05/23/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Staying Connected to Your Tween

Have you noticed your preteen spending more time away from you when what might feel like a minute ago they were asking you to stay longer at drop off?

Now they are preoccupied with the dramas going on between friends, spending more time with each other on the computer, and telephone. (Texting of course, no one seems to talk much any more!)

While you might feel that your preteen is moving away from you, it is important to know that this is normal and a vital part of their development. Toddlers do this thing that we in the business call 'refueling'. They go back and forth, physically, from the parent. You can literally watch them moving away, and then coming back for a hug or a sit on the lap, no sooner than to turn back to the outside world after they have 'refueled' on comfort.

Your tween needs to 'refuel' as well. They need for you to be able to adapt to their growing world and recognize that the ways to remain close to you are changing, but the need to do so remains the same. If you adapt to new ways to connect, you will be able to help their growing sense of identity and strengthen their feelings of competence and mastery, all aspects of good self-esteem. At the same time, learning how to communicate and adapt to their changing needs will help you set the stage for the teenage years, when the time away from home increases, and the issues get trickier.

Active Listening

Staying connected requires 'tuning in', and 'active listening'. It is through knowing what and how your child is going through whatever they experience, that you will know how to ask the right questions, or offer them the comfort so that they build their confidence in themselves. Some tips to improve that skill:

1)Observe your child's face or listen to their tone of voice. If it is very upsetting to you when you see your child upset or anxious, try to calm yourself down, and trust that they will be okay. It is your job to let them know you are there to listen, not to take the feelings away. They need to know that you have confidence that they can handle powerful feelings. This is a big part of soothing and will help them remain open to speaking up about what is upsetting them, without worrying that you can't handle it or will need to 'fix' it.

2)IF they aren't speaking but you can see that they seem upset, you can suggest: "You look a bit down; what's up?"

3)Take a moment to observe their reaction. If they don't seem to want to talk but aren't going off to be alone, you can ask them to help you with a task, or setting the table for dinner. Offer an activity where they can feel close to you without feeling like they have to 'talk'. This is soothing and a piece of actively hearing that they want comfort, but want to work out the feelings on their own first. After some time, they may be more open to talking about what is going on, when the feelings are less 'hot'. We call that: 'Strike When the Iron is Cold'.

4)Try to ask open-ended questions instead of questions that end in a "yes" or "no": "What was recess like today compared to last week? What did you guys do?"

5)We often feel that we have to 'teach' our kids things. Try to listen non-judgementally without feeling pressured that you need to 'teach' them the right thing to do. Our kids need to feel that we are their allies and understand their position. Validate their responses. You can always help them problem solve later.

6)Mirroring and identifying with how your kids feel is a big part of active listening: "I know you were trying to hold it in but I would have felt upset too that Lindsay joined your playdate with Linda. I know how excited you were to spend time together after the vacation. I don't like sharing time with friends all the time either and would have been really upset too."

Golden Moments

As we get less 'face time' with our kids, the challenge becomes to adapt and find new moments to connect. Here are some tips on seizing these 'golden moments':

1)If you are the one who picks your child up from school, observe their face. At pickup time you will get a lot of information by simply observing their face, their tone of voice, and how they interact with the teacher or their friends.

2)If you are driving them or taking them with their friends to any activities, be a 'fly on the wall'. Listen to the chatter. Pay attention to your child's behavior and how they might act with different friends. You will get a lot of information on how they experience different people. Do they change? Do they tend to be assertive at home, but very deferent to one friend? This is a stage where it is common for girls in particular to become less assertive as they worry about getting 'left out' or hurting other people's feelings. These are good opportunities to observe their behavior or ask whoever picks them up, how things are going. Like they say, it's not getting there, it's the journey!

3)Mealtime is key. While many families can't eat all together until the weekend, find at least two times during the week when you can get home early enough to eat dinner with them. Rules about meals should include no television, no cell phones, don't take calls yourself. Use this time as an opportunity to unwind, share a laugh, talk about the days' events. You will be amazed at how much comes out and how this can keep you 'in the loop'!

4)You may not be reading a book to them, but read together for 15 -20 minutes at their bedtime. A foot or a backrub are ways to offer comfort and connection without talking that are just as vital to staying connected.

While your preteen may not talk as often or when they used to, giving them space to work out their problems if they need that says to them that you respect and trust their growing ability to do this on their own while you are there if/when they need to talk it out with you.. As they feel your trust in them and their growing confidence in themselves, they will always come back to 'refuel'. The 'back and forth' may look different from when they were toddlers, but their need for connection and comfort, remains the same.

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