The Most Important Thing Your Tween Needs to Be Happy & Confident (Backed by Science!)
This morning, our house overflowed with the squeals and giggles of four boys in constant motion – two of them tweens. They were just “hanging out.” As far as I could tell – they looked like happy and confident tweens – but I know it’s a transitional time.
One boy was jumping on a fitness trampoline that we keep in the family room; the nine year old was reading TIME magazine; another was bossing Alexa around; and the youngest was skateboarding through the kitchen. (Hold me!)
They were all jabbering back and forth about their latest soccer win, Austin and Ally, and basically nothing at all. They were hanging out and taking up space all at the same time.
And Then It Happened
I was considering going to the mall to get some long pants for my oldest as fall is on its way. He was the one reading TIME, so I quietly went up next to him, knelt down and asked him if he wanted to go with me or would he prefer that I go alone? He didn’t want to go, but he asked if I would go right now.
He’s never as excited as I am when it’s time to buy clothes for him. I was suspicious, so I asked.
Big mistake. Huge. Think: the sales lady who lost commission on all of Julia Roberts’ purchases.
He said, “I just want to hang out with my friends.”
Note to self: reconsider asking questions where the answer could mangle my heart like a garlic press.
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When I was young, I felt invaded when my mother constantly asked what I’d be doing with my friends. “I don’t know – just hanging out.” I’m sure my mother felt like “hanging out” fell somewhere between wasting time and a cover up for something that I shouldn’t be up to. It wasn’t. (Okay, maybe a little…)
“Hanging out” was as amorphous to us as it seemed to our parents.
The fact that it was amorphous worried our parents. But, for us, it was the whole point. We didn’t have a plan. We were living in the moment.
They Need to “Hang Out” to be Happy and Confident Tweens
Lack of unstructured time is increasing the rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide – yes, suicide for our young kids. (All Work and No Play: Why Your Kids Are More Anxious, Depressed)
Just like adults, kids need their down time. I can only imagine how medicated I’d need to be if I never got any down time!
The consequences of accounting for too many minutes of your child’s day can include depression, anxiety and a lack of creativity and problem solving skills. (The Downside of No Downtime for Kids)
While it’s heartbreaking, The Scary Truth About What’s Hurting Our Kids is loaded with great data about what’s happening with increased screen time and less free time.
When I was young, our place was the mall. There were cool clothes and shoes to drool over; friends working at fast food restaurants who would feed us for free; and “people” (read: boys) that we hoped we would “accidentally” run into so we could “hang out.”
We would “hang out” in the mall and later by our cars in the parking lot listening to the latest awesome mix tape. It was safe, we weren’t doing anything too crazy, and we could taste freedom like a mind blowing amuse bouche.
But here’s the thing: while we were “hanging out” we were actually stepping up to “take our space” in the world.
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Taking Up Space
In order to become happy and confident tweens, kids need to practice taking up space. Taking up space means having the confidence to step into your place in the world without apology or shame. And it also means understanding that everyone else is entitled to their space in the same way.
As a mother, my response to my son learning to take up his own space can change at any given moment. It usually feels a little bit like a deep stab to the privates.
Other times, I explode with pride and awe at how skillfully my son seems to be handling this new stage of his life.
My baby boy started out, literally, in my space. He was in my body. And from the moment that he was born, he has continued to move more and more into his own space. And more and more out of my space. His space in the world is becoming his alone – as it should.
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We had a couple places when I was growing up and they were places to be free. They were the meeting places. They were the places to feel as if the entire world was our space – saucy, unapologetic, and irreverent.
Tweens need enough unstructured time to begin taking up their own space in the world.
Let your teens find a place to hang out with friends, swagger a bit, and explore who they are without fear of judgment.
Holding Space for Happy and Confident Tweens
So as our house overflowed with laughter and giggles that morning, even though my heart felt like a crushed garlic clove, my boy was gracefully asking for me to provide him some space.
His unique caring, clever, and crafty character shone through with the clarity of a perfectly cut diamond.
When he was little, his laughter was ours together. His experiences were ours together. A sip of water and a hug solved everything.
Things are tougher to solve now. I practice having faith that we are instilling our values soundly and that if he strays from them he will return with lessons newly learned and a desire to implement them next time.
Holding safe space for happy and confident tweens means that we watch them try, let them fail, and welcome them back into our hearts without judgment.
Holding space is freakin’ hard!
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Happy And Confident Tweens Claiming Their Space
His laughter is his own now. His friends are his own. And sometime soon, his mistakes will fully be his own. Sometimes I sit in deep silence listening to something precious that he shares with me, but that isn’t our default position like it used to be. Some experiences he likes to keep to himself, telling me in his biggest boy voice, “Mom, that’s just for me.”
I try always to remember that while he is beginning to claim his space in the world, it is my job to let him. It’s my job to hold a safe place for him to return to for shelter. It’s my job to let him know he is loved no matter his foibles, missteps, or mistakes.
Every night, as he drifts off, and I feel his gleaming silky hair in my fingers; then he mumbles “I love you more than anything in the world, Mommy.”