Preteens Want Independence, but Also Value Family

July 2, 2018, 10:18 am | Mackenzie Johnson, Laura Sternweis

Group of elementary school friends by MonkeyBusiness/, Iowa – Preteens are experiencing a lot of change: physical change as their bodies start to develop, emotional change from the stress of all their new experiences and social change as their friends become increasingly important to them. These changes can be difficult to navigate – for both the kids and their parents, says Mackenzie Johnson, a human sciences specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach.

“The preteen years can be a challenging time. The kids may not recognize all that is going on, while their parents may not be sure what to say about it,” said Johnson, who specializes in family life issues.

With all of these changes, parents might start to feel as if they are losing touch with their child, but research shows that preteens still highly value their relationship with their family, Johnson said.

“When toddlers are seeking independence, parents try to offer safe choices and appropriate boundaries, such as ‘do you want the blue cup or the red cup?’ Well, our preteens are seeking independence, too. It looks a little different, but similar principles apply,” Johnson said.

Johnson offers these suggestions.

  • Listen. Preteens appreciate when parents show empathy for the experiences they are having. Let them know you are interested in what is going on in their life.
  • When challenges arise, preteens are ready to be a part of the problem-solving process. Encourage preteens to make healthy choices, while allowing them to make their own decisions.
  • Plan to have some positive time together each week. Many preteens are involved in several activities and parents may feel as if they spend much of their time just driving their kids around. Make the most of those little moments together, but also try to find some time when you can give each other your undivided attention.
  • When you and your preteen have a conflict, be sure to be clear about your expectations: “I expect that you keep your room clean.” Then allow your child to have some input on the issue and on how he or she will meet the expectation: “Every night before bed I will pick up my room.”
  • Finally -- and this may be the hard one -- check your communication style. A lot of sarcasm, name-calling or yelling can be harmful to your relationship with your preteen. Ultimately, our goal is to have more communication with our preteens as they gain more independence, and we have to be willing to check ourselves and make sure that we are modeling the kind of communication skills we want them to use.

You can find more information about preteen development on the Science of Parenting website. The human sciences specialists with ISU Extension and Outreach's Science of Parenting focus on giving parents trustworthy information so that they can make informed decisions for their families. Learn more at

Photo credit: MonkeyBusiness/


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