If you’ve ever found yourself scratching your head over your pre-teen’s inexplicably dramatic or uncharacteristic behavior, you’re not alone. Kids between the ages of 9-12 are undergoing a ton of major changes as they leave childhood and enter adolescence. This developmental stage is characterized by a drive for increased independence, experimenting with new forms of self-expression and identity, and a ton of very confusing physical and emotional changes, constantly bubbling under the surface, that can cause major emotional (and behavioral) turmoil. Tweens can greatly benefit from some additional nurturing and support during these years, but often it’s a challenge to figure out how to parent amidst all of the uncertainty and newness.
Maybe your kiddo has outgrown the rules that you’ve always had in place, maybe they’re ready for new challenges and/or new limits, or maybe you’re realizing that the old way of doing things just isn’t working anymore. It’s time for a change. Creating rules with structure can help your kiddo learn developmentally appropriate limits and can help you stay calm and in-control. If you can maintain your own emotional cool when your tween’s behavior goes sideways, you’ll be better able to protect a high degree of warmth and predictability in your relationship — two relationship qualities that your tween desperately needs to experience during this sometimes tumultuous stage of life.
However, implementing new rules is hard, because kids have grown accustomed to the household status quo.
Tips for creating effective rules
Your child needs to know exactly what the expectation is. (For example, instead of telling them to “clean the bathroom,” make sure your child knows specifically what that means – “cleaning the bathroom” means: cleaning the toilet, taking out the garbage, and wiping down the surfaces (or whatever the steps are).
Clear expectations help your child know what they need to do, and they help prevent YOU from becoming upset if your child doesn’t do something the way you wanted them to. A clear rule or expectation helps clear up any confusion or misinterpretation, and teaches a child how to perform new behaviors.
Think about what you can verify – will you be able to know whether or not this rule was followed? How? (If you can’t enforce the rule, avoid setting it up as a hard-and-fast “rule” and try to incorporate these more ambiguous expectations in conversations about behavior in a more general sense).
For the rules you create for your home, always follow through with enforcing the rules exactly as you had planned, in exactly the same way each and every time. Kids will still test the limits, but when you follow through with the consequences (and rewards!) exactly as planned, it will teach them the importance of limits and it will build their trust in YOU as their parent.
Make sure any consequences that are tied to “breaking” a rule are time-limited. For example: if the consequence for not doing homework, or getting a negative call home from school is “no video games,” make sure there is a predictable and pre-planned “end” to the consequence (i.e. “no video games for 2 hours,” or “no video games for the rest of tonight”). A shorter time frame (coupled with consistent incentives/consequences) will give you more frequent opportunities to reinforce behaviors.
The younger the child, the shorter the consequence needs to be.
Consider the developmental stage of your child when setting up rules and expectations. For example, the chore of “clean the bathroom,” or “pick up the living room” will look different for a 5 year old than it will for an 11 year old. Consider your child’s current abilities and what expectations are reasonable for a child of their age, and create rules that your child will reasonably be able to follow.
Tips for using consequences
- As much as possible, stay neutral when communicating rules and delivering consequences. Try to avoid letting your emotions take the wheel, even if you are upset or feeling challenged by your child. Maintaining your own emotional cool (especially in conflict-laden situations) is an important aspect of helping your child learn to navigate difficult conversations and regulate their own emotions in times of stress.
- Pre-planned consequences are best. They allow your child to understand the connection between their behavior and the consequence (or reward) that follows. Plus, if the consequence isn’t predictable, your kiddo will feel extra hurt by their perception that you’re punishing them unfairly. Pre-planned consequences also prevent you from making up new punishments on-the-spot, which can be especially dangerous if you are feeling emotionally overwhelmed or out-of-control.
- Pre-planned rewards and consequences help you stay consistent, which helps both you and your child avoid confusion when it comes time to follow through with a consequence (or reward). The key here is to write down the rewards and/or consequences tied to specific behaviors (so you don’t forget the plan) and then follow through with it in the same way 100% of the time.
- Try to deliver consequences (or rewards) as immediately as possible following a rule-breaking or rule-following incident. This helps reinforce the message and aids in developing the child’s understanding of desired and/or undesired behaviors.
Stick with it, be consistent, and don’t give up hope if it doesn’t work out the way you hoped the first time or two. With persistence and consistency, your kids will adjust to a new way of doing things and they will learn to live with new rules.
It is so important that you have support around the new plan. If you have a parenting partner, make sure you are on the same page regarding the rules, and make sure you both are enforcing the rules consistently in order to avoid a “good cop / bad cop” situation.
Practice enforcing the rules in an unemotional manner. If you can follow through with the pre-planned consequences just as you planned, the “consequence will speak for itself” and you will avoid letting your own emotions escalate a situation even further.
When explaining rules to kids, it’s important to emphasize choice and that you support them making the choice that will result in the outcome they want (ie, playing video games). However, if they decide not to do their homework, they have made a choice that results in them not being able to play for the rest of the evening. But, because your consequence is time-limited, they can earn the video games tomorrow (by making a different choice).
Let us know. How did creating new expectations and consequences go in your family?
Blog was written by Sentier therapist, Elin Amundson, MSW, LGSW