Tween Anger: No Hugs Welcome Here

Tween Anger: No Hugs Welcome Here

By Karen Dempsey


The ten-year-old lies face down on her bed, trying not to cry, clenched in a hot coil of anger. The day has not gone as planned.

I lie beside her, pressed to the wall so I will not make actual contact. She has beckoned me into the room with her grievous moans, waved me closer when I offered her space.

She wants me as near as possible. She does not want me to brush against her. She wants me, she says into her pillow, to help her. She wants me, she says, to do nothing. She does not want me to speak or to be silent. She wants to cleave me to her side. She wants me to disappear.

It is some small, insurmountable slight by a friend that has brought us here. She needs to move past it, we know. We don’t know how she will do so. She is normally better at the “moving past” thing. With adolescence upon us, it’s grown more complicated.

I put a tentative hand on her back. She flinches it away. Hugs aren’t welcome.

I touch a wisp of her hair. “STOP.”

I wish that she would cry. That would be easier, I think. But I remember the feeling—the not wanting to give in, in the face of such unpredictable emotion. Crying over nothing, over everything. I would cry in the shower to hide my inexplicable weeping. But my mother could always tell, even hours later. She would study my face, give me wide berth, and ask, eventually, “Are you alright?” I would be enraged and relieved that she could read me so well.

Sometimes, but not usually, it helps to say to the ten-year-old, “What is it?” or “I’m sorry you’re sad.” Once I asked her, in a calmer moment, if there is anything that helps. She said one thing that helps is when I say, “Oh, sweetie.”

I say, “Oh, sweetie.” It doesn’t help.  

I study her small, angry frame, too slight to hold onto so much emotion, to steer it. It doesn’t seem fair. Looking at her tensed little shoulder blades, I remember something. “X marks the spot,” I say to myself, silently, and I trace a criss-cross on her back. “Dot. Dot. Dot.” I think, pressing my fist against her lightly. She exhales. “Lines go up, lines go down, lines go all around. Spiders crawling up your back. Elephants walking down your back.” Later, I will research the strange rhyme—the variations passed down through the years. My daughter’s preferred version differs from the one I learned decades ago, taking a grotesque turn, and she knows I don’t like this part but I keep reciting silently, my hands pantomiming the lines that always made her laugh. “Crack an egg on your head and the yolk runs down; stab a knife in your back and the blood runs down.”

I hesitate, not sure if I’ve missed something. “Finish,” she says, and I think I hear a smile in her voice.

I say the end out loud, puffing a cool breath on the back of her neck. “Tight squeeze cool breeze now you’ve got the shivers!”

She snorts and rolls over. “It’s shiveries, mom,” she says. She is laughing and crying, the rage-spell broken, the tears falling free. She threads her lengthening fingers through mine; measures our hands. Hers are catching up but she still has some room to grow. She lifts her shining eyes—enormous dark lakes of future tears.

“It’s shiveries,” she says again. “But you got the rest right.”

Karen Dempsey is a Brain, Child contributing blogger. She has written for the New York Times Motherlode blog, Babble, and Brain, Child. She lives in Massachusetts. Read her work at or follow her on Twitter.

The Runaway ‘Tweeny (with apologies to Margaret Wise Brown)

The Runaway ‘Tweeny (with apologies to Margaret Wise Brown)

By Shari Simpson


Once there was a little ‘tweenager who wanted to run away. So she said to her mother, “I am running away. Because you are, like, getting on my last nerve.”

“If you run away,” said her mother, “I will run after you. Because you are my little ‘tween. And because I grew up in the ’70’s and saw that made-for-TV movie about runaways starring Eve Plumb and it ruined ‘The Brady Bunch’ for me for the rest of time. Hey, we should watch more movies together! You know, for Mommy-Daughter bonding!”

“OMG, could you be more annoying?” said the little ‘tween. “If you run after me, I’ll go and hide in my BFF Tara’s basement because her parents are way cooler than you and let Tara have a sip of real champagne on New Year’s Eve instead of sparkling cider which is for babies.”

“If you go and hide in Tara’s basement, I’ll become a lock on the basement door so that I can keep you safe,” said her mother. “Especially from people who give alcohol to minors, dear God, what in the world are Bob and Carol thinking?!”

“I said ‘a sip’! You always make a big deal out of everything!” said the little ‘tween. “If you become a lock on Tara’s basement door, I’ll totally become a bird and fly out the window to escape to, like, a tree. Or the mall.”

“If you totally become a bird, I’ll totally become a BB gun and shoot you down. It might hurt a little, but it will be for your own good, like most things in life that build character,” said her mother, “and I would only shoot you because I love you so much, you know that, right?”

“Oh, puh-leeze.” said the little ‘tween. “‘If you become a BB gun, whatever that is, do you even live in this century, I’ll become a Quest Super Bruiser Longboard skateboard under the feet of Sam Jenkins, because he is soooo hot, all the 8th grade girls literally die every time he walks by, seriously, DIE, uh, I totally can’t remember what I was saying, oh yeah, and then I’d ride away from you!”

“If you become a Super Bruised whatever you said skateboard,” said her mother, “I’ll become a crack in the sidewalk that looks like nothing until you try to ride over it, then wham! you wipe out and you’re like ‘woah, what just happened?!’, and I’m like ‘I just happened, sweetheart, your mother just happened!, and hot little Sammy Jenkins is now in traction!”

“‘Okay, you are so freaking me out right now,” said the little ‘tween. “I’m just gonna become a child genius in the Gifted and Talented program so that I can go away to college, like, three years early, and get away from you.”

“If you become a child genius in the Gifted and Talented program,” said her mother, “Well, first, I’d be so proud because I knew it, I knew you had my genes, I told your father that!, but then I’ll become a guidance counselor who would advise you to not try to grow up faster because these years are so precious. Oh, and I would refuse to give you a letter of recommendation so you’d be stuck, but only because I love you so much, you know that, right?”

Whatevs,” said the little ‘tween. “I so can’t win with you. I might as well just stay in this prison and live out my days in emo angst.”

“That works for me,” said her mother. “What do you want for snack?”

“Hot Pocket,” said the little ‘tween. “Thanks, Mommy.”

Shari Simpson was the BlogHer 2012 Voice of the Year in Humor Writing and is currently adapting the YA novel “The Swap” for the Disney Channel. She lives in Hoboken, NJ with her bemused husband and four children (two human, two pug).


This is Adolescence: 12

This is Adolescence: 12

By Allison Slater Tate


Twelve is a bridge between childhood and the land of teenagers, a place of juxtaposition and paradox.


It’s the legs that really kill me.

At twelve, my oldest son’s face is still his face. Though his baby cheeks have hollowed and he now stands at my height, pointedly meeting my gaze when we argue, his eyes betray him every time: they still give me the face of the same baby I held in my arms twelve years ago, when I wondered for the first full year of his life if they would really stay blue. They did.

But not much else has remained the same about that baby from so long ago (and yet yesterday?) now, especially his legs. His stocky toddler thighs, the ones that curled into my body so easily when we still napped together daily, are gone. They have grown, beanstalk-style, until I find myself staring at them sometimes in bewilderment. They are not the legs of a child. These are the legs of a young man: long and lanky, increasingly furry, stretching out in front of him, capped by knobby knees I associate with baby horses or giraffes. I can’t believe those are the legs of my first baby.

Each age possesses its own magic, but twelve seems to shine a little more brightly than most to me. Twelve is a bridge between childhood and the land of teenagers, a place of juxtaposition and paradox. He still kind of wants to trick-or-treat, but he doesn’t necessarily want to dress up in a costume. He peruses the Lego catalog, but he doesn’t find anything he wants to buy with the same sense of urgency and enthusiasm he had even last year. He’s not interested in the pumpkin patch, but he likes to help get the decorations out of the attic. He doesn’t want to know the lyrics to “Let It Go,” but he does… along with the words to “All About That Bass.”

Twelve is both breaking my heart and healing it. After a colicky babyhood and a stubborn, incredibly willful toddlerhood, this child has blossomed into a full grown person, someone who reads faster than I do, who has hopes and dreams and goals of his own, who enjoys electrical engineering and marine biology and makes his own literary allusions that delight me when I catch them. He is a promise fulfilled: everything I ever hoped for, better than I ever imagined, a dream in flesh and Gap button-downs. He surprises me, sometimes, with unexpected kindness. Though everything is mortifying to Twelve, he somehow doesn’t mind telling me he loves me in public. He’ll still hold my hand. I could not have called this when he was 3 and 4 years old and a holy terror, but I am relieved and, yes, a little shocked that he has actually turned out to be pretty reasonable and cooperative most of the time.

But he can also sometimes be thoroughly exasperating. He can be irresponsible. Arrogant. Careless. He still does not understand consequences; he still doesn’t fear the world, for better or worse. He’s the same child who once jumped into the deep end of the pool before he could swim, who had to be rescued by a lifeguard at the beach because he did not believe a riptide could be stronger than he was, who ran into a tree trying to catch a frisbee because he didn’t look ahead. He believes, quite confidently, that he is smarter than we are. He scares me, because he is, more than ever, my heart walking around outside my body… only now, that heart walks on those long legs, with wizened eyes but without any life experience yet to inform his choices.

Twelve is PG-13 movies, absolutely mandatory deodorant, science fair projects, ear buds. Twelve wears ironic T-shirts (“The Periodic Table of Minecraft”) and shorts he outgrows almost before we can pull the tags off of them, sneakers larger than my own that wait to trip me on my way to the kitchen, socks I cannot keep white. Twelve is one-syllable answers and the occasional gift of a precocious turn of phrase, baby talk for his little sister and “‘Sup?” for his friends. It’s a lone pimple marring an otherwise still smooth and flawless face and long, careful fingers that belie the man he is becoming all too quickly.

Twelve is, for us, seventh grade. It is in all ways the middle: of middle school, of puberty, of “growing up.” I can see now the heartache that will come, slowly but surely. I don’t know all his friends, and I don’t know if he likes anyone in particular yet, but I know he will, and it won’t always end well. Similarly, I know other disappointments and other kinds of heartbreak are lying in wait, just out of sight. And there’s nothing at all I can do about it but love him and encourage him and hope that when the inevitable happens, he brushes himself off and keeps on the path that is right for him, probably while I hold my breath as close by as he will allow.

In many ways, I feel like I might be stepping gingerly into the hardest part of parenting: the actively letting go, the small glimpses of independence and shows of faith that will soon lead to driver’s licenses and Saturday nights out and college applications and internships and summers abroad and goodbyes that aren’t temporary. It’s not easy to manage the care and keeping of little people; the physical and emotional components of parenting are overwhelming when our children are young. But as thrilling as it is – and it is thrilling – to see my child grow up, healthy and ready to take on the world, my heart is heavy with the knowledge that being a good parent to him now is increasingly harder stuff than diaper changes or first grade homework. Bubble wrapping him would be easier, but it would be wrong.

Luckily, when I need a hug, he gives me one willingly. His arms now wrap all the way around me, his cheek next to mine, his feet on the ground. I hope those crazy legs of his hold him steady and strong when he walks away from me someday. I know now that it is my job to make sure they do.

Author’s Note: Adolescence was a period of my life that was both turbulent and rich in all kinds of ways: it was horrible, magical, challenging, and at times, unexpectedly wonderful all at the same time. Now, as I begin the chapter of parenting an adolescent, I am both intrigued and terrified. I wanted to initiate this series because I find having a “tween” almost like being a newborn parent again; it’s mystifying and isolating and I never know what is a “just a phase” or where the end of any given tunnel will be. My hope is that this series can highlight the edges of these ages – the round and smooth and the jagged and sharp – so we can celebrate them and face them together.  

Allison Slater Tate’s writing has appeared in Brain, Child, Huffington Post, Washington Post, Scary Mommy, and elsewhere. Find her at


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What Not to Say to the Parents of Boarding School Kids

What Not to Say to the Parents of Boarding School Kids

By Rachel Pieh Jones

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Things to never say to the parents of boarding school kids and the responses that go through parents’ minds when they hear them.


There are few responses to our decision to send our 12-year old children to boarding school that are harder to hear than, “I could never do that.” Especially when that response comes from people I care too much about to offend by saying out loud what runs through my mind in the moments following this declaration.

I could never raise my kids in a country that sells five-pound gummy bears. I could never raise my kids in a culturally isolated, world-view restricted, familiar but uninspiring location.

It is a good thing I don’t respond like this because not only are these responses cruel and snarky, they are lies.

They are lies because I could raise my kids in America, I even daydream about it sometimes. I have good friends who are excellent parents raising kids in America. There are kids with healthy palates, culturally diverse worlds, wide-open world-views, living creative and inspired lives in the American suburbs.

The reason these answers are what initially rise to the surface when someone says I could never do boarding school is because those words imply a refusal to step into my world for even a second, an inability to see anything beyond the four walls of their own choices so I knee-jerk back with the same attitude. They also subtly (and not so subtly sometimes) communicate a, “You don’t love your kids as much as I do,” kind of attitude that is equally false and I want to belittle the speaker just because I can be mean like that at times.

I compiled a list of things to never say to the parents of boarding school kids as well as the responses that go through that parent’s mind when we hear them. I have personally heard each of these, and more:

“I’ve never known boarding school kids who do well as adults.”

You must not know many boarding school kids. I know plenty who have done incredibly well in life. And I know plenty of non-boarding school kids who have not done well. There is no guarantee and I won’t pretend that any single decision of mine will ensure the outcomes I would love to see for my kids.

“I could never do that.”

You could never make a decision that is good for your kids, that is something they want, even if it causes you pain? That seems kind of selfish.

“Don’t you worry about them?”

Of course I worry about them. Don’t you worry about your kids? But worrying never changed or fixed anything so let’s encourage each other instead of judging each other.

“Now you don’t have to worry about teenagers, yours are away.”

Didn’t you just ask if I worry about them? And, I still do have teenagers. I didn’t sign over my parenting responsibilities. I still see them, talk to them, love them, nurture them, discipline them, argue with them, play with them.

“It will get easier.”

It does not get easier. It gets harder, and better, even as we develop new normal and routines.

“I love my kids too much to do that.”

I would like to slap you.

“So you are letting someone else do your job.”

No. This is me doing my job. I have not abdicated, I have just made a different choice than you and I am very much still their parent.

“Couldn’t you just move back to the United States?”

Moving back to the United States would possibly be the worst decision we could make for our children. They don’t want to. Their parents have no jobs there. This is home to them, here, believe it or not. The kids want this. And I hate to break it to you but American high schools aren’t exactly utopias, either.

“I can’t imagine doing that.”

Maybe your imagination is underdeveloped. What you are really saying is that you could never imagine doing the best thing for your child, if that best thing made you uncomfortable or caused pain. I’m sorry to hear this. You are also saying that you refuse to enter into my world for a single moment, to try and understand any reality other than your own, to join me in my joys and pains of parenting, even though you are comfortable judging them.

 Isn’t it, um, expensive?

Yes, it is (though not as much as you probably think). And aren’t, um, private music lessons expensive? Hockey lessons, gymnastics classes, summer camps? Extra curricular actitivies are included for us. Plus, we’re away from shopping malls, Amazon prime, movie theaters, restaurants, and all the other venues urging kids to consume, consume, consume. I’d rather invest in education than in fashion labels.

“It is probably easier for you than it would be for me.”

Excuse me? Because I’m a worse mom? Love my kids less? Feel pain less acutely? Am some kind of superwoman?

“I’m too attached to my kids.”

Too attached to your kids to do what is in their best interest? That is a dangerous position to be in.

“Well, that is not our idea of family.”

While you are allowed your own opinion and conviction about family, don’t impose them on me.

I would never send my kid to boarding school.

How can I explain how painful your words are? They are more like weapons that cut through my heart and divide us. The truth is you don’t know what you would do in my situation and it wouldn’t hurt to be a teensy bit more sensitive.

The underlying message behind words like these is that if we really loved our kids, we wouldn’t make this choice. The way I see it is that because I love my kids so crazy-much, I’m willing to make this choice.

Every family is unique in personality, purpose, and choices. This is how the Joneses roll, at least for this season and in the circumstances in which we currently find ourselves. I am happy to talk about boarding school and love when people are genuine and sincere and curious.

It is a gift when someone comes alongside and is able to see this perspective and bless our decision, to hear about the joys and griefs in it, just as there are in every parent’s life. I am exuberantly thankful for the way most of the people around our family honor our choice.

Rachel Pieh Jones lives in Djibouti with her husband Tom Jones (not the singer, though he thinks life might be more interesting as a musical) and three children. Raised in the Christian west, she used to say ‘you betcha,’ and ate Jell-O salads. Now she lives in the Muslim east, says ‘insha Allah,’ and eats samosas.