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10 Tips for handling a boundary-pushing tween

Nikki Stevenson

Nikki Stevenson

Nikki is a parenting writer and a mom to three wild boys who keep her on her toes (and occasionally make her question her sanity). With over 15 years of experience in the parenting industry, she has more tips and tricks than Mary Poppins on speed dial. When she's not typing away at her keyboard, you can find her sipping on coffee, hiding in the bathroom for five minutes of...
Created on Oct 30, 2023 · 7 mins read
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Parenting a tween is a journey filled with ups, downs and a rollercoaster of emotions. As my child, Tyler, transitioned into the tween years, I quickly realised it wasn’t all smooth sailing. The hormonal changes, shifting boundaries, and occasional pushback became a reality that many parents of tweens can relate to. He also has ADHD, which puts another spin on his growing years.  So up and down was this ride, I decided to sit down and share my experiences of handling my tween’s boundaries, navigating discipline, and learning to forgive myself for being human along the way – in the hopes it will help another parent currently pulling out their ‘I have a tween at home’ hair.

One of the most challenging aspects of parenting a tween is navigating the ever-changing boundaries. What was once acceptable suddenly becomes an issue, and disagreements seem to arise at every turn. Giving them a hug and kiss in public used to be perfectly ok. Then there comes the day where it’s an absolute no-no, as heartbreaking as that is.

As a parent, it’s natural to feel frustrated, overwhelmed, or even hurt by the pushback we receive. In these moments, it’s crucial to remember that our tweens are exploring their identities and asserting their independence. It’s not personal, even if it feels that way at times. However, when parenting a tween with ADHD, these challenges can be magnified. The impulsive behaviours and difficulty with self-regulation can make boundary setting even more complex. It’s essential to approach these situations with empathy and understanding while also implementing clear and consistent expectations.

Controlling our emotions

I’ll admit there have been moments when my tween’s behaviour pushed me to the edge of my patience. As much as I try to remain calm and composed, there have been tears shed and raised voices that I’m not proud of. Yes, my 12-year-old has made me cry real tears. It’s important to acknowledge that we, as parents, are human too. We make mistakes, lose our cool, and that’s okay. The key is to reflect on those moments, learn from them, and try to respond with empathy and understanding. When parenting a tween, remember that their impulsivity and difficulty with emotional regulation may trigger our own emotions. Taking a step back, practising self-care, and seeking support when needed are crucial aspects of maintaining our emotional well-being.


But how to do these things, I know you desperately want to know. Because at the beginning of my journey, so did I. I have jotted down some of the ways that have worked for my son and me, and I hope you can adapt these practices in your homes too.

1. Keep calm and breathe

When faced with a situation where your tween is purposefully pushing your buttons, staying calm is important. Take a deep breath and remind yourself that your reaction sets the tone for the interaction. Responding with anger or frustration may escalate the situation. By maintaining a sense of calm, you can model emotional regulation and create a space for more productive communication. Try repeating this in your head, “I am the adult; he is the child,” until it starts to sink in.

2. Validate their emotions

Tweens often experience intense emotions as they navigate their changing world. When your tween is upset or angry, take a moment to acknowledge their feelings. Let them know you understand their emotions, even if you disagree with their behaviour. Validating their feelings can help de-escalate the situation and open the door for a more constructive conversation. I find that admitting to feeling similar things or acting out in similar ways when I was his age is a great way to calm the situation into one that can be talked through.

3. Knowing when to walk away

This was a tough one for me, as I am not a ‘walk away’ kind of gal. But sometimes, tensions run high, and both you and your tween need a break. If the situation becomes too heated, taking a step back and giving yourselves time to cool down is okay. Walking away temporarily can prevent arguments from escalating and provide an opportunity for reflection and regrouping. Just remember to come back!

4. Setting clear boundaries

Communication is key when it comes to establishing boundaries with your tween. Have open and honest conversations about expectations, rules, and consequences. Involve them in the decision-making process when appropriate, giving them a sense of ownership. Setting clear boundaries creates a framework that promotes mutual respect and understanding. Honestly, giving them choices as they advise you to do with a toddler works well at this age too. For example, “You can watch TV now for a bit and then do your homework, or do your homework first and then watch TV – the choice is yours”. They immediately feel more independent, and happy that they have a say, and their homework gets done either way.

5. Responding to purposeful button-pushing

Tweens may purposefully test boundaries and push buttons to assert their independence. When faced with intentional provocations, it’s essential not to take it personally. Instead, maintain your composure and respond calmly. Avoid getting caught in power struggles and instead focus on finding constructive solutions. Encourage open dialogue, active listening, and problem-solving together. I know it may feel like you have an alien living in your home when they do this, but I promise, this too shall pass.

6. Encourage healthy outlets

Tweens often have a surplus of energy and emotions that need an outlet. Encourage your’s to engage in activities that help them channel their energy in a positive way. It could be sports, art, music, or any other hobby they enjoy (even safe gaming, don’t shoot the messenger). Providing them with healthy outlets allows them to express themselves and reduce stress, which can contribute to better emotional regulation.

7. Practice active listening

When your tween is expressing their thoughts or concerns, practice active listening. Give them your full attention, maintain eye contact, and show genuine interest in what they have to say. Reflect on what they’ve shared to ensure you understand their perspective. By actively listening, you create a safe space for open communication and strengthen your bond with your tween. It doesn’t matter how boring the topic is or confusing the lingo; give it a go.

8. Seek support and self-care

Parenting a tween can be challenging, especially when additional factors like ADHD come into play. It’s important to recognise when you need support and to prioritise self-care. Reach out to support groups, parenting forums, or professionals who specialise in ADHD or parenting. Share experiences, seek advice, and learn from others who have faced similar challenges. Taking care of your own well-being is crucial for being a patient and understanding parent.

9. Teach coping skills

Help your tween develop healthy coping skills to navigate complex emotions and situations. This could include deep breathing exercises, journaling, mindfulness activities (think adult colouring or complex Lego), or engaging in hobbies that bring them joy. By teaching them these skills, you empower them to take control of their emotions and build resilience in the face of challenges.

10. Celebrate successes

There will be enough to argue about over the next few years, so remember to recognise and celebrate your tween’s achievements, both big and small. Acknowledge their efforts, growth, and positive behaviours. Celebrating successes boosts their self-confidence and reinforces positive behaviours, creating a supportive and encouraging environment for their development.

Parenting a tween is a journey that tests our patience, resilience, and emotional balance. It’s about finding the delicate balance between setting boundaries and fostering independence while also managing our own emotions. As I continue to navigate this ever-changing phase with Tyler, I’ve learned to approach it with empathy, understanding, and a healthy dose of humour. By acknowledging our own humanity, adjusting our discipline strategies, and forgiving ourselves for the moments when we falter, we can forge a stronger connection with our tweens and grow together through this exciting, albeit challenging, chapter of parenthood.

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