Navigating the World of Preteens, Phones, and Friendship

woman holding a phone in the sunlight's glare

I’ve been secretly watching my preteen a little closer lately- not because she’s bad. In fact, quite the opposite. She is young, impressionable, and naive as many “good girls” are. She is the teacher’s pet; the overachieving hard worker who is actively involved in class and studying French outside of school.

She is also (sigh) the “new girl.”


Recently we moved from the United States to England. From the onset, everyone at the British primary school, where all four of my children attend, were very welcoming. For the first few weeks, my oldest daughter would be surrounded by four or five girls in her class, all of whom were wanting to befriend the new kid in class. The American kid. According to my daughter, the students, parents, and teachers enjoyed listening to her accent.

Then I noticed a change. Instead of huddling around her like the captain of the football team right before a play, the girls were spread out when I picked her up from school, and she would walk up to me alone. As we walked back to the car that was parked a couple of blocks away, I’d ask her who she ate lunch with that day. Each day I hoped to hear the same name consistently. Any name. But often she’d tell me that she sat across from one of her siblings or some unknown kid in a different class/grade level.

I could see it. The novelty of the new girl had already worn off.

I’ve seen this somewhat in the past, but not to this extent. My daughter has been “the new kid” four times since first grade. Unfortunately, due to my husband’s assignment cycle with the Air Force, we’ve moved in the middle of the school year on two separate occasions. And once, I switched her from public to private school for personal reasons. If we had stayed in the states, she would be completing her last year of fifth grade. Here in the U.K., she is in Year 6. As she is growing older, I have become more aware of who she talks to and who her friends are.

This past week, I began noticing a trend. One boy in particular always managed to walk the same block and a half at the exact same time after school. One day I noticed him and a friend trying to take pictures in my daughter’s direction with his cell phone. Mind you, this kid is 11 at the oldest. While I’m not opposed to kids having access to electronics (my oldest has a phone for photos and a tablet for Rosetta Stone), the electronics are limited to the house unless we have a special arrangement, like taking pictures during a Girl Scout activity or an after-school function or birthday party. She doesn’t take her phone to school on a daily basis. There’s just really no need at this point, but that could soon change.

In any case, this kid had a phone. So I simply asked my daughter, “Is he a mean kid or a nice kid?” She said he was a nice kid. Then I knew — he liked her. He always made it a point to say goodbye, using her name so it was personal. When I pressed her more about him, my oldest son chimed in and said that the boy had asked her out on a date.

A date?! What do 11-year-olds do on a date? What does that even mean? Is there a book on this, like “What to Expect When Expecting a Teenager?”

My daughter told me that she wasn’t interested in him or any other boy. Her response was, “All the boys in my class do dumb things.”

I quipped back saying that that will likely never change. But I knew, it was only a matter of time for her to become distracted by them.

While I’m new to this preteen phase, and by no means an expert, here are a few ideas on how to navigate these new and murky waters of being a parent to a preteen:

  1. If possible – particularly if you are in a new country – volunteer at your kids’ school. I recently did this and got to know a few of my daughter’s classmates. They are genuinely nice and thoughtful kids. They expressed their concern and excitement to be moving up to a much larger school next year where they will all have to change classrooms regularly throughout the day. It seems they all might be a little anxious about being the small fish in a big pond this fall.
  2. Stay alert for the possible anxiety-inducing distractions like boys, girls, phones, homework, and exams. If you move during the school year, as we have had to do, know that your kids will experience waves of emotions before, during, and after the move. You just need to stay on top of them and ride them out.
  3. Keep lines of communication open as best as possible by observing social interactions, asking simple questions as soon as you notice something is off, listening with eye contact, and talking to siblings or classmates when possible.
  4. Reassure your preteens that you are there for them and want to offer the best advice you have. They might not take you up on it, but at least they know that when they really need it, they can approach you.

Recently, my daughter has grown closer to a couple girls. She asked me to host a sleepover for her new friends, and they all had a great time. We are planning another one soon.

Also, weeks after our initial discussion about “the boy,” my daughter finally opened up to me. She likes him, too.

I’ve given her permission to exchange numbers with him, so they might be able to keep in touch during their summer break. I’m glad she will have a friend when the new school year begins — even a boy friend.