Family Matters


Mastering the art of ‘gruntology’

Magazine Issue
May/June 2012

I haven’t been able to find my 10-year-old daughter for about a month. Affectionate, sweet, and chipper, she energized our house with optimism and cheerfulness.

Then she seemed to disappear almost overnight.

Oh, now I remember what happened: she turned 11.

Our society talks about the “terrible 2’s.” My world has been jolted by “tweenitis,” where “lame” is every other word, friends have come to dominate life, and Einstein’s ideas would get an instant “duh.”

Smiling for pictures has become taboo. When it comes to music, the Beatles couldn’t possibly compare to Taylor Swift. Just check our shared iPod. And boys still have cooties. OK, so maybe there are advantages to this stage.

Fortunately, I’m not alone in my tweenitis angst. My professional colleagues around the globe are experiencing the same thing.

“The rules of the game have changed. It’s now me following him, and it’s all new territory to me,” said Ljiljana Mihic, a clinical psychologist at the University of Novi Sad in Serbia. Her son just turned 12. Tweenitis has set in.

Another colleague in Australia, a counselor who works in an all-male school, explained that mastering the communication pattern of tweens is critical for parents. “Part of parental coping is learning to hear and interpret the many nuances of the standard ‘grunt,’” said Adrian Hellwig. “Once one has mastered ‘gruntology,’ one can see that there are indeed things still going on in the mind of the teenage male.”

At age 2, “E” was for elephant when watching Sesame Street. Now, nearly a decade later, it’s for “embarrassment.” Anything can trigger it, but parents’ physical affection seems to be a cardinal violation.

Prior to the tweenitis, Mihic’s son was affectionate. No more.

“I used to wait for him in front of school and give him a kiss. Now, if I try to do that, he gives me this look as if to say, ‘You’re really strange,’” Mihic said.

The “pull-away”—that slight jerk that prevents a parent from kissing a teen—is a classic sign of tweenitis. The velocity of the pull-away increases in public places. It’s warp-speed in a 43-mile radius of school, as if they mustn’t be caught by friends participating in PPDAs—Parental Public Displays of Affection.

“One moment, there’s a hug. The next, it’s as if he’s pushing me away,” Mihic added.

Jack Westman, author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Child and Adolescent Psychology, clarified the difference between rebellion and independence. “The message of the former is ‘get out of my life.’ The message of the latter is ‘let me do it myself.’ The tricky part for parents is absorbing rebellion and encouraging self-sufficiency,” he said.

Yet I’m beginning to see the benefits of this stage. The growth spurt accompanying tweenitis enables my daughter to do more, think in more abstract ways, and have a larger worldview.

Add “initiative” to the list. A few months ago, we decided to host a children’s art fair on our front porch. She took over, making the signs, deciding how best to display the pictures, and organizing the tables. I sat back and took directions. Quite impressed with her leadership, I decided that she’ll chair the art fair committee in 2012.

Fostering such accomplishment in the developing youth can enhance family contentment. “The sense of achievement that comes from true independence makes everyone happy,” Westman said.

“I’ll let you know when—if—I need you,” seems to be a tween mantra, which can be a difficult one for parents.

“It’s my giving up control,” said Mihic, “but I let him know I’m here for him whenever he needs it.”

And, at this time of an uncertain growing independence in their years of tweendom, hopefully, they’ll seek help when wanted.

After all, parents and tweens alike are in the same boat, both navigating unchartered territory. For the younger generation, there’s a sense of excitement at being able to steer the boat. Meanwhile, as a first-time tween parent, I’m searching for the life preservers, just in case.

I knew I was looking for something.


Illustration © Adam Niklewicz


John McCarthy

John McCarthy, PhD, is a professor of counseling at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.