What do you do when you have preteens and preschoolers, at the same time? When your child turns double-digits, it’s a brand new adventure, both as a parent and as a homeschooler. Preteens and preschoolers are awesome. Their independence grows. Their maturity and responsibility can blow your mind. But along with the new skills comes a brand new attitude. In a lot of ways, preteens and preschoolers are very similar, so a lot of the same techniques you use to manage your preschoolers will help with your preteens. Parenting preteens is like parenting on repeat!
When I first became a parent, my mother told me to pay attention during the preschool years. The way my daughter was at age 1, 2, and 3, would be repeated at age 11, 12 and 13. She was right. My preteen had the same needs, development jumps and attitude issues as when she was a preschooler.
Knowing this has made parenting preteens a little less challenging. In my case, it was partially because I still had preschoolers. I had clear cut examples of the similarities. For example, the meltdown of my 12 yr old (complete with stomping feet and slamming doors) eerily echoed the meltdown of my 2 year old (right down to the stomping feet and slamming doors). And the solution for both was a simple nap.
There are obvious differences, of course. You can leave a 12 year old unsupervised for up to 20 minutes, but you can’t leave a 2 year old to their own devices. You can ask a preteen to wash dishes or take out the trash, but your preschooler may only just be capable of dressing themselves and putting a toy away.
(Though if I’m honest, I’m not sure my middle-schoolers are all that capable of dressing themselves either.)
Remember the basics
Whether you’re homeschooling preteens or preschoolers, there are some basics that are the same, no matter the age. Sometimes as our kids get older, we forget about these simple necessities. But remembering that every child needs adequate sleep, food, play and social time will go a long way to ensuring healthy, happy kids.
Don’t be afraid to enforce a naptime for your middle-school child. Just because they’re older doesn’t mean they don’t need sleep. You may have gotten used to children whose 8 or 9 hour night’s sleep was more than enough. But like preschoolers, preteens are going through and preparing for huge jumps developmentally. The physical strain of puberty alone is enough to put significant demands on their bodies. Preteens start needing more sleep than they did, up to 11 or 12 hours a day. So when your middle-schooler’s mouthiness starts to get at you, remember that a nap may do wonders to refresh their attitude.
Have you started noticing that your middle-school student seems to be outgrowing everything in their closet, all at once? That huge growth spurt that happens between 10 and 13 can bewilder parents and kids alike. And with physical growth spurts comes a need for fuel. Just like your preschooler’s tantrums could often be prevented with a snack, your middle-schooler’s melodrama can be prevented with snacks. Stock up on high-protein snacks to help fuel their growth, without empty calories. I always keep hardboiled eggs, cheese sticks, pepperoni slices and tuna salad in my fridge, along with tons of fruits and veggies.
While kids need chores, they also need free time. It can be very easy to fill our more responsible and helpful preteens’ days with tasks and assignments. But balance that out with time to just sit and do nothing. Video games, tv shows, or just staring off into space is not a horrible thing! Don’t assume they are “wasting time”. They aren’t! They need that downtime, just as we do.
More than any other age, middle-schoolers crave social time with their peers. This is an extension of the process of growing independence, as they separate from their parents even more, and become their own person. Provide opportunities for social interaction (in carefully chosen settings, just like when they were little). Let them learn to navigate a bigger world. You may have to weather a few storms when they have conflict with their peers. But for the most part, you can and need to step back and let them learn. Parenting preteens is an exercise in prying our hands off our kids!
One of the biggest differences between preteens and preschoolers is how independent they are. Preschoolers need a lot more supervision than preteens. Your middle-schooler is reasonably independent. They are capable of getting themselves food, of entertaining themselves and cleaning up after themselves. But just because they are capable of it doesn’t mean they don’t need their parents just as much as a preschooler does.
It can be very tempting to assign a task or school topic to a preteen, and leave it at that. It’s especially easy to do when you know you can trust your kid. However, you can’t parent if you aren’t present. Your middle-schooler needs you almost as much as your preschooler did. They just won’t admit to it.
So when you give your child a task or an assignment, check up on them. Make sure they know you’re checking in too. The accountability will not only make them even more responsible, but will give them the security they crave. They want to know that you still want to be involved — as much as they may say the opposite. Your follow up will tell them just how much you care about them.
It’s a whole lot easier to discipline preschoolers. When you say no, you can be almost certain they will obey. And they are still small enough that you can physically remove them from situations that are dangerous or overwhelming. The emotional distress is often easily solved with a hug or a short quiet time to calm down.
It’s not that easy with a preteen.
But discipline is just as important for your preteen as it is for your preschooler. They need firm boundaries, and they will test them extensively! It can be a struggle to set appropriate boundaries, because of fluctuating moods, impulsive decision-making, and the constant switch between wanting to be a small child again and wanting to grow up. Honoring their independence while still keeping them safe is like walking a tightrope.
Parenting preteens means you need to get creative with your consequences. It helps to have consequences fit the circumstances. Making a child stay home and miss out on “hanging out” with friends is very appropriate when that child hasn’t finished school assignments or skipped out on chores. Taking chargers or changing WiFi passwords helps when your kid has been misusing screen time or social media. Adding in extra chores or finding hard, dirty work to do can do wonders for a preteen struggling with respect.
Whatever consequence you decide to use for your middle-schooler, you must follow through with it. If you fail to follow through, you show your kids that you can’t be trusted. Ultimately, when we lose their trust, they will begin to wonder if what we say is really true. And they will begin to doubt how much we love them. Your willingness to follow through is one of the best ways you can show your kids how much you care.
Middle School is a Time of Change
Preschoolers and preteens have so much in common. They are both going through huge development jumps, physically, mentally, and emotionally. So they are changing quickly. They can be easily overwhelmed, and in their confusion, they test their parents immensely. But we survived their preschool years. The same techniques you used when they were 2 and 3 can be adapted at 11 and 12. If all else fails, give them a snack, a hug and send them to bed! Parenting preteens is just parenting on repeat.