The Dilemmas of Parenting a Tween and a Toddler

Do you struggle to give your eldest child the time they need? 
Do you find that the demands of younger siblings divide and conquer your time?
If so, you will love this blog, based on a conversation I recently had with a mum. 
It started like this….

Me:  Hey good to meet you. How many kids do you have? 

Mum’s response: My daughter would say one too many! 

Me:  Hahaha. I’m guessing the “one too many” she is referring to isn’t her?

Mum’s response: No, it’s her younger brother. He’s three. As she’s getting older, she is demanding so much more of my attention. She wants to be able to talk to me without the distractions that come with parenting a younger one.

Me:  She sounds like she’s got a great relationship with you.

Mum’s response:  Yes, she has. I just wish I could concentrate on the tween years more. I find that every time she wants to talk, my 3-year-old tries to put his hand in the fan! I know she is just as important as the 3-year-old, but it’s a decision between the urgent and more urgent. My 3-year-old often wins! 

Me:  It’s a real struggle that parents have to work around.

Mum’s response: I actually find the tween years really hard. I can talk to my youngest while doing other things. But with my eldest, I can’t do something else without her getting upset with me. And when she wants to talk, she wants to talk NOW. She wants my undivided attention, all the time! I can’t attend to both kids at once. 

Me:  Well, I agree you can’t do both at once.  But I do have some ideas for you…..

It might feel like the whole family is growing and stretching as your children approach the teenage years. As our children’s needs change, we change with them. Because there is already so much change going on, we may as well use this time to build new levels of trust and communication patterns with our children. In this blog I am going to share three things I spoke to this mum about. Small, deliberate adjustments to her language made a big difference. It was also a time when she set new trends and created new routines, all which served them well as her daughter became a teenager.

How to Deal with That Moment

Don’t underestimate your son or daughter’s intelligence.  They can see how busy you are. They may not like it, but they can see it.

Remember that communication is 70% body language. Our “busy vibe” speaks loudly to our children. If you don’t tell them otherwise, your child will most likely hear, “Not now!”, “Can’t this wait?” or “How long is this going to take?”  Try warmly and kindly saying, “This conversation is really important to me. If you want to talk to me now, you know you are going to have to share my time with your brother. That might be annoying for you. But, if you want to save it till after dinner, I can give you my full attention.”  Let your body language, eye contact and tone of voice emphasise that you mean what you say.

Choice is a very important thing for our tweens to begin to exercise. Asking our children to decide whether they want “all in” conversation or a “mum can multi-task” conversation is an important starting point. We are also teaching our children that we aren’t superwoman and that “all in” conversations require planning.  This may be a new concept to them.

Reflection:  What message do they take away in that moment?

Adjust Your Schedule

The tween years may demand more time than you were expecting. The reality is that you will have to make room for both time-consuming and inconveniently timed conversations.  You may be able to ask them to “wait” some of the time, but not all of the time. If tweens know that you will honour your promise to “talk later”, they are more likely to be able to wait patiently. They may even find waiting a ‘grown up’ and mature thing to do. I find that most tweens can and do wait if they know their effort will be rewarded.  One way we can reward them is by saying, “Thank you for waiting. That takes a lot of maturity.”

Reflection:  Do you always honour your word?

Create a Routine 

Schedule a regular time to spend with your tween. That way they know “when” they can catch you, and they won’t fear they have to wait indefinitely. Some parents walk the dog each night or wash the dishes together with their tween. Others put the youngest ones to bed and then spend half an hour with the older child before they go to bed.  Remember, if it’s not scheduled, it won’t happen until your child demands for it to happen. That’s not ideal.  We can’t rely on our children to approach us, we have to deliberately make room for them.

Reflection:  When does your child know they can always ‘catch you’?

Try a Shared Journal 

A shared journal is a beautiful way for children to explore themselves and it doesn’t rely on your being available in the moment. For those who are naturally reflective or are gifted writers, shared journals are magical. In a shared journal a parent and a child take turns to continue a dialogue, sharing their thoughts back and forth and asking questions of each other.  It can be as simple as buying an exercise book and writing some questions in it.

I notice that children who journal with a parent develop strong reflective skills. They are reassured of being responded to in a thoughtful way, which makes reflection more motivating to engage in. They also make discoveries about themselves that they may not make on their own. Imagine looking back on this journal as a young adult. I can’t imagine a greater gift to give a child.

The journal clearly says to a child, “If I’m busy you can still ‘talk’ to me about important things.”  Over the years I have encouraged parents to use it to discuss things that were tricky for them to bring up in person. One mum used it to talk to her son about her divorce. Another used it to discuss her daughter’s friendship dramas. I have seen a shared journal be used by both mothers and fathers to support children.

Reflection: Is this something that will work for your family?


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