By Olivia K Pitkethly, MA, LMHC
Rolling eyes. Slamming doors. Deep sighs.
Welcome to the tween years.
Kids at this age are not little children anymore, but they aren’t quite teenagers either. Nevertheless, they are going through a stage of development where they are building self-confidence and running the risk of failure at the same time. They are finding new interests, developing their identities and recognizing challenges every day.
Naturally, with every stage comes a period of change and adjustment. Kathy Richards* is a mom of a 12-year-old boy and a 15-year-old girl. She has seen a full range of attitude in the past few years from both her kids and recognizes that it is a normal stage of development.
“They’re going through extreme changes on all levels, and it’s uncomfortable for them,” said Richards. “I think it’s a release of the tension they are feeling, but it’s also their way of fitting in with their peers. Mom and Dad aren’t cool anymore. They are finding their own voice, having their own thoughts separate from me and my husband.”
The brain does not fully develop until a person is in their early 20s, so even though your child might be looking and acting more “adult-like,” his brain is still going to need more time to mature. The frontal lobe, which is responsible for decision-making, empathy and impulse control, will be the last part of the brain to fully develop. So, if your tween is quick to rebel by talking back or engaging in risky behaviors, it’s because his brain is still growing.
Other areas of a child’s body are growing, too. Enter puberty and the wealth of hormones that comes with it.
“While every child has their own temperament, with the onset of puberty comes hormonal changes that may contribute to a roller coaster of emotions some tweens experience,” said Allison McAlhany, ARNP, with Healthy Steps Pediatrics. “Estrogen, progesterone and testosterone levels change as tweens develop, and each tween will handle these changes differently.”
In addition to brain growth, your tween is learning how to adjust in this world, socially and emotionally. She is beginning to figure out who she is and will often assert her independence in defiant ways, such as talking back or breaking the rules.
As the parent, you are adjusting too, and it can be frustrating and exasperating. In my counseling practice, I validate the parents’ emotions and also teach them to see it from their child’s point of view. Growing up is tough.
“I try to respond, not react, and to address the behavior, not the attitude,” said Richards. “I use a lot of empathy, which seems to dissipate the tension they are feeling, but sometimes it’s just better to ignore the attitude or just respond with humor, which sometimes works best.”
However, parents should recognize the difference between a typical tween attitude and blatant disrespect. Richards addresses it immediately in her own house and sets a boundary with her kids. She also sees that when her son challenges her, it’s a healthy and safe way for him to enter that transition from childhood to adulthood.
Using empathy with your tween is an effective tool. Tweens are entering an anxious world. They are beginning to have real fears (violence and wars) versus previous fantasy fears (monsters and witches). They want to “belong” in a group and acceptance is just as terrifying as rejection. They are being targeted by marketing gurus who want to sell them the latest gadget, brand or “look.” Add in a few hormones and the best friend is now an object of affection. Considering all of the changes occurring for your tween will help you understand her perspective and hopefully calm your own frustration level.
*Name changed to protect privacy