Your child is probably more stressed than you think. In a recent survey, only 2%-5% of parents rated their child's stress as extreme, while 14% of tweens (and 28% of teens) said that they worry "a lot." Try to manage your child's extracurriculars so that they're not overloaded, make sure they have a little down time just to themselves, and be careful not to overexpose your child to adult worries like money troubles. If you think your child is stressed, talk to him or encourage him to talk to another adult such as an aunt or uncle.
To help your child combat unhealthy ideas about body image, start with yourself. Every time you talk about dieting or criticize your own body, you send a negative message to your child. Instead of stressing weight, stress being healthy and strong. And expose media myths by pointing out how magazine photos are styled and altered to an impossible standard.
Talking About Dating and Sex
Talk to your tween about dating before they start. Kids mature at different paces, so one tween might be more interested in dating than another of the same age. They may have questions about dating or sex in general as well as questions about their own feelings. Try to answer questions calmly and without judgment, even if it makes you uncomfortable. Frequent, open communication helps kids learn about healthy relationships and make smarter choices about sex.
As many as 20% of teen boys and girls have sent inappropriately sexual messages via text message. Don't assume your child won't learn about "sexting" -- talk to them first, ask what they've heard about it, and explain why it's inappropriate and what the consequences can be -- like suspension from school and even police involvement.
Safe Internet Use
Today's wired kids are exposed to a host of risks their parents never faced. Talk to your children daily about their computer and smartphone use and social media habits, use filters that screen inappropriate content, and keep the computer in a public part of your home. Many sites are geared for age 13 and older. Set Internet time limits and parental controls (including passwords) on computers. And kids shouldn't accept friend requests from strangers.
Tweens and Smoking
Nine out of 10 adults who smoke picked up the habit when they were kids. Every day, more than 3,900 kids become regular smokers. Have regular conversations with your kids about the dangers of smoking, ask them questions on what they think about smoking (and listen without being judgmental!), and involve them in activities that prohibit smoking, like sports.
Teens and Alcohol
By the time your child reaches high school, there's about an 80% chance that he will have tried alcohol. How can you keep your child from underage drinking? As with smoking, start the conversation early and keep it going. The tween years are a great time to talk about how alcohol affects the body and the damage it can do. Ask your child open-ended questions about what she sees at school.
Prescription drugs are the drug of choice among tweens and young teens. They’re often easily accessible right at home. Talk to your child about the dangers of prescription and over-the-counter drugs. Protect your child by carefully monitoring all your own prescriptions, storing them securely, and getting rid of old, unneeded medicines right away. Seal old medicine in a plastic bag with something unpleasant, like kitty litter, and throw it in the trash.
Some cough and cold medicines that can be bought without a prescription can cause a "high" in large doses. Last year, around 5% of teens abused cough medicine to get high, and more than 1 in 3 teens say they know someone who has abused cough medicine. Make sure your kids know the correct uses of over-the-counter meds. Know what medicines are in your home medicine cabinet, and safeguard where you store them so your tweens, teens -- or their friends -- can’t get to them.
The tween years are prime time for kids to be exposed to drug use. Even if you think "my child wouldn't do that," keep an eye out for the signs and symptoms of drug use, such as changes in friends; declining grades; increased secrecy about possessions, activities, and friends; use of breath mints and mouthwash (to hide odors of smoke or alcohol); and increased requests to borrow money.
Bullying is common among tweens. Teach your child how to handle bullying: Speak up and tell the bully to stop in a calm voice, walk away and stay away, and talk to an adult you trust if you feel bullied. Don't forget that they might be the bully: Teach them that differences don't mean someone is less than they are, and remind them to stop and think before saying or doing something hurtful.
It can be even easier for kids to bully online, when a real person isn't in front of them. To protect your tween from cyberbullying, teach them to be smart about what they put online, and not to share anything that could be used to embarrass or hurt them. Remind them not to share passwords, and to use security controls on sites like Facebook to protect their pictures and information.
Some young people cope with difficult emotions by "cutting" -- injuring themselves deliberately by cutting their wrists, thighs, or elsewhere on the body using razor blades, knives, or other implements. It's more common among girls, but boys sometimes cut as well. If you notice unexplained scars or see that your tween is wearing unseasonable clothes that might conceal cuts, talk to your child. Cutting often requires professional help.
Talking to Your Tween
Whatever the problem, it's easier to solve if you can communicate. But preteens can be prickly. Find ordinary times to connect: Bring your tween along when you go for a run or take the dog out. Wash the car or fold clothes together. Ordinary times spent together can be an opportunity to chat about real concerns. Or try talking in the car -- it can be easier to share feelings when you're not looking right at each other!