Preteens are going through a phase of development called “individuation,” in which they separate from their parents in an effort to become their own person. During this phase, kids may become self-absorbed, highly sensitive, and self-conscious. In their mind, “everything a parent does is a reflection on them,” says Brenda Nixon, a parenting expert and author of Parenting Power in the Early Years. A parent who yells too loudly at a ball game or is too free with public affection is a potential cause of embarrassment.
For children who were adopted, the tween years — and the process of individuation — can be even harder. Some preteens are just beginning to understand what it means to be adopted. Adoption may make them feel different, and, at this stage, they simply want to fit in with their peers. Some adopted children don’t look like their parents and have questions and thoughts about this. As they strive to form their own identity, they may struggle with feelings about their adoptive parents — as well as their birth parents, whom they may or may not know. This can leave them with a sense of divided loyalty and confusion.
How to Help
With all the changes going on now, how can you help your child through this normal phase of transition? First, know that your preteen still needs lots of love and affection. She may cringe if you hug and kiss her in public (but relish the affection at home), so be discriminate as to when and where you show her your love.
Second, try to be understanding and don’t take the rejection personally. Many kids are confused by how they feel now and will direct that confusion toward the person or people they love most. As a parent, you’re perceived as being safe and secure because, no matter what, you’re there on a day-to-day basis.
Third, be sensitive without being permissive. “Preteens often enter an underground phase where they want to spend more time alone in their room communicating with friends on the phone or via computer,” Nixon says. They may become secretive about what’s going on in their life. Be sensitive to these kinds of separating behaviors, but not so permissive that you don’t really know what’s happening, she adds.
Finally, keep a sense of humor and know that this difficult time will pass. Focus on the fact that your child is growing up to be the healthy, independent young adult you want him to be — it just may be a little awkward and take some time to get there!