There are distinct photographic phases that kids seem to go through during childhood. As babies, they couldn’t care less. Toddlers: They might be more interested in playing, but it’s possible to coax cute moments onto film. Preschoolers go one way or the other: They’re sick of the camera by now (ahem, my son and my nephews …) or they’ve learnt that “Smile!” at least gets me to go away quicker.

Then we hit the tween stage. There’s something about this 9 to 12-year-old, not-quite-a-teenager, not-quite-a-kid stage that turns beautiful, cheerful kids to sulky monsters when it’s time for a family photoshoot. It’s not all tweens, of course. But if you’ve got a grumpy tween glaring down the barrel of your lens, here’s three ideas to help.

Distraction is key to a great tween photo.

Idea 1: Don’t force him to smile

Your first goal with an unenthusiastic subject is to gain his trust to reassure him you won’t force him to act a certain way in the photos. Through your actions, build empathy and trust, and give him time to warm up to you. This might involve:

  • Making suggestions: How about giving Dad a hug? Is that something you would do, or totally not your style?
  • Taking the focus of him: Ask him to hold a younger sibling so you can take their photo instead of his, or turn the focus on the parents with him and his siblings playing in the background.
  • Reassuring nervous parents that they need not pressure him to smile (they may feel they have to out of concern they’re wasting your time or that you’re judging him for not “behaving”).
Plonk his baby brother on his hip and ask him to simply chat with his brother, to capture a sweet moment without worrying about smiles.

Idea 2: Give her something to do

Distracting her with an activity takes the focus off you and your camera. Give her confidence by letting her be a kid for a while longer:, she knows how to do that already! Some strategies are:

  • Give her a bubble wand and have her run toward the camera.
  • Set up a competition: Have siblings race each other, do the best dab, floss or the Macarena (insert viral dance here…) or try to balance on one leg the longest. Anything active that switches the focus to an activity rather than the lens.
  • Collect a bunch of dandelions and have her make a necklace; zoom in on her hands and the intricate details and her focus on the activity. Other close-up activities could be building a sand castle, making a tiny teepee from twigs or stripping bark from a stick to turn it into a walking cane.
  • Climb a tree, swing on a rope, balance on a teeter-totter or ride her bike.
A climbing tree is perfect to coax a tween into her comfort zone.

Idea 3: Photograph his passion

Before the session together, encourage him to bring something along that is important to him. For example:

  • Play a musical instrument. If he is hesitant to play the instrument in front of you, reassure that the camera only captures stills, not video, so he’ll look like a rock star no matter what it sounds like. Shoot tight on the details: Hands strumming, tuning pegs, etc. Selective focus to blur his face in the distance is effective.
  • Read a favorite book. Have him find his favorite chapter or quote and take a close up of his fingers on the page with the text. Photograph the cover with him reading behind it (good technique if he doesn’t want his face in the photo).
  • Play his sport. Bring a ball or equipment and have him show you how he plays. Capture photos of the drills and close-ups of the equipment itself (always with a human interaction included).
  • Show a special treasure or toy. Whether it’s building Lego, battling Beyblades or doing tricks with a Tech Deck, I guarantee every tween has something they are super obsessed with right now. Find out what it is, have them bring it, and show you how it’s done.
Get close on the details, and tell them you’re doing this, so they can relax about their face not being in the photo.

Relax and accept this stage

Even with the most reticent tween, it’s always possible to capture something about who they are to memorialize this stage of their life. It might not be a happy smiling photo, but it’ll still be looked back on fondly in years to come. With family photography, that’s the goal.