. We need them to separate from us and form relationships outside our families. So this is a preparation for that. And they are so intent at this point of learning the new rules of their peer group, that even if their peers are nowhere near them, they can still hear their voices in their heads.

The imaginary audience. You might be singing in the car and there might be nobody else in the car, but you and your tween, and you're just enjoying yourself. And suddenly your tween's going, Oh mom, that's so embarrassing. Be quiet. But there's no one else in the car, but in their minds, they're imagining what their friends might think.

And because tweens are also at that stage where they want to separate, but they know they're allied to us, they also feel they will be judged by their peers by how we are. So they're grappling with that. They want you to not to be the embarrassing mom.

There was an incident I had where I turned up at one of my daughter's concerts and I was wearing a very bright dress and she was playing in an orchestra and I said hello to her afterwards. I was pleased to see her because I hadn't seen her for a while because it was abroad. And she was like, don't ever wear that dress again. So we laugh about that now because she's 22 and she's old enough not to care and it doesn't impact her what I wear. But at that age, even though probably none of her peers had even noticed me, she was imagining the rest of the orchestra going, Oh, wow, whose mom is that? It's the imaginary audience.

It's important to know that.

Andy Earle: Also making me think about wanting to have your own space. I remember going through this space myself where all of a sudden it's no, it's my room. And this is my space. And you have to knock before you come in here or ask for my permission before you come inside. Is that common?

Tanith Carey: That is, again, another healthy phase of development where their rooms are no longer just a place to sleep and keep their toys. They become an expression of themselves. So you'll see them taking more interest in what they put on the walls. And also tweens, they are having more complicated thought processes.

They've got more stuff at school to deal with. So they need a safe space where they can decompress and relax free from adult rules. We have to respect that. And if they do put a note on the door saying, keep out. Parents always laugh about that because that's usually a red flag to the siblings to just barge in and really annoy them.

But if you can role model healthy respect and just knocking, that's important. Just showing you're respecting their evolving boundaries. The other thing about tweens is that when they were little children, they thought you knew everything.

They thought you could read their minds. They now understand you don't know everything and they are deciding as their prefrontal cortex develops what to share and what to keep to themselves.

The only thing I would say is if tweens are spending an awful lot of time in their rooms on their own, that might be a bit of a little red flag.

Invite them outside, just check that they're not ruminating. But otherwise, give them time to to make it their environment. Their safe space. I think it's really important.

Andy Earle: Seems like a theme I saw echoed in a number of the scenarios you talk about in the books, respecting what their wishes are, even if you don't necessarily get it, or don't necessarily agree with it. And I thought that was pretty interesting because it's easy to say, wait, what are you talking about? No, this is my house. This is the room that I let you stay in and I can come in whenever I want.

Tanith Carey: With tweens we tend to think we can slightly dismiss them because we're still in charge. I think we're more careful with teens because we're a bit more afraid of their rage, aren't we? You're a little bit more wary of teens, but with tweens you think you can say that stuff.

It is an important phase of identity formation. And the stuff you say can cut deep. So we do need to ask questions, be curious, because when you are curious about them, they can get curious about themselves.

And I'm a big fan of this concept of interoception, because I'm also a trainee gestalt psychotherapist and we're all about body process. It's about noticing how the physical sensations in your body add up to emotion. So say you feel anxious and your heart is beating fast or your hands are getting clammy. Instead of thinking there's something terribly wrong with you, you can work out like, what is it that's making me feel this way?

What can I do to ground myself? And I think that is a key skill that we can teach tweens and teens because ultimately, if you can understand, for example, say with the example of screen use, if you are on a phone for the sake of argument for an hour or so, and you're starting to notice that your back hurts, or you're getting eye strain, or you feel anxious about something you're seeing, or you feel less than because someone's got more likes than you, or you are feeling stressed by some news report you've seen on TikTok, if you can notice how that is making you feel and go, okay, I noticed this.

What can I do to make myself feel better? Because at the moment, our kids are a little bit numbed. They're a little bit divorced from how they actually feel. And part of that is we live in a very screen based age, they've overwhelmed with schoolwork. They have a lot to do.

So we just need to get them to notice a bit more what's happening in their body so they know what to do with that feeling. Because sometimes they misinterpret stuff like anxiety as something terribly wrong.

It might just be a natural response that's going to pass quickly. And I think further down the line that will help with things like, eating, food, like, when do you feel full? How do you feel after you've had three buckets of fried chicken? You might feel good in the moment. Four hours later, how do you actually feel?

When you are drinking too much, say when you're in your teen years, like, when is your vision starting to go blurry? When are you starting to lose control of what you're saying? Tapping into that interoceptive awareness is a concept that's going to come out more and more.

So I just want to put that out there. And also, it means that instead of you getting involved in saying, Oh, get off that phone. And then it triangulates and then there's a big row, they start to notice for themselves when it's time to get off that phone. I don't know if it sounds pie in the sky at the moment, but I have noticed it working really well.

With my own daughter, for example, I said to her the other day, Lily, could you check out my social media and, let me know. She was going, Oh no, I've taken myself off Instagram. I'm like, Oh really? Yeah. She said, Oh, I've just noticed it's making me feel stressed. I'm not enjoying it.

So I've just deleted that. That's not me saying, that's her realizing that is what makes her feel better. I think it definitely works.

It always works better if they come to the conclusions on their own.

If there's any rule in parenting, that is it. So if you can guide them into curiosity so they can work out for themselves, then everything becomes that little bit easier. You don't want to be in the triangle.

Andy Earle: Another interesting point on the evolving nature of the parenting relationship is in how you relate to each other, what they want to call you. I don't want to call you mommy or daddy anymore. Maybe they want to call you by your name or as you put it in the book, maybe they want to call you dude. How do we handle that?

Tanith Carey: This can be a shock to parents because they're used to be seen as dads, particularly like the superhero, that all powerful guy, and then suddenly your older tween maybe will be calling you, oh dude. That is another sign that they want to reset a little bit their relationship.

They want to show they're a little bit more independent, a little more grown up. Acknowledge it and hear it and say, okay, I hear you call me dude, I'll call you bro, in a humorous way. Maybe ask them why they want to call you that, but otherwise let it pass. And it's a sign they'd like to reset the boundaries. And if you've shown that you've heard that, I think that's really helpful.

Andy Earle: And again, back to respecting those boundaries. Not to resist or say you can't call me that. That's not okay.

Tanith Carey: And it's also a sign that they love and trust you enough that you will tolerate that a lot of the time. So I wouldn't see it as a sign of disrespect, I would just say it's them saying, Oh, I'm getting a little bit older.

I'd like to be seen as a little bit more of an equal and a bit less of a little child.

Andy Earle: We're coming towards the end of the time here. And there's so many more things we could have gone into. There's a wealth of stuff in this book, that's so beautifully done.

I love how you pull these books together with all the illustrations and the layout makes the information so digestible. And the format where you go into all these specific situations and break them down for people and what's really going on, what are you thinking?

What might your tween be thinking? How can you approach this? It's really cool. I'm happy to see that you have this new book focusing on tweens now. And I'm grateful for you to come back on the show.

Tanith Carey: Thanks, Andy.

Andy Earle: Can you talk a little bit about where we can find you, where we can find your books, how we can follow you?

You mentioned being on Instagram. Where should people go to stay up to date with everything?

Tanith Carey: I try to be across most platforms, but I post on Instagram, I post regular parenting tips. All our tips are evidence based. They're not my opinion.

They're not my bias. They're not my stuff. They are tips based in research. And I work with child clinical psychologist, Dr. Anne Harrod Rudkin and Dr. Carl Picot, and it's rigorously checked, but it's also as you say, it's nugget size. If you go on my Instagram, it will be compressed.

So that's on What's My Child Thinking and What's My Tween Thinking on Instagram. And then sometimes on LinkedIn. Mainly those two. Otherwise, you can get them wherever you like to buy your books.

Andy Earle: I highly encourage people to check it out and we'll be eagerly awaiting the next book.

Tanith Carey: Okay. Yeah. I'm writing another one, so I'll be back in touch.

Andy Earle: Looking forward to it. Yes. Thank you.

We're here with Tanith Carey talking about how to help tweens develop the superpower of intro ception. And we're not done yet. Here's a look at what's coming up in the second half of the show.

Tanith Carey: As they grow older, it's time to get them asking some of the bigger pictures because tweens are thinking in more expansive ways. So you could ask them about makeup being marketed at them. And you could talk about how advertising is revolving around making people think that they have something to fix.

Because if they get into a habit of negative self critical talk, that turns into rumination. It can become a circular pattern. The more you think it, the easier it becomes. So the tween years are so important to become aware of that voice and to teach them to talk back to it.

If they're playing violent war games their cortisol is going to be up. When your cortisol is high for a long time, it doesn't feel good. So if you start to notice that actually this doesn't feel as good as I thought it would, they realize, okay, I need to reset.

I've had enough. I don't need this anymore. I want to do something else where I can calm down. My eyes hurt, my back hurts.

Andy Earle: Want to hear the full interview? Sign up for a subscription today. It's completely affordable and your membership supports the work we do here at Talking to Teens. You can now sign up directly through Apple podcasts. Thanks for listening and we'll see you next time.

Creators and Guests

Andy Earle
Andy Earle
Host of the Talking to Teens Podcast and founder of Write It Great
Tanith Carey
Tanith Carey
Author 13 books on psychology/parenting in 35 languages: 'Feeling Blah?', What's My Child/Teen Thinking?', The Friendship Maze", Taming The Tiger Parent'
Ep 284: Understanding Your Tween: The Journey of Growth
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