What’s Happening to My Tween

Article at a Glance

  • The brain and body changes we associate with the teen years are already beginning at ages 8 through twelve.
  • Questions about sexuality, drugs, and body image are on your child’s mind earlier than you may expect.
  • As kids develop more autonomy, we need new, less direct, strategies to communicate.

Older parents love to warn us about the teen years. But what they don’t mention is that much of the drama and angst the phase is famous for actually begins at around age nine or ten.

“At first I didn’t know what was going on,” says Laurie of her nine-year-old daughter. “She’s normally a sweet kid, but suddenly I noticed she was having these rages, crying and stomping up to her room a few times a month.” When Laurie brought up these outbursts to her pediatrician, she was surprised when he told her the mood swings might just be the first signs of puberty.

It may take parents by surprise, studies indicate the onset of puberty for boys and girls is anywhere from half a year to two years earlier than even a generation ago. For the parents of tweens, this means shifting roles sooner than expected. Tweens and teens still need us as much as ever, but our strategies for communication and discipline need to adapt to the changes their brains and bodies are experiencing.

Dawning awareness of the thoughts of others

If your ragamuffin child suddenly starts caring about clothing and hairstyles, this is likely because she’s becoming more aware that her peers have their own thoughts and opinions about her. This awareness is a developmental milestone quickly followed by changes beginning in her own body—a perfect recipe for body image problems.

  • Encourage participation in sports, especially team sports.
  • Model positive body image and self-care.
  • Talk about how the media portrays bodies, who benefits from it, and whether that portrayal is realistic.

Increasing desire for independence and secrets

If dinners have become quiet and your attempts to pry out details of their day are not working, it’s time to shift gears. At this developmental stage, direct questions might feel less like conversation and more like an interrogation. Instead, take a sideways approach:

  • Carve out one-on-one time to do something together and let the conversation flow naturally rather than interrogating them over dinner.
  • When they do divulge something, try not to overreact or lecture.
  • Try asking about their day in a different way. Instead of a rundown, ask them what the most boring, funniest, most surprising, or most interesting moment was that day.
  • Consume the same media together. Play their video games with them or watch their favorite shows. Joint experiences like this not only give rise to good conversations, it helps them feel validated,—like when a friend reads and raves about the book you recommended.

Increasing curiosity about sex and substances

Even if your ten-year-old has no immediate interest in sex, they are bound to have an academic interest. Social media, YouTube and even television commercials bombard us with messages about sex, sexualized bodies, gender roles, drinking, and drug use. Combine this with a newfound desire for secrets and a reliance on their peers for advice and it is easy to spot potential trouble.

It’s not “the talk.” It’s a continuous and ongoing conversation. After your first chat on a new topic, go back and revisit a few days later to ask if they have questions. Sometimes kids will bring things up in a sideways, or seemingly random matter instead of asking directly. It’s a sign they’re digesting the information, but may not be ready to talk about their questions yet. Try to be open and relaxed about their questions. If you are, they’ll have more trust if you tell them a particular topic is best shelved until they are a bit older. – Dr. Joseph Hershkop

  • It can feel awkward with your cute little kid, but start talking about sexuality. Remember, the world is already having that conversation with them. Your voice shouldn’t be silent and it doesn’t have to be awkward. Remember, most of the embarrassment you’re feeling is you, not your child.
  • Help your child understand he or she has authority over their body, no one else. Many parents begin this by not insisting their child offer hugs or kisses on demand. Talk about how to handle pressure from someone who wants to see or touch them in a way they don’t want.
  • Be sure your child knows the actual names and functions of their body parts and that they can talk to you or their pediatrician about questions with no shame.
  • Talk about illicit substances and the specifics of why it’s important for our brains and bodies that we not use them. Role play ways they can say no and walk away from peer pressure to try alcohol or drugs.
  • Let your child know you will always be their safe haven. You’ll come pick them up from any situation without a lecture.

Every child develops differently and perhaps your nine or ten year old is still the gap-toothed, lego fanatic they were a year ago. But one thing is always certain—change is inevitable. Looking ahead to the teen years now can help you spot some of these changes for what they are and respond accordingly.

And remember, your pediatrician is here to help. Now is a great time to start helping your child learn self-advocacy about their physical and mental health by raising your questions about adolescence on their next visit.

Reviewed on November 22, 2019 by: Joseph Hershkop, M.D.
Joseph Hershkop, M.D.
Board-certified Pediatrician

Dr. Hershkop is a former New Yorker who really enjoys working with children from birth to age three, and is passionate about asthma, ADHD care, and dermatology. Languages: English, Hebrew

Saratoga Springs Office
Full Bio

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