Last week, while at a family camp, Darien resident Amanda Craig’s 9-year-old son Owen said, “I don’t know why, but I feel bad for this girl at camp.”

“Really! Why?” Craig asked him.

“Because she is quiet and sits by herself,” Owen replied.

“Oh, do you wonder if she feels left out or separate from the other kids?”

“I guess, but I don’t know why I feel bad for her, I just feel that way.”

According to Craig, a licensed marriage and family therapist, her son was expressing “a new feeling he did not recognize — empathy.”

“He put himself in someone else’s shoes and wondered what it would be like to be her. I saw him experience tween development right in front of my eyes,” said Craig, who will be leading a new series of free workshops for tweens called the Summer Tween Pop-Up Group series.

The sessions will be Aug. 26, 27, and 28 from 9 to 10:30 a.m. at the Darien Community Association, 274 Middlesex Road. Groups will take place entirely outdoors unless weather prevents it.

The series was created to offer a place in the community for children ages 9-12 to discuss difficult issues, learn about themselves, and grow in their understanding of the world around them, Craig said.

The series

Aug. 26: Bird Sanctuary Habitat. Participants will walk through the sanctuary learning about ecosystems and habitats. They will make woodland art from natural materials while talking about caring for others, being kind at school and problem solving when people aren’t kind.

Aug. 27: Plants, flowers and trees. While going on a leaf scavenger hunt, participants will talk about going back to school and easing tensions and anxiety.

Aug. 28: Bees and Bugs. Attendees will learn about bee life, how they pollinate and produce honey. They will engage in exercises that encourage kindness, appreciation and building self-confidence.

For more information, visit dariendca.org/tween-pop-up-group-series-with-dr-amanda-craig. Participants can register online but walk-ins are welcome.

“Lost in the shuffle”

According to Craig, the 9-12 age group has its own, unique needs and the series was created especially for them.

When their children are in elementary school, said Craig, parents are focused on academics and acclimating them to the school environment. Then, they switch gears to focusing on issues coming with the adolescent years, and “what gets lost in the shuffle are the 9-12 year olds,” she said.

The tween developmental stage is a “super important” milestone for families as children undergo three significant changes, Craig said.

First, “a massive reorganization occurs in the brain,” she said. “This is a crucial step before the raging hormone changes of puberty begin. What this means to tweens is that at one moment they may be calm and cooperative, and the next, irritable and aloof.”

Additionally, tweens feel and experience emotions they haven’t recognized before, according to Craig.

“Just as my son did when he saw the quiet girl,” Craig said.

“At the same time, they don’t know how to describe what they see or feel, so they live in a kind of I’m-the-only-one-going-through-this space.”

Finally, because they are so aware of what everyone else is doing, thinking, or feeling, they believe others are just as aware of them, Craig said.

Tweens feel as if “everyone is looking at them, seeing what they are doing and thinking, and talking about them,” Craig said. “They are very aware of their peers and the social community.”

She then said to imagine what is going on inside the tween. “With all these brain pathways under construction, they are producing a ton of new thoughts and feelings,” she said, adding that tweens don’t have the language yet to describe what is happening, but they feel that “everyone can tell they are freaking out inside.”

The emotional connections built between tweens and parents during the tween years will set the scene for teen years, according to Craig. “As teens, they will pull away and look to go out on their own, but as tweens they will push away and at the very same time lean in for comfort and security.”

Supporting tweens

According to Craig, one way to help tweens feel secure as they struggle with all of these changes and become teenagers is to strengthen the emotional connections in the family.

“Find ways to let them know you are interested in what they think and feel and you have their back,” Craig said.

“Feeling understood calms the nervous system. They are sensitive to our judgments because they are judging themselves just as much. Find value in your tween. Let him know when he has a good idea or shows creativity.”

In addition, Craig said it’s important to set consistent boundaries with tweens, and then follow through on them.

“Tweens would rather a parent set two rules that are always followed than many rules that sometimes apply and other times don’t. When parents consistently clearly tell a tween what is important to them, the tween knows he is safe and secure and the parents will not let him cross the line,” Craig said.

Tweens without boundaries “feel insecure, even though they will never tell us,” she said, adding parents should be specific about what the rule is and what the consequence is if it’s not followed. Make consequences immediate and short,” she added.

For example, taking away the iPad for a week “only punishes the parent,” she said. Taking it away for the rest of the night or the next day, however, “is sufficient,” Craig said.

Craig said parents should be comfortable letting their tweens make errors and mistakes.

“Don’t be afraid to let tweens try something and fail. Tweens should know what it feels like to try and not do well or miss the mark,” she said. “If he does not learn how to step outside his comfort zone or make mistakes and dust himself off, he will have a difficult time in the late teens and early 20s.”

This summer, Craig has given the tween series to 60 tweens. Aside from the DCA, additional venues in Darien that Craig has given or will be giving the series are The Southfield Center for Development, the Holistic & Integrative Wellness Center/Inspire Train Fit, the Darien Nature Center, the Noroton Presbyterian Church, and the Darien YMCA.

“This age group is at an awkward developmental stage where they have amazing new experiences that are easy to miss,” Craig said. “Their brain is changing, they are having emotions, and they realize the social interactions are now blowing up.”

Craig said she started the series not only to “offer some emotional, social development for the kids, but also expose them to places in the community that are there to support them.”

sfox@darientimes.com