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What’s Special and (Great) about Kids in their Preteen Years

Helping children Develop Street Smarts

Get a Clue: A Parent’s guide to Understanding and Communicating with Your Preteens

The Tween Years

by Myrna B. Shure, Ph.D.

What do parents of children worry about as their kids move to middle school? They’re concerned that their kids will make a smooth adjustment to a new school, do well academically, make good friends, stay away from the bad crowd, reject violence as a solution, and not become a victim of violence.
If you ask fifth graders, they’ll tell you they’re worried about being picked on by bullies. They want to be able to stand up for themselves and not be pressured into drinking or using drugs. Preteens are aware of the problems teenagers are dealing with and they know they will soon face similar situations in school, at home, and with their friends.

During the middle years, children are very attached to their parents, open for guidance, and eager to help. This is a short window of time, but one wide enough to enable parents and teachers to have an impact on the kind of teenagers children will become.

In my research I’ve found a crucial link between emotional well being and the ability to solve problems. How then do we help our kids become socially well-adjusted and emotionally competent so they can resolve everyday conflicts and make good choices about their lives as they approach the preteen and teen years? I believe we can do this with the “I Can Problem Solve” (ICPS) approach, which is based on the following five skills:

  • Understanding another’s feelings and point of view. This enables children to appreciate that everyone may not think and feel the same way about things.
  • Understanding motives. This makes kids aware that there may be reasons that propel people to do what they do at a given moment and reasons beneath the surface that underlie behavior over time.
  • Finding alternative solutions. This encourages children to think of all their options.
  • Considering consequences. This encourages kids to think ahead.
  • Sequenced planning. This helps children anticipate potential obstacles and understand that problem solving takes time, and that some times are better than others for taking action.

Children who master these skills are likely to be more resilient, better able to cope with frustration, more cooperative and better able to both stand up for themselves and get along with their peers. Emotionally and socially competent kids can think of different ways to solve problems rather than acting impulsively or giving up if the first attempt fails.
Good problem solvers have a “can do” attitude. They feel as if they can make things happen, rather than experiencing the world as a place in which things happen to them.

The problem-solving approach involves children in the process of thinking about what they are doing and why. For example, instead of saying, “Your brother feels sad when you hit him,” Jeff’s father might ask, “How do you think your brother feels when you hit him?” A key approach is to ask your children to tell you how they feel about something instead of telling them how you think they feel.

Even though preteens may know some or all of the “feeling words” they will need to help them solve problems, they don’t always think of them in the heat of conflict. Therefore, it’s a good idea to practice using some words that can help children think about how they feel and then how others feel.

Start with words kids have understood for a long time such as “happy,” “sad,” “angry,” “proud,” and “frustrated.” “What do you think makes Maria happy?” “What makes you sad…or frustrated?” Move on to the words “sympathy” and “empathy.” The ability to empathize--to feel another’s pain--is an important part of social and emotional competence. It can stop someone from hurting others and can motivate a child to reach out and help another person in distress.

Other words that give children a way to recognize and express their feelings are: “impatient,” “disappointed,” “lonely,” and “embarrassed.”

Here are some other ways to help your child become a good problem solver.

  • EXPLAIN that different people can feel the same--or differently--about a particular situation. Ask, “What would make a 4-year-old feel happy, but would probably not please the child’s grandmother?”
  • GUIDE your child to talk about the possibility of mixed emotions--how one person can feel different ways about the same thing: “I felt happy when I won first prize, but sad that my friend didn’t win.”
  • VALIDATE your child’s suggestion on how to solve a problem, whether or not you agree with it. It’s important to keep the flow of ideas coming. You might say, for example, “That’s one way. Can you think of some others?”
  • PRAISE your child by saying, “Good thinking,” rather than “That a good idea.” After all, an idea that works once may not work the next time. Remember, it’s the process of thinking of more than one idea that will help solve problems.
  • PRACTICE brainstorming as a way to come up with alternative solutions. This is when people agree to suspend judgment and consider any solution that is suggested, no matter how farfetched. Once your child is comfortable brainstorming different solutions, ask him or her to think about how each solution might make others feel.


The ability to listen is another core component of the ability to problem solve. If we don’t really listen to what people say to us (or what we say to others), we can’t be sure what to do next or what’s at issue.

Not listening or not paying close attention can result in hearing only part of what people say. This leads to faulty conclusions and conflicts that could be avoided. Being a good listener also shows that we respect the other person and that we care about what he or she has to say.
One of the best ways to raise children who are good listeners is to model good listening skills. If you genuinely listen to your children, they will listen to you too. Here are some other good tips to encourage good listening.

  • If you child is worried about something someone said, ask, “Why do you think that?” Try to make sure that your child has heard the whole message.
  • Help kids tune into nonverbal signals: “Can you tell by looking at my face or by my tone of voice how I feel about that?”
  • If your kids are tuning you out, ask yourself: “Am I telling them something they already know, or don’t want to know? Am I letting them express what they’re thinking or feeling?”

    (adapted from Work & Family Life newsletter, edited by Susan Ginsberg)
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