INFORMATION FOR adults who care about tweens
Ah. These delightful years when a youth is no longer a little kid, but not yet a teenager. The tween years can be really confusing for youth. Their body is maybe changing at a different rate from their friends, those friends suddenly have newfound freedoms your tween may or may not have, and there is often a desperate need to fit in.
Through it all, the sheer amount of information is just plain overwhelming. We’ve pulled together some helpful things to think about, examples of language you can use, and resources to support you.
An important thing to remember: You don't have to know everything. You just have to be willing to learn together and have conversations calmly, candidly, and in a way that doesn't shame. This can feel complicated. And - just like you’ve learned about other things to help the kids in your life navigate the world, you’ll learn about and integrate this, too! You also may want to buy or check out some helpful books from the library and leave them hanging around for your curious tween.
We separated out topics below - but they are all connected! You may talk about one of these topics and then find yourself also talking about feelings, healthy sexuality, bullying, and more. So much of this kind of prevention work is about establishing these protective skills and supports that help across all facets of life. The bonus is they also happen to be protective factors when it comes to sexual violence!
It makes sense that bullying prevention helps keep kids (and adults!) of all ages safe. Did you know that helping your tween understand and respond to bullying is also part of preventing sexual violence? It sure is! Studies show that there are connections between bullying and sexual violence. This is especially the case when bullying is homophobic or about someone’s perceived masculinity or femininity.
As always, it’s important to remember that adults are first and foremost responsible for keeping youth safe. And, we know that bullying happens when adults aren’t around, especially as youth get older. There are many ways you can talk with the tweens in your life about bullying. Here are some tips!
Model working through conflict
Families who calmly and respectfully work through conflict are part of what it takes to prevent bullying and sexual violence. It is considered a protective factor in sexual violence prevention. There are many different styles to work through conflict. Important pieces include accepting others’ emotions, making sure everyone is heard, and encouraging everyone to use kind words and body language.
Discuss how your tween could safely help someone who is bullied.
How your tween intervenes depends on the situation and who your kid is in the world. You can suggest directly saying, “I won’t treat others like that,” asking the person who is bullied if they’re okay, and telling an adult. The more you talk through these options, the more likely your child will remember them in the moment.
If your tween engages in potentially bullying behavior, address it.
You may figure it out from what they say to friends around you, or you may hear about it from school! Either way, you can start a conversation by asking some questions: How do you think x person feels when they’re laughed at/made fun of? Why do you think people make fun of x person? Using open-ended questions that are meant to draw a tween into conversation rather than shame will have the best outcomes.
Encourage your tween to include others.
Tweens with adults who model empathy and compassion for others may be more likely to include others who may feel left out. Talk through what they could do if they saw someone feeling left out: How would you know they felt that way? How would you approach them? What would you say? How can you encourage your friends to do the same?
Know what to do about bullying.
While it’s important to make sure your child isn’t bullying others, it’s also important to know how to help your child if they’re being bullied. This is a helpful handout about Title IX protections. You may also want to check with your school district or state education department about protections and how you can access them.
Raising kids in spaces where empathy is taught, modeled, and encouraged is important prevention work for bullying, sexual violence, and more. Researchers are clear that kindness isn’t about good manners. It’s about empathy: when you understand and care about how someone else is feeling.
It’s important to model and talk about empathy with the
tweens in your life often.
Help your tween recognize others’ feelings.
Talk about how others may be feeling. This could be in line at the grocery store or something you talk about if your tween tells you about something that happened at school. It could sound like: “Wow, what I’m hearing is that maybe Lenny felt left out/sad/mad. Maybe that’s why he responded to the teacher that way. What do you think?” or “Yikes - that person seemed super angry when that other person cut them in line. Why do you think that is?”
Encourage tweens to respond to others’ feelings.
This builds on recognizing others’ feelings. You can model for them what a helpful response might look like. You could bring up instances from your own tween years: “When I was in sixth grade I had these shoes I loved. I wore them to school and this girl made fun of me. It hurt my feelings so much. It would have meant the world if someone stood up and told her to stop or just pulled me aside after to check if I was okay.” or “That kid’s outfit is fantastic - the kids who made fun of him are totally wrong. I hope someone tells him that.”
CONSENT & BOUNDARIES
By the time your tween gets to those tween years, maybe you’ve been modeling and talking about consent for their whole lives. Good job you! If you haven’t - that’s okay! There’s no time like the present to start. Everyone has a role to play in modeling, encouraging, and teaching boundaries and consent.
Consent and boundaries aren’t just about sex. They are the basis for all healthy, safe relationships. You can model and talk about consent and boundaries in many different ways. This can include:
When they say stop, listen.
If you’re goofing around and your tween says “stop!” or “no!” stop immediately. Then say, “Okay! You said stop, so I’m stopping!” Stopping is important and saying that you’re stopping verbalizes that you’ve done what they asked. This reinforces that you will listen to them and respect them. It also models behavior for them if a friend or romantic interest says “stop.”
Ask your tween before you give them a hug, or kiss, or rub their back. Respect their response if they say no. (We’ve been there when that “no” stings your heart a bit - especially as they get more frequent…!) This helps model respect for consent and helps them grow confidence to talk about what they want/are comfortable with.
Set and respect your family boundaries.
Talk openly about how everyone in your family must be able to privately dress, take a bath or shower, or do other personal things. If anyone in the household does not respect these rules, an adult should clearly tell them the family rules.
Reinforce for your tween that they’re in charge of their body.
When a kid becomes a tween, bodies start being a bigger deal generally. They’re changing all the time and it can be overwhelming! It’s good practice to repeat at various times: “You are in charge of your body and who touches it.” Talk about others’ right to their bodies as well, especially if your tween talks about something like classmates having their butts smacked in the hallway: “Yikes - maybe Mike didn’t get the memo that Sam is in charge of his body and who touches it!” Be sure to note as often as necessary - even if they roll their eyes: “You can tell me anytime someone makes you uncomfortable.”
Respect and support your tween’s boundaries.
The tween years may mean a new response to something that wasn't a big deal before. Respect your tween’s boundaries and be supportive. Forcing someone to show affection or go along to get along sends the message that they’re not in control of their body. You can help by voicing your support: “Seems like you’re not into being in the cousin's family photo! That’s okay with me.” or “Sometimes Ben isn’t into giving hugs - and we don’t push him.” If family members disagree or shrug you off, you can gently but firmly say, “Our family rule is that you don’t have to hug if you’re not comfortable or into it.”
Ask about photos posted to social media. Encourage them to do the same with their friends.
You’re on a beach trip and you snap a photo of your tween relaxing reading a book. You could say something like: “I love this photo of you. Would it be okay if I send it/post it to social media/post it to our shared family album? What do you think?” This helps model consent and gives your kid some agency to decide what is on the internet about them. You can use that kind of conversation as an entry point into asking them what they do with their friends: “Do you ask your friends before you post a photo of them? Do they ask before they post a photo of you?”
Talk about what consent actually means.
The easiest way to define consent is a willing, excited yes. It’s important to be clear that this doesn’t just mean that someone didn't say no. Make it clear that you only have someone’s consent when they have said yes and they really seem good with it. Encourage them to talk with you about reading other people’s cues. You could use a non-sexual scenario to help clarify:
Say we’re heading out on a trip for school vacation and your laptop is broken. You want to borrow your best friend’s laptop for the week we are gone. If you ask them and they don’t respond, do you have their permission? What if they said, “Ummm. Ugh. I mean…I don’t know. I guess maybe…?” How is that different from a response like, “Oh yeah, of course!”
Healthy sexuality is part of what it takes to prevent sexual violence. Healthy sexuality is the ability to freely and responsibly understand, enjoy, and control your sexual and reproductive experiences. It relates to body image and a person’s sense of self. A culture that encourages healthy sexuality is a culture that helps reduce risk factors and increase protective factors associated with sexual violence perpetration and victimization.
Here are a few things you can do - and some resources to check out - to help your tween in their journey toward healthy sexuality.
Talk about sex as reciprocal, responsible, and enjoyable.
Many parents - if they talk about sex at all - stop at the basics of consent and contraceptive use. However, if we are going to have a truly sexually healthy culture, we have to expand our conversations beyond risk and danger. We need to talk about sex as joyful and something people mutually enjoy. A key goal here is that your child gets to adulthood able to have sexual relationships that encourage mutuality, care, and joy.
Talk about what porn is – and what it isn’t.
It’s important to couple the parental controls on your tween’s device with open conversations about porn. The reality is that tweens are curious about bodies and sex and talking with them about sex generally can help demystify porn. And it’s also important to talk about how mainstream porn is not made for people their age and often includes unhealthy, unsafe, and confusing messages about sex. AMAZE.org has a helpful video about porn and the link includes information for youth and parents. This article also offers some helpful perspectives on talking with your kid about sex.
age-appropriate, medically accurate, inclusive sex education.
It is important for all trusted adults in a tweens life to model healthy boundaries and a healthy approach to sex. The quality of sex education at school is also important. Approaches to sex ed vary widely. Learn about what kind of sex ed curriculum your school district uses. You can use this resource to help you figure out what a good sex ed curriculum should look like. If your district’s policy isn’t up to snuff, you can take steps to change it!
Body Image & Changes
Body image and puberty-related changes can be really challenging for tweens. It’s important to provide them with solid facts about what’s happening with their bodies and provide them with resources they can explore on their own. Healthy body image is not only critical for self-esteem, it is also linked to healthy sexuality and sexual violence prevention. Here are some helpful tips.
Remember you and other adults around your tween set an example about body image.
Our tweens hear what we are saying when we criticize our own or others’ bodies. What is your relationship to your own body? How do you take care of and nurture your body? Talk about society’s expectations about bodies - both women and men’s - and why they’re not realistic.
Although it’s never too late, try to talk about body changes before they start.
Although it’s never too late, try to talk about body changes before they start. Before your tween’s body starts changing (and this may happen sooner than you think!), talk to them about what changes puberty could bring - erections at school, weight changes, getting their period at an inopportune time. Includes physical, mental, and emotional changes. Normalize that puberty comes at different times and looks different for different people. When tweens know what to expect, it makes change easier. AMAZE.org has great videos about puberty.
Compliment your tween on things other than what they look like.
Many of the compliments people (especially girls and women) get relate to how they look and not who they are. Compliment your tween on things other than what they look like: things they’re good at, traits you admire, how hard they studied for that test, how hard you know they’re working on that one hobby or sport. This not only boosts their confidence but also models great behavior for them to hopefully integrate as well. Encourage other adults around you to do the same.
Gender, Sexual Orientation
Youth today are generally quite accepting of a range of gender and sexuality expressions. What we hear from parents is that they want to be supportive, but have no idea how or even what some terms mean. Respecting and supporting your tween’s gender and sexual expression is part of sexual violence prevention.
Here are a couple of helpful hints:
Get to know the basics.
If you’re not sure what cisgender means or are new to the idea that gender isn’t just limited to male and female, take some time to learn a bit more! Even if you are aware of different terms/ perspectives, it doesn’t hurt to do a little digging. Gender Spectrum is a great resource that provides some solid information and has links to support groups for tweens, teens, parents, and others. Planned Parenthood also has some great resources for talking with youth about gender.
All tweens need their parents' support, no matter what. Talking to your child about accepting and loving people no matter who they are, whom they love, and how they identify is a great step toward supporting your child no matter what their gender or sexual orientation might be. Then follow through. If your child uses certain terms to describe their gender or sexual orientation, use those terms, too.
Sexting & Photo Sharing
When it comes to tweens and tech, many parents have serious concerns about sexting - and more specifically, sharing nude or sexual photos and videos. The reality is that, like so many topics, it’s important to talk with your tween about sexting before they start using devices unmonitored.
Here are a few ideas and resources to help.
Talk about sexting related to other issues (like peer pressure & sharing personal info).
Research shows that many tweens and teens ask for or share photos or videos because they felt pressured to do so. Talk with your tween about ways they could respond if they were asked to share a photo or video of themselves. Planned Parenthood has some great responses here. You can also talk about sexting in the context of not sharing any personal information online and related safety issues.
Talk about consequences.
We aren’t into the idea that you can scare youth into behaving a certain way. And, it’s important for you to talk with your tween about the real potential risks of sexting a photo or video. This includes the fact that once a photo or video is sent, they have no control over who sees it or who it is sent to from there - including other people at school, teachers, family members, and others. Depending on where you are, there could also be serious legal issues with sending or receiving sexually explicit photos or videos especially if the subject is a minor.
Talk with them about what to do if they get a photo or video.
How they react may differ depending on who sends them a photo or video: if it’s from someone they don’t know, they should not delete the photo and need to tell a trusted adult immediately. If it is from a friend or someone they are dating, they need to delete it and talk about why sexting or sharing photos might not be a good idea. If they’re worried someone is being bullied or abused, they should tell an adult. Reinforce that it is never okay to share anyone’s photo or video.
Online Safety & Responsibilities
Ongoing online safety conversations are critical for tweens. Even if you have good parental controls on the devices and platforms they use, it’s important to continue to talk with your tween about what is safe and what is not online.
"Keeping children safer online takes more than setting up parental controls. The goal is to mentor more than monitor. It’s about fostering ongoing talks and a shame-free home culture that helps a child develop a critical lens for media’s messaging, become digital citizens, and develop the skills to make safer, informed choices while navigating what they may come across in virtual spaces."
A couple of approaches may be helpful as you
navigate online safety with your tween:
Be clear about where you stand with online bullying.
Much like conversations about in-person bullying, be clear that online bullying isn’t okay and that it’s important to support people who are bullied. You can also talk with your child about how online bullying is different: it’s harder to escape from it, it can happen anonymously, it can be shared with a lot of people quickly, and the content could be something that stays online forever. Netsafe has great resources about dealing with online bullying, helping a friend, and rebuilding confidence after being bullied.
Set tech-related expectations and encourage ongoing conversations.
Set tech-related expectations early and revisit them often to encourage ongoing conversations about what is safe to do on laptops, tablets, phones, and other devices. This could include no phones at the dinner table or in bedrooms at night, which sites and apps are appropriate to use, and never sharing usernames and passwords outside of trusted adults we know.
Make it clear that you are always there to help them.
Many tweens try to manage online issues because they’re worried their parents will take away their devices. Let your kids know that if they have a problem you are there to help them and not punish them. You can also enlist other trusted adults to be safe people your child can talk to about online challenges. The key here is that there is at least one person they will talk to if they’re having a problem.
Manage screen time thoughtfully.
Manage screen time through conversations about what they do when they are online. What videos are they watching? What games are they playing? Who are they talking to? Talk about what makes sense for them to do what they enjoy online and how that relates to your family's rules and expectations. Coming to an agreement after a thoughtful conversation helps gain their buy-in. This is a helpful resource to help you with screen time conversations.
Talk about digital citizenship.
Raising strong, connected kids is about teaching your kid to be a good person in the world. Similarly, a good digital citizen is someone who uses technology safely and responsibly. Think about what it means to you to be a good digital citizen, and talk with your child about what that means to them.
Consider a family online safety plan.
Just like other kinds of conversations about safety, conversations about online safety have to be ongoing and encourage the kind of behavior you want to see. Talk about what it is to be a good person online. Netsafe has a good online safety plan you can use to jumpstart the conversation to make your own or to talk about, print, and sign. Common Sense Media also has a good family media agreement to check out.