The Work of Parenting Preteens

We are in the middle of learning all about parenting our newly minted preteens. A few weeks ago, Rob and I realized we needed a little course-correction in our parenting approach. It seemed as though our kids had suddenly forgotten much of what they know about being pleasant, helpful kids. Many of you have been there before: the moment you notice that the bad moods are quickly turning into bad habits.

Are you parenting a pre teen and don't know which way is up? Check out this mom's approach.

Let me back up a bit before I explain how we approached our preteen course correction…


Here’s a little background about me. A confession or baring of the soul, if you will – although it’s really not as dramatic as those words suggest.

Confession 1: I like to get things right.

Getting things right isn’t about perfection. For me, the idea of getting things right is about improving for next time. It’s my process of continual improvement. It’s my way to move forward, even when things don’t go as planned.

Confession 2: I am a planner.

Yes, I like to have plans. I normally have a lot of plans and contingency plans. And contingency plans for the contingency plans.

Confession 3: I have learned to be gracious with myself.

It may sound like I am hypercritical of myself and rigid. That’s not how this goes. It’s more about planning ahead to have options and then giving myself the grace to move on, accept what doesn’t work, and plan to do better next time.

I say all this as context for my recent thoughts on parenting my preteens. It informs how I parent: I want to get this parenting thing right, so I plan (and re-evaluate and plan again), but it wouldn’t work if I weren’t gracious about my own mistakes.


All this caught up to me a few weeks ago. I was enjoying a lovely dinner with my husband at the chef’s table at one of our favorite restaurants in town. Rob and I hadn’t had much time to catch up lately—the busyness of life had just overtaken our normal routines—and we finally had time to talk. We quickly honed in on a conversation topic: what can we do about our kids’ attitudes?

Seriously, in the past few months our preteens have gone from their normal helpful, thoughtful, caring selves to grumpy kids struggling with personal responsibility and pushing any and ALL boundaries. At one point I asked Rob:

The Normal Work of The Pre teen Years

After much discussion (and some follow-up conversations with the parents of other preteens), we decided this really was the normal work of the preteen years. During the preteen years, our kids are developing their sense of self (outside the family), exploring their independence, and developing their own moral code. At the same time, their brains are wired for risk-taking and pleasure-seeking (the part of their brain that controls emotional response is more active than the part of the brain that controls logical thought).

It seems to me that the work of parenting preteens is all about providing guide-rails and a safety net as our kids really start branching out. This is the time to ensure they are guided by their conscience and not just by obedience to someone else’s rules. It’s the time to firm up their empathy and executive function skills, for them to learn what is means to take responsibility for their actions, including how to make a proper apology (#SorryNotSorry apologies don’t cut it here). It is time for them to improve their problem-solving skills and really learn from their own missteps.

Preteens have a lot of social-emotional work to do, and they are doing it at a time they start pushing away from parents. It’s all natural and a normal part of their development, but how do we navigate it as their parents?

The Pre-Teens Course Correction

Back to my dinner conversation a few weeks ago with Rob… Even if we weren’t failing as parents, we knew our kids need some extra guidance as they work their way through middle school. We talked about the skills our kids will need as adults. We talked about the issues we were facing with their behavior currently. We talked about skills they are lacking and those they have mastered. We figured out what was important to us.

Our wishes and wants are only one side of the equation. We had to account for what our kids want also, before moving forward. Preteens aren’t super excited about being told what to do, right? At least ours do better when they decide for themselves, even if it is with some guidance from Mom and Dad. So we sat down with them and discussed our concerns, asked them what they wanted and needed, what stressed them out, etc. In the end, we came up with a focus for 2016 together.

Parenting Pre Teens

This focus is about empathy, problem solving, emotional regulation, and integrity. I hope that we are stepping out on the right foot with our preteens, giving them a solid foundation for making their own place in the world.

In the end, I don’t want my parenting choices to limit my kids in their adulthood.

Do I always get it right? No. But when I fall short, I fall back on who I am at my core: the person who likes to get it right and keeps trying and trying ad nauseum. I gather my thoughts and make a new plan with my husband and we try again. This work is hard. I don’t know how I would keep going every time we need to course-correct if I wasn’t committed to parenting with grace. Grace for my kids. Grace for my husband. Grace for myself.

Maggie is an entrepreneur and mother of two boys (Davis, age 10 & Patrick, age 9). She recently left her job in corporate healthcare strategy to open a family business (you can check out her blog at The Learning Lab). Her motherhood journey has included infertility, transracial adoption (Davis), a fortuitous pregnancy (Patrick), a child with mental health issues, managing serious pediatric asthma and parenting a profoundly gifted son. Maggie was born in Australia, but moved to Texas when she was a toddler. She met her husband, Rob, at Trinity University and after graduate school at the University of Michigan (Go Blue!), they returned to San Antonio, which has been home for almost 20 years.