LIKE Aunt Annie on Facebook

LIKE Aunt Annie on Facebook

LIKE Aunt Annie on Facebook

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Preparing your preschooler for the teenage years

I suppose you're going to tell me that's a ridiculous title for a blog post. "You have to let little kids be little kids," you'll cry! (And I'll agree, and tell you to keep reading.)

Or maybe you're here anticipating that I'll be talking about pushing down the curriculum, to give your child a head-start academically. (You'll be disappointed- but please keep reading, because you'll learn something that you need to know.)

It does seem far-fetched, and possibly irrelevant, to think about your preschooler (and by preschooler, I mean any child who hasn't got to school age yet) in terms of the teenager he or she will become. I want you to put that feeling aside for a minute, and put this in its place:


risk to my
What you are doing right now, in bringing up your young child to the best of your ability, is like making a wine. You're choosing your 'grapes' to plant. It won't matter how carefully you nurture the vines, how skilfully you crush the fruit, how long you age the finished product, if you plant poor quality grapes to start with. What you are doing right now is creating a certain type of teenager in the future, through your parenting choices now.

Scary, huh? There's a lot of responsibility involved. It's daunting.

So let's have a look at some of the characteristics of teenagers that can be the most challenging, and how to 'plant the right grape vines' to avoid the worst of it.

The sulkily silent teenager

Look, they're nearly all like that at some stage (believe me, I spent 25 years teaching them- I KNOW!). You won't escape completely. But what you do need to do is to keep the channels of communication open- you still need to have a relationship with that bundle of hormones skulking in their bedroom all day.

The best way to achieve that is by treating your child with respect and authenticity from Day 1. What does that look like with a preschooler? Well, I could write a whole book about it (and if you search those terms on this blog you'll find a LOT of posts about them), but let's just skim the basics.

Firstly, and most importantly, tell even very small children the truth- don't hide things from them, not even the hard stuff, and give reasons for what you do and say and feel. Trust them with the truth, because little kids can sense atmosphere and they can often smell a lie and it scares the heck out of them.

My boy on the verge of adolescence
For example, sometimes you'll feel sad yourself. If Granny's terribly sick, say, talk it through with them. If you're upset about something that happened at work, tell them why in age-appropriate terms. Explain yourself, and even if they don't understand all the nuances, they'll feel included and respected- and even if they too feel sad now, it's a LOT better than feeling scared. (And you might be touched and comforted by the genuineness of their response.)

Remember, you're their role model- so tell the truth and model openness about feelings now, and you're halfway to getting the truth told to you in return when they're adolescents.

Don't patronise them, don't use baby talk, don't tell them they're 'too young to understand'. Communicate with them on a level that acknowledges their mental age. And communication goes two ways- really listen when they share their thoughts and ideas, because this stuff that might seem babyish to you is important to them right now, and you want them to keep sharing the important stuff, don't you?

Ask them what they're feeling- don't tell them. A child who's told what they're feeling (wrongly!) will internalise it and become confused; a teenager will just be furious with you and shut down. Don't assume you know. Actively encourage them to talk about feelings, even at this young age- it's important to avoid the short cuts. It only gets harder from here on.

The angry, disobedient, sly teenager

If you start being confrontational with your preschooler and setting up power struggles, you are begging for trouble. The 'give and take' starts now if you want to dodge this bullet.

Don't smack. Just don't. You wouldn't hit an adult- don't hit a child. It destroys respect, and it contradicts the basic social message of non-violence. Once your child gets to the teenage years, violence from you is NOT the dynamic you want to use to control behaviour- because that's the age when they start to intellectualise who deserves their respect, and who doesn't. You want to be on the right side of the line. Being called a hypocrite is one of the joys awaiting most parents of teenagers- don't fuel the fire by telling your preschooler to 'play nicely' and then smacking them when they don't.

A child who knows they'll be physically punished for wrongdoing becomes secretive, just in case what they're doing is considered wrong. A teenager who equates telling you their mistakes with physical punishment is just not going to be frank with you, and you'll have only yourself to blame.

And if you keep punishing by hitting, how far will you have to escalate it to get obedience from a 16-year-old? They'll likely hit you back, and they certainly won't be obeying you once they're out of your sight. STOP HITTING NOW. You can't put the toothpaste back in the tube on this one.

And do try to keep calm. Try not to sweat the small stuff, because you're creating a template for the future. If you deal with every little thing at the same level of hype on the misbehaviour thermometer, how will your child learn to recognise when you're really upset? Take a deep breath before you fly off the handle, and remember that this child- of whatever age- is still learning, and you are his or her role model. (If you lose the plot and swat a backside, be big enough to apologise. If you can climb down, you'll rise an equal amount in a child's eyes.)

Try to use natural consequences rather than manufactured punishments. "You ate all the biscuits that I'd bought for this week, so now you feel sick- and now there are none left. I can't buy any more biscuits for you this week" translates easily later on to "You spent all your allowance that was meant for the whole week in one day, and so I'm not giving you more until next week's allowance is due. It's not my problem that you don't have enough left for your movie date."

Make your boundaries logical, explain yourself, and you are well on the way to having a teenager who may whine when you say no- yes, they'll all do that!- but will quietly respect (and learn from) your consistency.

Oh, and if you're a pushover now, don't expect them to do anything but walk straight through you later. You do need boundaries."No" does need to mean "no", not "maybe, depending on how hard you nag".

The teenager who pushes you away

Teenagers are intensely private. They are desperately trying to find out who they are, where they're going, what they want, how they fit in with their peers.

You can give your small child a head start by making sure they have plenty of free play where you are NOT hovering over them, approving or disapproving their every move and trying to be part of the game.

You can try to let them choose their own friends, and find out for themselves if someone is a poor choice of companion.

Dinosaurs bore me to tears- but I'll
still encourage kids to express
their interest in them.
You can take notice of their interests and encourage them; you can let go of any notions that your child is a smaller version of yourself, or that you can somehow predetermine his or her pathway in life by pushing him or her towards the activities that fit your own agenda.

Parenting is a process of letting go. You need to start young.

The teenager who takes big risks

The evidence is in. Our children are growing up in a risk-averse society, and as a result their risk assessment skills are shot when they get to the teenage years.

You can help fix this for your child. You can allow risky play at home (there's another search for you- there are many posts about risky play on this blog, and hundreds out there on the wider internet). You can choose a care centre where the children are allowed to climb trees, and play with sticks, and mess around with water, and do the things that their grandparents did as children without anyone threatening legal action.

If you wrap your small child in cotton wool, that child will get to the teenage years with no experience of judging risk. The mistakes will be bigger. The consequences may be tragic. A little pain now may save you terrible grief later.

*    *    *    *    *

I could probably write a whole book on this topic, but that's enough to think about for one blog post. Try to think a little more long-term in the parenting decisions you make. There isn't some magic moment when a toddler becomes a preschooler, or a preschooler becomes a schoolchild, or a schoolchild becomes a teenager. It's a continuum. What you have here is a baby teenager, and you need to think in terms of what you are planting in that creature's mind that will come to fruition in ten or twelve years.

Happy wine-making!


  1. AA this is an incredibly accurate assessment of the link between child-rearing practices adopted with preschoolers and how they impact on the teenage years. The post is made more credible by your years of experience working in the education system at both levels. I have also, and can only agree with this post whole-heartedly. To all the parents out there who have hung in there and read this far, this is a winning formula right here! Well done AA!

    1. Thanks, Karen- I'm pleased that someone with similar experience concurs! There's a real danger in thinking that what we do with the child stays back in childhood, and that the teenager and the adult are different creatures altogether. Yet we all know how many people end up in therapy as adults. We need to put two and two together here.

  2. Wonderful post, Aunt Annie!!!! There is much to be learned here. It always amazes me when I see a parent of a teenager scratching their head, wondering when it all went so wrong. How we interact with our young children now makes all the difference in how they interact with the world later. Thanks for this very insightful post!!!

    1. Thank you, Ayn. Sadly, when I'm asked for help by parents of teenagers I often find myself thinking that they've left things a little bit too late, and it's a hard road back. If only more people thought in the long term! Thank you for your suport.

  3. A really thought provoking post - thanks AA. I doubt many parents with challenging teenagers think back to the early years and make the connection. As adults caring for young children we have a massive responsibility - we hold their future in our hands - quite scary knowing that! I have survived 4 teenagers and was very lucky with all of them ...they are magic and not because I was the perfect mum...I made most of the mistakes in the book especially with my two oldest sons but somewhere along the line I was fortunate that some things went well. Thank you for making the connections between early years and teenage years and this can also be extended to adult years. Brilliant post!!

    1. Thanks, Niki. Look, I haven't made the connection myself till recent years, and my son is well past adolescence! If only we could live our lives backwards and approach our child-rearing years with the experience of age!

    2. Wouldn't that be wonderful .... as an enthusiastic but unqualified young parent we get to practice on our own children ....good and not so good. I often wish I could have a little one now - I would have the wisdom, knowledge and patience to do a good job!

  4. This is AWESOME. I have tried to explain this before, but not nearly as articulately as you have. I love it. Thank you!

    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Ashley-happy for you to use the article any way you can to get the message across.

  5. Aunt Annie,
    I'm a pre-service teacher who's recently been asked some tough questions: how would I deal with exclusion, territorialism, and general bullying in the pre-school playground. I could only think of a few things for long-term planning, such as reading stories (I don't have a clue which ones) and doing role-play activities as a whole class. Please help?

    1. The first thing I'd plan is a unit dealing with feelings at circle time. Use cartoon faces or photographs with different expressions. Try to ensure the children understand words like sad, frustrated, angry, excited etc and use them in your daily circle time through activities, stories, questions, puppet shows etc. Teachers should also share their feelings with the group to model the behaviour of expressing feelings with words, not inappropriate actions. You can incorporate songs like 'if you're happy and you know it'- I changed the words slightly to be more appealing to preschoolers: 'If you're happy and you know it punch the air- woohoo!', then 'If you're sad and you know it, tell a friend', then 'If you're angry and you know it fold your arms- if you're angry and you know it, then be careful how you show it...' Books can also be good, eg 'Annie's Chair' is a good one for possessiveness/anger.

      I would plan a unit dealing with expressing difficult feelings like anger and jealousy. This is best done through acting out familiar scenarios (ones that have actually occurred in your class) using dolls, teddies or puppets as a 'performance' and asking the kids for input on how to deal with it. If you search this blog for 'anger management' you will find the technique I taught to my class with great success. The PALS program in NSW is good for teaching quiet children how to integrate and enter play; it uses puppets and songs such as 'Look, smile and say hello'.

      The next thing I would plan for is to get the group together on the mat whenever you witness bullying, exclusion etc and narrate the behaviour: "I saw X being pushed. I heard someone say 'you can't play with us'. I saw Y crying." Then open this up for discussion, with the goal of allowing the class to create their own rules. Use the principle of 'if you don't like it happening to you, nobody else will like it either'. YOU MUST HAVE CONCENSUS on the rules- everyone must agree to each rule before it is written down! Write these rules down as a pre-literacy activity and post them in the room. Refer to them often.

      A very useful basic rule is 'be kind' and this can be the teacher's contribution to the room rules- as a leading member of the group you can also have input, but try not to structure the children's own contributions to the rules too much- let them express them however they like.

      Once you have set up this foundation, when a child 'bullies' you can point to the room rules and say 'We all agreed that we won't push / hit / say 'you can't play' / say mean things' (or whatever). Then you can offer the 'bully' alternatives to the behaviour: 'Are you feeling angry? How about we take three deep breaths together and then you can tell me about it?'

      The important thing is to stop the bullying behaviour without ostracising the bully from the group- you must offer the bully alternatives and recognise his feelings as valid without accepting the behaviour he's demonstrating.

      Hope this is helpful!


PLEASE leave your comments here so all readers can see them- thank you!