Preteens are usually portrayed in the media as being bubbly, trend-loving young people who are, for most intents and purposes, still kids. Unfortunately, this image belies the truth of the preteen years; this period is often an incredibly turbulent, confusing time in a child’s life. It’s not exactly smooth sailing for parents, either. In fact, research conducted at Arizona State University revealed that the parents of 12-14 years olds report the highest rates of stress and depression. In other words, even staying up with a crying infant all night doesn’t compare to the trials and tribulations that come with parenting a preteen. There is hope, however; if you learn what to expect and how to manage your child’s new behaviour patterns, you can help him emerge from preteenhood with a strong sense of security and identity. Here are six key changes to look out for:
Most young children are happy to discuss the day’s events with mom and dad or spend their evenings playing video games with the family. Kids thrive on attention, after all, and most parents get attached to the sense of companionship that their sociable youngsters provide. As such, it can be very unsettling to experience your preteen pulling away from you. One day, apparently out of the blue, your son will probably start wanting to go straight up to his room after he comes home from school. He’ll also likely start to treat family time like an obligation, preferring to hang out with his friends.
Your child isn’t passive-aggressively expressing unhappiness with you or trying to be difficult when he engages in these behaviours. Instead, his brain is quite literally compelling him to focus on peer interactions and put family second. This is a natural part of any preteen’s development; it’s his brain’s way of preparing him to become an independent adult with his own social network.
When this happens, give your child space, but don’t misread his actions to mean that he doesn’t need your support—he does. Preteens still need their parents; they need to confide in them (when they’re ready) and derive a sense of safety from their acceptance.
Because preteens don’t like to feel as though their parents are prying into their lives, it’s better to use indirect means to let your child know you’re there and interested in his life. Nurture your connection with your child by taking an interest in his hobbies and the activities he enjoys. Likewise, remind him from time to time that you’re always there to talk to if anything is weighing on his mind.
2. Acting “moody” and making emotional decisions.
The hormones that drive puberty often start to become active around age nine or ten, and these hormones have the potential to cause mood swings in both boys and girls. Adding to their impact, sudden and far-reaching changes in the prefrontal cortex (the area of the brain that controls rational thinking and self-regulation) typically send preteens on an emotional roller-coaster ride. During these years, the prefrontal cortex grows rapidly, but its development is not always even or stable. Your preteen might seem wise beyond his years one day, then be completely unable to control his impulses the next. It’s important not to automatically interpret the latter sort of behaviour as rebelliousness. Preteens can be rebellious, yes, but often when they “mess up” and act foolishly, it’s their prefrontal cortex at fault. Preteens get so wrapped up in their own emotions that rationality goes out the proverbial window.
When your preteen is caught up in an emotional maelstrom, the best thing you can do is remain calm—even if he’s being confrontational. By remaining rational yourself, you’ll help “reactivate” the rational parts of your child’s brain and therefore get the best out of him. Furthermore, by modelling self-control, you’ll literally teach your child how it’s done. Preteens, like young children, are wholly reliant on their parents setting a good example when it comes to learning self-regulation skills.
3. Being completely fixated on fads.
Preteens are notorious for latching onto trends, whether it’s needing the latest “cool” brand of sneakers or suddenly adopting indecipherable slang terms. This often causes parents to worry that their child is becoming materialistic or developing an unhealthy “herd mentality.” Fortunately, this usually isn’t the case; your preteen is just trying to cope with the fact that his brain has abruptly made him aware of the ideas of others. He’s gone from being a largely self-absorbed individual to realizing that others have unique ideas and perspectives. Naturally, he wants to understand these ideas, and the best way to do that is by experimentally adopting them himself.
Don’t criticize your child’s fad-hopping ways; instead, take an interest in whatever he’s preoccupied with. (Remember: Your child still wants your approval, even if he won’t admit it.) As long as your child’s latest fixation won’t harm him, there’s no reason to prevent him from exploring it.
4. Shutting down.
Sometimes, preteens suddenly withdraw from everyone—even their friends—and go silent. As startling as this can be, if it only happens in short bursts (that is, your preteen shuts down for hours, not weeks at a time), it’s probably not a sign of a deeper problem. Instead, your preteen is likely just feeling overwhelmed—so overwhelmed that he needs to retreat from everyone and everything for a while. Let your preteen do what he needs to do (some downtime will help him stay calm and manage his intense emotions), but also make sure he knows you’re ready to listen whenever he wants to open up.
If your preteen has a lot of difficulty communicating, you may want to intervene after he’s had some space, but do so gently. Ask him open-ended questions about how he’s feeling and what he’s thinking, then listen to his answers without judging or rushing to give advice. If even this approach doesn’t work, you may want to encourage your preteen to take up journaling or try professional counselling.
5. Appearing selfish.
Sometimes, preteens become so consumed with fitting in with their peers that they lose perspective and forget to think of the needs of those around them. This is what drives behaviours like “demanding” expensive clothing or mobile devices even if they know their parents are struggling financially. These kids aren’t really trying to be belligerent; they’re just terrified of peer rejection.
Rather than giving into your child’s whims, it’s important to both set firm boundaries and get your child involved in “bigger” things. Socializing in a meaningful way outside his peer group—e.g., volunteering—can help him expand his worldview and empathize more readily with others.
6. Exploring mature subject matter.
Most parents hope they can delay discussing difficult issues like sexuality until their child is in his teens. In reality, however, even if preteens aren’t engaging in mature behaviour, most of them end up exploring mature subject matter, either via peer interactions or the internet. This can expose them to peer pressure and a great deal of misinformation, so it’s important for parents to intervene and broach challenging topics before this happens. Let your preteen know that no topic is “off limits” in your household, and try to provide him with factual, unbiased information about sexuality, gender, drug and alcohol use, and other “adult” issues. The more your child knows, the better able he will be to make the right choices.
The preteen years are challenging, but they don’t have to be an unhappy time in you and your child’s life. By providing calm, steady guidance and unintrusive support, you can help your preteen both survive and thrive. What’s more, in doing so, you will establish the foundation for a productive, supportive adult relationship with your child.