One day they're crawling around in the sandbox; the next day they're prowling the Internet. Tweens like to think of themselves as all grown up--but they still need plenty of support and guidance from parents. Some tips:
BODY CHANGES. Girls may begin to develop breasts as early as 8, and some now get their periods at 10. To prepare for puberty, many boys' and girls' bodies also bulk up during the tween years. Experts warn against putting children on diets or making them feel self-conscious about their weight. Instead, reassure kids that there's a wide definition of "normal" at this age.
SEXUALITY. Few tweens are actually having sex, but they're busy trying to understand it. Some will begin to struggle with sexual orientation. This is a window of opportunity for parental involvement and guidance--once tweens become teens, they're more likely to turn to peers or popular culture for sex ed. They're also sometimes exposed to explicit material on the Internet, and this may confuse and upset them. One good source for parents: the book "Now What Do I Do?" available from the nonprofit group Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (www.siecus.org).
SCHOOL. Classes get harder and homework increases as kids move to middle school and junior high. If they're trying hard but still not doing well, parents should talk to teachers about potential learning disabilities that may require special instruction. Overall, parents should coach and support children in homework, but should never be trapped into actually doing it. For general catch-up, after-school tutors can help.
FRIENDS. For young children, family is the center of the universe. But friends and peer approval become increasingly important during tween years. Cliques emerge and fashion begins to define what's "cool." Still, parents continue to exert the biggest influence on children when it comes to morals and lifelong goals. Get to know your children's friends and their parents. Ask your kids about peer pressure, rather than waiting for them to raise the issue themselves. And act as a role model, exhibiting the kind of behavior around friends and family that you hope to foster in your kids.
INDEPENDENCE. Tweens have one foot in childhood, the other in adolescence. But they're eager to grow up. Experts say the rush is partly due to popular media--especially teen magazines and television shows. Being raised by single parents or in families where both parents work can also accelerate their desire for independence. Parents should not expect to have absolute control over their tweens, but they should set limits. Regulate the number of hours kids watch TV, and monitor movies; say no to too much violence or graphic sexuality. Make sure you know what they're doing online as well.
MIND AND MOOD. Peer pressure and new academic challenges can overwhelm tweens. Look for symptoms of stress: headaches, stomachaches, sleeping or eating problems. Shifts in hormone levels as tweens advance toward puberty can also cause temporary mood swings. Don't ignore or punish tweens when they become emotional; encourage them to air their feelings. Internalizing sadness or anger is unhealthy. Some tweens can even be clinically depressed. Early signs: feelings of hopelessness, withdrawal and irritability. Parents should intervene and seek professional counseling.