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The definitive guide to raising preteen girls without letting them get to you
This request re: tween girl life came across my desk:
“Oh wise witches with older daughters, please send me your rules of engagement for tween/teen girls. I need help with affect management and harm reduction (that is, reduction of the chance that I’m going to harm somebody). She is 10 and moody as hell. I need a different approach so I don’t get locked into these stupid battles with her. I am bad at not taking the bait. All of this is also compounded by her being an only child, I think.”
Here I’m sharing some other witches’ experiences and advice on trying to live with/raise one of these kids in an empathetic way that communicates, “I know what you are going through and it can really stink, but you cannot treat me/other people like shit, either.”
Of course, not all kids’ experiences are the same, and not all kids slot into girls/boys, so buyer beware. I think a lot of the below is just good parenting advice no matter what type of person you are raising and a good reminder that no matter how smart or loving you are—probably the more smart and loving you are—you cannot escape your kids making this shit extremely hard on you.
“Yeah man, it’s no joke. My almost-15-yo AFAB (now nonbinary but the same developmental shit) had a lot of ups and downs, especially like 10-13. They settled into themselves somewhere in the middle of 9th grade. The entirety of those four years were a rollercoaster. Their brains are changing so much at the same time that they are gaining new levels of awareness and independence. Sometimes they’re still little kids and sometimes they are strangely grown up. I think it freaks them out a lot and LUCKY YOU, you are the safe place that they can let it all out!
I have tried really hard to focus on keeping communication open and staying a safe place for my kids during this SUPER HARD time because I know the problems only become bigger and scarier and I want them to feel like they can come to me as much as possible.
Don’t be the one who raises the temperature of the situation. Be calm and cool (on the outside!) As much as you can. For me, this included addressing my own anger and anxiety with therapy and medication. It helps when I feel more in control of myself.
Also, in calmer moments, do the ‘you and me vs. the problem’ approach instead of ’me vs. you, The Problem.’ If there are things that set her off, try to name them and come up with better strategies. Acknowledge that some days you’re just cranky/sad/angry/off, and that’s normal, so what can we do to cope that doesn’t harm someone else? Can you have a code word for ’I’m having a rough day and I just need to put my headphones on/go sit in my room/sit outside without anyone talking to me’ This goes a long way for her to learn how to express and identify negative or overwhelming feelings without blowing up everyone in the vicinity.”
“Couple things that helped me: ignoring shitty moods when possible. Just trying not to take the bait. For tearful/sad/moodiness, frequent check ins but not pushing her to tell me what’s wrong (a lot of times there was nothing specific, but I’d be anxious and nudge her, and it would piss us both off). Letting go a lot more than I would normally incline (hard for me). Getting her lots of books about kids/girls going through puberty (not nonfiction, more just preteen/teen series that showed how common all of it is). Finding one or two silly/low-key fun things that just she and I like to do together— laughing at Riverdale, getting DQ or a cheap manicure, or playing Ariana Grande as loud as we could in the car. When I brought in more silly fun, it helped to feel there was a balance to all the other shit. Solidarity, xo.”
“Both of mine were rocky until almost the end of 9th grade and then settled down back into themselves. She is possibly in a constant premenstrual state as her body primes up for the next stage of development. It gets better!”
“If you can, get her in weekly talk therapy. With kids, we tend to think about therapy in terms of a set beginning and end, when in reality, they need weekly sessions as much as adults. Even if my kid doesn’t employ everything, it’s good that once a week a trusted professional is working with them on developing tools to manage these big emotions.
Next is physical activity. I got my husband to see it as the same anxiety management tool that we use. He used to view it only in terms of ‘Well, I hated sports, so maybe she’s like me.’ I did, too, until I found My Sports. My kid is a swimmer: they’re good at it, likes being in the pool, AND it exposes them to kids outside of their school.
FINALLY, sleep. During the school year, my kid is in bed by 8 p.m., and asleep by 8:30 p.m., give or take. During the summer, I extend it to 9:30 p.m., give or take.
This shit IS HARD. It’s a fucking slog to do all of this but it helps my kid be a little less of an asshole.”
“I am soooo bad at taking the bait with my 10 y.o., I flipped out last night to the point that my husband got all sad that she would think love and affection was conditional on behavior. I really need to not let myself get so mad, but when it’s doing things like hugely delaying bed time or time to leave the house, I get so upset. And the other thing is that my kid gets MORE needy when she’s like this, not less. Solidarity.”
“My girl is 13 and I’ve gotten better in the past year and not constantly rising to the bait. When we’re talking about something I have also gotten better about checking her boundaries - ie, ‘Do you want me to say anything about what’s going on with your skin?’ - before I bring something up, which has helped reduce some stonewalling and such.
We still battle about cleaning up and chores because she still regularly pulls what we call ‘Amelia Bedelia-ing’ BS like ‘You said put dirty dishes in the dishwasher—you didn’t say to WASH dirty dishes that are too big to put in the dishwasher!’ but overall things have improved rather than further devolved. It’s at least as much due to the work I’ve done on my reactions and approach as it is her own maturation process.”
“Something that helped me not take the bait: when kids say nasty things or slam a door or whatever, think of it like they’re barfing up bad feelings to get rid of them. Just like if they had something poisonous inside them, they’d barf it up to protect themselves. That’s all they’re doing. Barfing. I’ll stop saying ‘barfing’ now. I learned this from a book called Yes, Your Teen Is Crazy. It helped me a TON.”
“Saying this with ZERO judgment of anyone who like injected their kid with a phone at birth: For our particular kids, waiting till 8th grade for their own phone was the best decision we made. They could/can still text from the family iPad, but only with permission. Life is hard enough, and we have two really sensitive/dramatic kids who would have been a mess if school drama had followed them home. My other advice is hard, meaningful physical labor. I’m a 19th-century mother. Good advice I got way back was to assign them a task that contributes in a meaningful way to the family—and if it doesn’t get done, no one is gonna step in and do it for them. So like, if you put her in charge of Saturday night dinners, and she didn’t do it, you all just kind of shrug and eat cereal. Or you put her in charge of the vegetable garden, and if she doesn’t water it, it dies. And you don’t have to discipline her for it, it’s just a fact. But the thing of it meaningfully contributing to the whole family is huge; when they do it, they can see everyone benefiting, and they feel valued and important in an adult way.
Also, when she says ‘I hate you,’ your line is ‘I’m sad to hear that. I love you very much.’’
“Mine is 12 and wowza, the sassiness and meltdowns are insane, but I try so hard not to overreact and make things worse. I wait for her to get in a calm spot and just kill her with kindness so that she knows I’m still here for her without actually bringing up her meltdowns.
I fear I may not make it through marriage over the next six years as my husband tries to be such a badass. ‘I won’t tolerate this behavior’ kinda shit - then he gets mad at me for being so casual about things, and then I get pissed at her - it’s a big vicious cycle.
My neighbor who had twin girls, now 30, told me a while ago that it’s a tween/teen girl’s job to resist help/guidance from their moms because they are learning to be independent. I remind myself of that wisdom daily.”
“My kid is NB but AFAB and raised as a girl until about age 12, and they are almost 14 now. I also have an 11-year-old son. My tween and teenage years were absolute hell for me (and to be fair, my mom, since I was so hard on her). My mom took the bait every single time and it was extremely bad for our relationship; we were constantly arguing. I am wrangling with this in therapy.
A lot of my kid’s behavior is extremely triggering for me. If a restaurant doesn’t have anything on the menu they like, they will pull a face and sulk about it. My parents would have done the hiss-yell at me for embarrassing them and ‘acting like a baby’ so it’s very hard for me to not react to the sulking and hiss-yell the same thing. So I ignore it. It is HARD, but it’s getting slightly easier every time. But it is maddening.
You have to take care of emotionally regulating yourself first. Otherwise, you will take that bait, which is just going to make things worse. You are the adult in this situation — your brain is not the one that’s going through hormonal changes and growing.
I look at tweens and teens like giant toddlers. Tantrums in older kids are age-appropriate, they just look different (and you can’t throw them over your shoulder anymore if they’re getting too fussy). When they get mad, their brains literally can’t respond to anything you’re saying or doing. After she gets big mad and yells or whatever, give her time to calm down, and *then* you can discuss. I don’t tolerate name-calling, for example, and I hate it when my kids slam the door so after a fit I just gently remind them not to slam. And we talk about what went sideways and how maybe next time we could handle it differently. Like with the restaurant thing, now we look at the menu ahead of time, and my kid gets anxious about asking for no sauce, and I will ask the server instead - but the key is we talk about this BEFORE when everyone is calm. Both my kids have their moments but overall, they are really, really great.
Tweens and teens are still figuring things out, and everything around them is weird and changing and different. As a parent, it’s your job to steadily guide them and provide a soft landing space. But I really have learned that I’m a better mom when I work on emotionally regulating myself and care for myself. It’s hard to respond well to a raging kid when you are also tired. Good luck! I feel like my kid disappeared in their room for about a year but now they are back in the mix and begging for a family game night almost every night after dinner.”
“The most helpful advice our pediatrician gave me was' ‘The database isn’t full yet.’ Keep that in mind and help populate it.’ I TRY to remember that when my kids’ irrationality is making me mental and wonder what I am doing wrong.”
“I’ve heard positive results from chaining them to a pipe in a crawl space. If only! What has actually helped is listening to “The Puberty Podcast,” which has an episode called ‘Adolescents Don’t Have to be Assholes’. One thing I heard recently is that helped me is that teens feel things more deeply than smaller children or adults. Like, duh, but alsooooo it’s not just high drama. They *actually* feel like the world is ending because their brains are so ridiculous. Mixed into that because one of the show’s hosts is the sister of actor, Nick Kroll, but some early episodes of the podcast were about his show Big Mouth which is SO good. It’s about puberty and has characters such as hormone monsters and depression kitty. It’s very dirty (don’t watch with your kids. Pro tip: be very aware if you hear kids approaching because you might be in a scene with 40 dancing animated penises and pausing that will not help) but it just feel insightful. And after a day of dealing with a moody tween, laughing is nice.”
“I think just ask them questions, listen, parrot back some of the stupid ass shit they say, then let them be in bad moods, but let them know you’re here to help. Their hormones are nuts, their skin and hair is the ugliest it will ever be, their teeth are jacked, they can’t put together an outfit for shit, and they don’t know where they belong in the world. They are becoming independent and still strapped down as young children but feel like they are not kids. It’s hard for them. For my kids, sometimes, I would just say, ‘It’s clear you had a hard week, let’s just make popcorn and watch a movie that makes us cry.’”
“These Pearls of Wisdom come from colleagues, therapists, and friends who have seen it all.
1) Know thyself. It is important to differentiate what it is your Tween/Teen NEEDS and what are YOUR wants for them. Your issues are not their issues. As a recovering Tiger Parent, I cannot emphasize this enough. Easier said than done. My high school year was filled with anxiety, and I had to work really hard not to project those anxieties on my kid when they started high school. The cringiest moments I experienced as a teacher were when parents would express concerns about their kid and it was obviously the concern was really about the parent’s insecurities. So much shaming goes on with kids if they don’t live up to a certain standard.
2) You are the parent, not the friend. Yes, you can be a trusted advocate, a safe landing pad, a friendly face, but as long as you are pulling the parent card, you are not the friend. A friend relationship can develop later but at this point in life, kids don’t need friends, they need parents. That means don’t feel bad about setting limits that they need. Our kids are gamers, so in our house we have negotiated terms for internet use. This has helped my kids plan their days. This does not mean there is not complaining and gnashing of teeth when internet access is turned off, but a rule is a rule. This also encourages them to find their own ways to fill their time.
3) Model humility. When we are wrong or do something we inadvertently hurt of kid’s feeling, we seek to understand then own it, and apologize.
4) Accept the realities of mental illness. Often times mental illness is exacerbated or becomes apparent during puberty. Yes, adolescence is an emotional roller coaster, but be open to it being more. In the 30 + years since I graduated from high school, I have been shocked as to how many stories I have heard from friends, classmates who had serious mental health issues when we were teenagers. A few year ago I was forwarded an article by one of my former students, the quintessential golden child, chronicling how she lived with an eating disorder from ages 8-23. There is no shame in getting help. We all need it. It is better that your children deal with issues and help build coping skills while they are under your roof, than out in the real world on their own.
Finally, encourage them to challenge themselves in productive ways, so they don’t challenge themselves in destructive ways.
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The Evil Witches archives live here. Some old issues to zoom around if you feel like include the problem with best friends, the problem with bedtime cuddling, and the problem with letting your kids watch TV while you make dinner.
Finally, I am collecting some advice on behalf of a reader with an 8 year old for a future issue: “If you ever do a post on handling anxiety or helping kids who freak out in medical/dental situations, I would be so interested in what other witches do.” Let me know if your kid needs some extra TLC/preparation/distraction at medical/dental appointments and how you handle it. Tips from parents of kids who are neurodivergent especially welcome. You can respond to directly to this email or leave in the comments.
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