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Erin Stewart realized she has a preteen when drama erupted over a hairstyle gone wrong.

Last week, I wrote about the nonstop glory of raising an active little boy who loves to climb, drink toilet water and do anything I tell him not to do.

So this week, I’ll turn my attention to another complicated species that has recently taken up residence in our home: the dreaded preteen.

This creature comes and goes at will, without the slightest warning. We won’t see her for a week and then suddenly, there she is, emotions spiraling out of control as the rest of us watch in awe as a hormonal beast bursts out of my daughter’s body.

This week, the moment of transformation came in response to a hairstyle gone wrong. One hour and a thousand tears later, my daughter and I were hugging it out and she was apologizing for “going crazy.”

Now, let me say right away that I have no idea what I’m doing when it comes to preteens or teenagers or any sort of teen anything. I have spent the last 10 years mastering the art of parenting young children. And now, suddenly, the universe is playing a cruel trick on me by changing the whole parenting game and I have absolutely no clue how to handle it.

During our hairstyle meltdown last week, however, I think I did OK. I know I have room to improve, but I tried to stick to these core principles that I have gleaned from fellow mothers who have raised teens and lived to tell the tale.

1. Don’t engage. They will want to bait you into an argument about fairness or justice or why you’re ruining their lives. Don’t let them. Have a go-to phrase like, “Nice try,” when they attempt to blame you for everything. This worked well for me when my daughter informed me that I was making her hair look terrible on purpose (which of course I was because I get a sick pleasure out of spending my time doing terrible French braids). Then, have another phrase to use when you need to let them know you’re listening but don’t want to escalate the situation. For me, this phrase is “I know,” and it comes in handy when my daughter says things like, “No one else has to do that!” Whatever phrase you use, make it short and sweet so you don’t even have to think about it. That’s how they get you: Once you start thinking, then you start arguing and then you’re engaged and mad and fighting a fight no one can win.

2. Don’t belittle their pain. Oh, this is a hard one, but the best parents of teens I know are amazing at empathizing with their youth. While a bad hairdo may seem trivial to me, to my daughter, in that moment, it was everything. The worst thing I could do is tell her it’s not a big deal or that her problems just aren’t significant. I look back on my own problems as a teen and feel silly about what I worried about. But at that time, those problems and concerns were my whole world, and all I wanted was for my parents to understand.

3. Be available, but not needy. My daughter always seems to want my advice and love the most when I’m not in her face trying to parent. I try to be close by, cleaning up or working on my computer so she knows I’m around if and when she needs me. The best way to get her to clam up and shut me out? Try to hug her or get her to talk without her asking for it.

4. Don’t be the bad guy. This one is tricky because our children will try time and time again to cast us in the role of bad guy. They will blame us. Everything will be our fault. But I try to at least remove myself as far as I can from this role. Instead of being “the punisher,” I try to step back and let the natural consequences of my child’s decisions do the dirty work. For example, instead of punishing my child for a meltdown that made us late for an appointment, I let her decide how she is going to make up that time and energy for me. She could watch the baby for a little, help me clean or do a few extra chores. Or, if she has to miss something she wanted to do because of her meltdown, I empathize with her about how crummy it is that we can’t choose the consequences of our actions. The choice, then, becomes the bad guy instead of dear old mom.

5. Realize they're scared, too. When my daughter was finally morphing back into herself after the visit from the preteen beast, I saw a look in her eyes that I'll never forget. It seemed to say, "What's wrong with me? Help me. Somebody make me stop." In that second, I could see that she felt just as out of control and scared as I did, and what she really wanted more than anything was someone to rein her in, to be her boundary to stop her from free-falling.

2 comments on this story

I am just at the beginning of this whole raising a teenager thing, and to be honest, I’m terrified. Already, I look at my daughter like a ticking time bomb. All I can do is helplessly watch as we both steadily careen toward the land of eye rolls and hormones and out-of-whack emotions that neither of us understand.

But my veteran mom friends have told me to remember this: It will end. And when it does, I just hope we both come out of this experience a little wiser, a little more humble, and most importantly, closer than ever.