"Parents rarely let go of their children, so children let go of them."
Able to leap every last nerve with a snide remark. Glares more potent than the iPhone 11. The cause of more stress than the skyrocketing cost of college.
No, this isn't some new superhero. It's none other than the "Tweenager."
I'm sure this doesn't come as a surprise to any parent out there. Raising a child is a challenge. Once they reach middle school, however, it becomes an enduro challenge.
At 39, I was over the moon with love when my little girl, my only biological child, was born. From that day until she hit double digits, my daughter and I remained close. We sang silly songs, laughed at ridiculous jokes, and played games all the time. Wherever I went, she would follow.
When she turned nine, she asked me about the reality of Kris Kringle. As a stall tactic, the only answer I would give was perhaps we would discuss it after her 10th birthday. She certainly didn't forget, so after a year of questions, I decided the time to answer honestly had come.
Perhaps it's just a coincidence, but soon after, our relationship started to change. One minute my daughter thought I knew everything, and the next, she didn't suppose I knew anything. She went from sharing everything with me to barely speaking to me.
About the time she stopped believing in Santa Claus, it seems she stopped believing in me. I wasn't ready. Over-night we lost our connection.
My initial missteps were many as I desperately tried to regain the bond.
Lunch. Food and conversation, what could be better. The wings were delightful, but the blank stare across the table was not.
School. I'm no honor student, but surely, I could help with homework. Nope. Common core, more like a critical bore.
Shopping. My kid loves shopping, I thought. The only problem I would rather poke myself in the eye than spend time scrutinizing tweenage fashions.
Snap Chat. Her mom found a way to connect with her on this platform, so perhaps I could too. After two months, two friends (thanks, sis), and no snaps or chats, I gave up.
Games? No. Movies? No. Outdoors? No.
I reached out to other parents in the hope of finding answers. I kept getting the same responses. It's the age. Get used to it. It will get worse before it gets better.
My frustration turned to anxiety, which felt like rejection, and soon manifested as anger.
STOP THE MADNESS. Why is my eleven-year-old having such an effect on my emotional state? I am fifty years old for goodness sake.
And then it dawned on me. The way I'm feeling has nothing to do with my child. It has everything to do with me. More importantly, it has everything to do with my fear.
Fear of rejection. A fear I'm not a good father. The fear I'm just not good enough.
Two acronyms for fear come to mind: Face Everything And Rise or F#@k Everything And Run.
Despite my instinct and considering my daughter isn't a teenager yet, the latter was not an option. Let's face it. I cannot let my fear get in the way of the fact my child is growing up.
So, I did what any clueless Dad would do. I turned to Google for assistance. As you can imagine, the advice was plentiful. My research led me to "10 Tips for Parenting Preteens" by Juliann Garey on childmind.org.
Number one on the list, "Don't feel rejected by their newfound independence."
Ok, set aside my fears, and don't take it personally. Got it, I'll do my best.
Next, "try the indirect approach." Don't play twenty questions as it will only backfire.
"Listen with empathy" and "don't be overly judgmental." I think I can do that.
"Don't overreact." Like devoting an entire blog to it? Ignored, but noted.
Be mindful of "cognitive changes." Wait; what?
Some of the physical transformations are easy to spot (this dad's worse nightmare.) Emotionally, the "WTF" looks are a dead giveaway. But these cognitive changes are much harder to grasp.
Dr. Laura Kirmayer, a clinical psychologist, describes it as a "meta-cognitive state as they're starting to develop the ability to be aware of their thoughts and others' thoughts."
So she's becoming a Jedi?
Not exactly. My daughter wants to fit in and not get left out, as she becomes more self-conscious about what others think of her. That's a lot to handle at any age, let alone eleven.
Another thing that blew my mind is a girl's self-esteem peaks, yes peaks, at 9-years-old.
One way to help counteract this is to encourage participation in team activities. Tweens on teams have more self-confidence, better grades, and fewer body-image issues.
Mine happened to choose cheerleading. The results so far have been outstanding. With each "Go Team Go," her confidence grows.
It's given us something to talk about and a way for me to practice listening. It has also helped alleviate my fears as I realize my little girl is becoming a young woman.
As I sit in the stands watching my daughter smile and laugh with her teammates, I can't help but think of it as a metaphor for our future.
Our relationship will continue transitioning to one where I love, support, and cheer for her from a distance as she navigates her way through life.