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Raising preteens and laying a positive foundation for the future

Raising preteens and laying a positive foundation for the future

Does this scenario sound familiar? Early one morning, you and your preteen son are going through your morning routines, just like you have on hundreds of mornings before. You put down your newspaper and remind your son that you will be leaving in five minutes, when a very disrespectful response comes from his room. While the uncharacteristic nature of his response should have been alerting, you unfortunately react in a harsh, overly-authoritarian manner. Within minutes, the situation escalates to anger and ends when you pull out the old, “There is only one general in this house, and when he tells you to do something, you do it!”

To top it off, his fifth grade teacher has just sent a note home highlighting the emotional changes of a preteen, and how parents should avoid overreacting to their hormonal swings.

As a parent, you have clearly failed your first test. To help you navigate the challenging preteen period, this article offers advice on how to avoid common parental mistakes made during the preteen years.


Do understand what changes are occurring in your child’s brain

Many parents are more patient and understanding when they understand why children and teens act the way they do at each phase of development. In the simplest of formulas, late elementary/middle school students are going through brain changes. These changes decrease their executive functioning skills, such as attention, working memory, organization, time management and impulse control. Additionally, the changes turbo-charge their emotional output/responsiveness (teen brain scans show a doubling of emotion for the same situation as compared to younger children and adults) and dramatically increases their social processing, which contributes to their extreme sarcasm. In math terms, this equates to ½ the executive functioning + 2x’s emotion + increased social processing = teen angst.

Do reinforce boundaries

While parents are pushing independence, preteens must clearly understand their boundaries and understand ahead of time what will happen if they get crossed. Similar to horses, your “fences” need to be broad enough for a feeling of freedom, but tight and strong enough to keep them from really hurting themselves.

Also, it is much easier to remain calm when these boundaries are clearly spelled out and consistently reinforced. Preteens should know their chores, the consequences for poor academic performance, the acceptable expression of emotions, and the guidelines and consequences attached to their new freedoms and privileges. It takes a village to raise a teen, so don’t be afraid to compare your methods with other parents.

Do limit electronics and social media use

The onset of puberty brings a drop in Dopamine levels. Dopamine is part of the brain’s pleasure system and one of the big four neurotransmitters in our brains. Used for executive functioning skills, these lower levels reduce teens’ executive functions.

However, when the levels get too high, the brain kicks into hyper-focus and wants to keep doing the same thing over and over. Action video games spike Dopamine levels and are notorious for robbing the player’s sense of time, hyper-focusing on the game and having a huge emotional crash after being forced to turn off. The same hyper-focus and Dopamine juice turn-on happens when the text message ringtone goes off and the receiver can’t wait to see who is checking in.

Additionally, screen time before bed has a dramatic impact on a teen’s ability to fall asleep, as the brain has been stimulated by the changing light of the screen just as you want it to relax. Teens need time alone to reflect upon the day’s events, remember some of the values you had raised them on, come up with a few solutions and take a moment to write music or poetry as expressions of their inner angst.

Do volunteer in your community

When life feels difficult and you are drowning in a sea of emotion, nothing changes more quickly than focusing on meeting the needs of someone else who is truly suffering. Helping at an animal shelter, serving meals at a soup kitchen or getting involved with a community environmental project are all great ways to focus preteen energy into something positive, while reminding teens of the real issues in the world.

Do listen to teens

It is very common for preteens and middle school students to feel a great deal of stress. They constantly feel overwhelmed by social pressures and a barrage of social cruelty online. Eating disorders, drugs, cutting and trouble with boys are common.

Be sure to listen to your children and try to understand their emotions. Even though their issues might not seem important to you, they are very important to them. Tell your children that you love them and believe in them. Spend time together, even though they will say they do not want to spend time with you.


Do not overreact

Parents of older teens learn very quickly that speed and spontaneity are their enemies when trying to help teens manage their emotionally exuberant and impulsive lifestyles. Help your preteen learn that any issues can be handled in a planned, calm manner. A tone of calmness and self-control begins with parents. Stay strong as teens become masters at knowing how to push your buttons and highlight your inconsistencies.

Do not overlook their desire for control

Preteens want to feel as if they have greater control and personal authority. Gone are the days of overprotective, micromanaged parenting. Preteens want to feel like they are older, can handle greater freedom and have earned your respect. Instead of fighting nature, structure a plan that rewards independence and responsibility with greater privileges and autonomy. If need be, you can always reign them in and return to a more guided and supervised approach.

Do not forget to build insight

Parental discipline serves two functions. First, specifically with younger children, you are either trying to stop or start a behavior, such as to stop irritating their sibling or start doing their homework. However, as your child ages, more emphasis must be placed on the second function of good discipline. For example, helping your son or daughter develop insight into why he or she acted in a certain manner and then figure out better alternatives.

A simple way to promote this insight is by utilizing the “half/double” rule. When your preteen strays out of the boundaries, administer your prearranged consequences. If your son or daughter accepts the consequences without fussing and later talks to you in an insightful manner (not just saying sorry), the consequence will be cut in half. If your child refuses to have this conversation or continues to whine about the consequence, double the consequence.

Do not underestimate the importance of connection and family time

Modern American families are constantly on the run and overwhelmed with activities and homework. Sadly, good old-fashioned family connection time has been lost in the equation. While our culture has changed, the emotional needs of your preteen have not. Because this is one of the neediest times in their lives, emotionally connecting now will pay huge dividends when your older adolescent is consumed with academics and their social lives.

Consequently, be strict with your limits on when homework/electronics/social media ends and family time begins. If you want to take it to the next level, go outside and create adventures with your preteen. Remove all electronics. Instead, play together outside and discover new places. Remember their need for excitement and peer relationships, so invite a friend and his or her parents to try something new. Take the time to play together, create lasting memories and connect emotionally.

Do not discount the needs of exceptional preteens

Statistically, at least 20 to 30 percent of preteens struggle with neurologically-based exceptionalities, such as ADHD, learning disabilities, various emotional difficulties and a range of social skill deficits on the autism spectrum.

Begin with a professional and a support group to fully understand your child’s exceptional needs. This information can help you craft a plan, which will fit your preteen’s specific needs. Be sure to appreciate the many emotional difficulties students with exceptionalities endure. Day after day, they are confronted with struggles and often end up feeling hopeless and helpless to create change in their lives. These students need to take a break from homework, therapy and behavioral charts, and simply spend time together with family. Watch a show together, shoot hoops or even play a videogame together, so that your exceptional student can feel as if he or she has an island of calm in a very big stormy sea.

Jumping cartoon

The preteen years can be incredibly fun and enriching for parents and children. However, you must rethink your parenting style from when your children were younger. Be sure to enjoy their energy and embrace the challenge. As philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said, “Out of chaos, comes a shooting star.” Relating well during this stage will give you a template and an emotional foundation for the high school years ahead.

More expert advice about Raising Teens

Photo Credits: Tween Cell Phone Texting by Carissa Rogers vua Flickr; Check Man, Cross Man and Jump Man © ioannis kounadeas -

Craig A. Knippenberg, LCSW, M.Div.Child and Family Therapist

Craig A. Knippenberg has provided group and family therapy for over 30 years. In addition to his clinical experience, he is the founder of, a website and blog dedicated to helping Dad’s connect with their kids. He was also re...

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