It’s Official: Tween Years Are the Hardest

It’s Official: Tween Years Are the Hardest

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what can we do about it?

When I first read the headline “Moms Most Depressed During Tween Years, Study Finds” on my laptop screen, I wanted to hug my MacBook and whisper in her ear, “Oh my God—I thought I was the only one!”

Seriously. For the first time in my life, reading a psychological study actually brought tears to my eyes.

Lately, parenting two tween boys has been kicking my ass. I keep wondering, Why am I so tired? I mean, these kids sleep through the night. They’re in school how many hours a day? They’re old enough that I can leave them home alone for a couple of hours if I want to run errands in peace or even take a hike.

Yet I’m not enjoying parenting now as much as I did when I had two babies. I mean, I clocked more than four consecutive years of diaper changes and broken sleep. Looking back, I’m still in awe of the physical and mental stamina it took to raise two littles who needed hands-on help and adult supervision every waking moment of the day (and some traditionally nonwaking hours of the night).

So, how is it possible that I feel more tired, less motivated, and generally less fulfilled by parenting now?

Why the tween years?

According to What It Feels Like to Be a Mother, a study of 2,200 mostly well-educated moms, I am not alone. In fact, in the span of our children’s lives from infancy to adulthood, the tween years represent the low point in maternal well-being. Why is that?

Their developmental stages

Yes, the earliest parenting days included never-ending physical demands and required seemingly bottomless reserves of patience. But they were also populated with smiles and giggles, curiosity and wonder, creativity and imagination, and—my personal favorite—unimpeachable adoration.

The tween years? Not so much.

During these years, hormones invade our children in unprecedented levels. Their bodies change. Their friends change. Their moods change. Their behavior changes. Their interests change. In the process, they become aliens to themselves and their parents.

Suddenly the kid who used to call you “Mommy-Mom” and hold your hand on the way to elementary school now asks you to drop him off two blocks away from the middle school. What the hell?

This differentiation stage can prove challenging to any parent who was used to receiving regular doses of kindness and positive feedback from her children. This stage can be especially difficult for the Solo Mom who lacks the comradery and emotional support partnered parents might have.

Further, while we’re negotiating the emotional peaks and valleys of our morphing tweens, we’re also coaching our kids through increasingly complex educational and social environments. As this study contends, “Children have to cope with adjusting to large, relatively impersonal school environments, ‘mismatched’ to their developmental-stage needs.” As a result, “Mothers become increasingly bewildered about how best to shield, support, and protect [their children], eventually becoming anxious and distressed themselves.”

Without an active coparent helping to troubleshoot the tween years, Solo Moms carry this stress alone.

Our developmental stages

Women who become mothers during their 30s and even 40s enter the Perimenopause Zone at the same time their kids enter the Puberty Zone. As this study suggests, this entry into midlife “is a time of heightened introspection and increased awareness of mortality, as women first recognize declines in their physical and cognitive functioning.” For partnered moms, midlife also marks “a period when marital satisfaction tends to be lowest and strife the highest.” (I guess Solo Moms get a pass on that particular issue?)

In other words, the Midlife Smackdown complicates the emotional dynamics of parenting tweens and contributes to the decline in “maternal satisfaction.” While serving as executive assistants, tutors, coaches, taxi drivers, chefs, project managers, and funding sources for our often surly tweens, we’re also rocking on the seas of our own changing lives.

Lack of support

I don’t know about you, but I got a lot of support when I was parenting two babies. And I don’t mean just the friends and family who volunteered to babysit, but absolute strangers who reached out to me at the local coffee shop, grocery store, or bank.

How many people smiled and winked at me in that “I see you working hard, Mama” way? How many strangers jogged toward a heavy door to open it before I arrived with my double stroller at its threshold? How many times, after a sleepless night, did a random person, noticing my tired eyes, say, “Trust me; it gets easier.” Time and again, these small graces got me through long days. But as a mom of tweens, I’ve never once received parenting-related encouragement from a stranger.

That’s not the only support that dries up after the toddler years. This report acknowledges that “[m]ost existing, widely used parent-based interventions are focused on early childhood, addressing children’s developmental needs and capacities from zero to three, and concomitant directions for parents. The challenges of the preteen and teen years are not nearly as systematically addressed.”

Those volumes of books enumerating your baby’s every developmental stage, and the frequent checkups with the pediatrician? They’re gone. The new-mom groups, the parent-and-me classes, the story time at the library—those don’t extend into the tween years. Even those precious few minutes you spent socializing with other parents when dropping kids off or picking them up at school? They disappear the moment your kid enters middle school.

No wonder moms of tweens—particularly Solo Moms—can feel isolated: we never see one another anymore.

Does any of this sound familiar to you? Rest easy, Mama. This study doesn’t end once it identifies the causes of maternal distress. It also suggests solutions.

What can we do about it?

To compare your child’s transformation into a teenager to a caterpillar’s metamorphosis into a butterfly might seem overly precious—unless you’ve actually watched a caterpillar make this change.

It’s messy as hell. They eat like monsters. They crap all over the place. They grow at a rate that’s as creepy as it is impressive. Then they hang themselves upside down from some precarious point on a leaf and net themselves up in a private cocoon while simultaneously ripping off their own skin. Just when we feel we can watch no more, they disappear from the world for a while and then emerge as butterflies.

And you, lucky mom? You get to witness it all, up close and personal.

Every butterfly—uh, kid—goes through this; therefore, it follows that every mom does, too. So how can we help one another along the way?

This study suggests “research-based knowledge could help women to prepare for forthcoming stressors not just within their own families, but also collectively as a school community, offering mutual help and support.”

Reading books (or short articles, for those busy Solo Moms on the go) about decoding the teenage brain will help us understand what the heck is going on inside our kids’ ever-changing bodies and minds. Listening to TED Talks or podcasts about shaping behaviors, staying connected with our tweens, and motivating our kids can help us develop a toolkit for surviving the puberty years (as parents this time). Well-resourced schools, faith communities, or local libraries might even offer helpful workshops or lectures aimed at parents of tweens.

But in my experience, nothing beats an openhearted, brutally honest, no-holds-barred conversation with friends who are in the parenting trenches next to me or, better yet, who have been there, done that, and survived to tell the tale. These are my go-to people for venting, encouragement, and sharing information. They affirm my experience and remind me, “Honey, it won’t last forever.”

For many moms—and more so for Solo Moms—making time (and finding child care) for a Moms’ Night Out or even for an uninterrupted phone conversation isn’t easy. But something as simple as hopping online for 10 minutes to commiserate with other parents can buoy a mom’s spirit and remind her she is not alone.

In fact, I think I’ll stick those two thoughts in my tween survival pack: it won’t last forever, and I am not alone.

Looking for parenting support? ESME invites you to check out our Sister Chat and our closed Facebook group ESME Parenting for inspiration and honest conversation about all things parenting solo.

Cheryl Dumesnil, ESME’s LGBTQ Resource Guide, is an author, educator, writing coach, all-around do-gooder, and one of two moms separately coparenting two amazing boys. You can follow her on Twitter at @cheryladumesnil.

Please feel free to contact us with any comments or questions.

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