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Understanding Your Preteen's Behavior

Throughout our lives we grow and change, but during the preteen years, the rate of change is especially evident. We consider 11-year-olds to be kids, but we think of 16-year-olds as "almost adults" – a huge leap that happens in the space of only 5 years. We welcome the changes, but we also find them a bit challenging.

When kids are younger, it is easier to predict when a change might take place and how rapidly. But by the preteen years, the relationship between a youngster’s real age and his developmental milestones grows weaker. Just how preteens develop can be influenced by many things (e.g., genes, families, friends, neighborhoods, values, etc.).

Cognitive Changes—

The cognitive or mental changes that take place in the preteen years may be less easy to see, but they can be just as dramatic as physical and emotional changes. During adolescence, most teenagers make large leaps in the way they think and reason and learn. Younger kids need to see and touch things to be convinced that they are real. But in the preteen years, kids become able to think about ideas and about things that they can't see or touch. They become better able to think though problems and see the consequences of different points of view or actions. For the first time, they can think about what might be, instead of what is. A 5-year-old thinks a smiling person is happy and a crying person is sad. A 13-year-old may tell you that a sad person smiles to hide his true feelings.

The cognitive changes allow preteens to learn more advanced and complicated material in school. They become eager to gain and apply knowledge and to consider a range of ideas or options. These mental changes also carry over into their emotional lives. Within the family, for example, the ability to reason may change the way preteens talk to - and act - around their moms and dads. They begin to anticipate how their parents will react to something they say or do and prepare an answer or an explanation.

In addition, these mental changes lead preteens to consider who they are and who they may be. This is a process called “identity formation” and it is a major activity during the preteen years. Most preteens will explore a range of possible identities. They go through phases that, to a mother or father, can seem to be ever-changing. Indeed, preteens that don't go through this period of exploration are at greater risk of developing psychological problems, especially depression, when they are grown-ups.

Just as adults, who with more experience and cognitive maturity can struggle with their different roles, preteens struggle in developing a sense of who they are. They begin to realize that they play different roles with different people (e.g., son or daughter, friend, teammate, student, worker, etc.).

Preteens may be able to think more like grown-ups, but they still do not have the experience that is needed to act like grown-ups. As a result, their behavior may be out of step with their ideas (e.g., your daughter may participate eagerly in a walk to raise money to save the environment - but litter the route she walks with soda cans, or she may spend an evening on the phone with her best friend talking about how they dislike certain classmates because they gossip).

It takes time for preteens and their moms and dads to adjust to all these changes. But the changes are also exciting. They allow the preteen to see what he can be like in the future and to develop plans for becoming that individual.

Emotional Changes—

Most experts believe that the idea of preteens being controlled by their "raging hormones" is exaggerated. Nonetheless, this age can be one of mood swings, sulking, craving privacy, and short tempers. Younger kids are not able to think far ahead, but preteens can - and do, which allows them to worry about the future. Some may worry excessively about:
  • being bullied at school
  • drugs and drinking
  • dying
  • hunger and poverty in the country
  • not having friends
  • nuclear bombs and terrorists attacks on the country
  • school violence
  • divorce of their parents
  • possible death of a parent
  • appearance, physical development and popularity
  • inability to get a good job
  • school performance

Many preteens are very self-conscious. And, because they are experiencing dramatic physical and emotional changes, they are often overly sensitive about themselves. They may worry about “defects” that are very noticeable to them, but are hardly noticeable to others (e.g., "I can't go to the football game tonight because everyone will laugh at this monster zit on my forehead"). A preteen also can be caught up in herself. She may believe that she is the only person who feels the way she feels or has the same experiences, that she is so special that no one else (particularly her parents) can understand her. This belief can contribute to feelings of loneliness and isolation. In addition, the preteen’s focus on herself has implications for how she mixes with family versus peers (" I can't be seen walking around the Mall with my mom!").

Preteens’ emotions often seem exaggerated. Their actions seem inconsistent. It is normal for preteens to swing regularly from being happy to being sad, and from feeling smart to feeling dumb. In fact, some think of the preteen years as a second childhood. One minute, they want to be treated and taken care of like a 3-year-old. Ten minutes later they are pushing the parent away, saying, “Leave me alone.” It may help if you can help them understand that they are in the midst of some major changes that don't always move steadily ahead.

In addition to changes in the emotions that they feel, most preteens explore different ways to express their emotions. For example, a young girl who greeted friends and visitors with enthusiastic hugs may turn into a preteen who gives these same people only a nod of the head. Similarly, hugs and kisses for a mother or father may be replaced with a pulling away and an, "Oh, Mom!" It's important to remember, though, that these are usually changes in ways of expressing feelings and not the actual feelings about peers and family. (Note: Be on the lookout for excessive emotional swings or long-lasting sadness in your preteen. These can suggest severe emotional problems.)

Physical Changes—

As they enter puberty, preteens undergo a great many physical changes, not only in size and shape, but in such things as the growth of pubic and underarm hair and increased body odor. For females, changes include the development of breasts and the start of menstruation. For males, changes include the development of testes.

Preteens do not begin puberty at the same age. For females, it may take place anywhere from the age of 8 to 13; in males, it happens about two years later on average. This is the time period when young people’s physical characteristics vary the most within their classes and among their peers. Some may grow so much that, by the end of the school year, they may be too large for the desks they were assigned in September. Others may change more slowly.

The preteen years often bring with it new concerns about body image and appearance. Both females and males who never before gave much thought to their looks may suddenly spend hours primping, worrying and complaining about being too short, too tall, too fat, too skinny or too pimply. Body parts may grow at different times and rates (e.g., hands and feet may grow faster than arms and legs). Because movement of their bodies requires coordination of body parts, and because these parts are of changing proportions, preteens are often clumsy and awkward in their physical activities.

The rate at which physical growth and development takes place also can influence other parts of a preteen’s life. A 12-year-old female who has already reached puberty will have different interests than her peer who does not do so until she's 13. Preteens that bloom very early - or very late - may have special concerns. Late bloomers (especially males) may feel they can't compete in sports with more physically developed peers. Early bloomers (especially females) may be pressured into adult-like situations before they are emotionally or mentally able to handle them. 

The combined effect of (a) the age on the beginning for physical changes in puberty, and (b) the ways in which peers, parents, and the world around them respond to those changes, can have long-lasting effects on a preteen. However, some of these young people like the idea that they are developing differently from their peers (e.g., they may enjoy some advantages, especially in sports, over peers who mature later). Whatever the rate of growth, many preteens have an unrealistic view of themselves and need to be reassured that differences in growth rates are normal.

My Out-of-Control Teen: Help for Parents with Defiant Preteens and Teens

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