As a parent, we expect challenging behaviour from our kids once they hit the teenage years. We know they’re growing up and testing their boundaries, and we mentally brace ourselves to deal with it. So it can be something of a shock to find your pre-teen can be a handful too.
They’ve been called tweens and tweenagers – cute names, but the age from around nine to 12 years old can be anything but. Our children are developing rapidly – hormones are starting to flow, they’re curious about the world. They’ll amaze you by seeming brilliantly mature one moment – and lapsing into childishness the next.
If we don’t accept and find ways to negotiate this blooming independence, we could be setting ourselves up for real problems when the teenager proper emerges. It’s normal for pre-teens to want to test their limits – it’s how you handle it as a parent that’s important.
Why are pre-teens so challenging?
At this age, their brains are still developing – in fact, the part of the brain in charge of impulse-control doesn’t mature until sometime around the mid-20s. This partly explains why our children want to indulge in behaviour we consider risky or dangerous, and why they can be affectionate and sensitive one moment, then moody and unpredictable the next.
What can you expect?
Squabbling between brothers and sisters is normal, if stressful. It may or may not help to know that it’s a way for our children to learn how to resolve problems and cope with other people having different opinions to their own. How old your kids are may have a bearing on how intense or frequent their arguments are, and you might want to step in – for example, if they’re fighting about who gets to play on the Xbox, take it away from both of them until they can work out a solution.
Not all children will be disrespectful, but you might find your pre-teen is more prone to lashing out or even name-calling. You’ll need to set clear family rules about what is acceptable and make sure you model the behaviour in your own actions. Remember to stay calm and pick your moment – don’t react in the heat of the moment. Instead of telling your child they’re rude, explain how it makes you feel when they speak to you disrespectfully.
Worrying about what their friends think is a major influence on pre-teens. They want to fit in – to not be the odd one out. They’ll follow fashions and trends because they want to be accepted – which is harmless. But they could also be led into actions they know are wrong, such as shoplifting. If you’ve brought your children up to be confident, with a strong sense of their values, they’ll be more likely to draw the line at something they know is wrong.
This is a growing problem among pre-teens as social media use increases; most platforms have a minimum age rule for users, but these are often ignored and any controls avoided relatively easily. Be aware of your child’s online habits, and talk to them about why it’s wrong to harass, humiliate or torment someone in this way. Make sure they know that if they’re the victim, they should talk to you and not keep it to themselves.
It’s hard to let our children spread their wings – it could be trying a new trick at the skate park, making their own way home from school for the first time, or we might be worried they’re being encouraged to try smoking or drink alcohol. It’s important to help our children learn to assess risks, as well as talk about family values and what kind of behaviour is acceptable (or not).
Other ways to manage pre-teen behaviour
- Make sure the lines of communication are always open. Arguments or judging them will lead them to shut down; they need to know you’re always there to talk to.
- Confident kids have the ability to know when people or situations are wrong for them, so make sure to praise your kids’ efforts and successes when at all possible.
- Set agreed limits and enforce them through effective discipline – your child needs to learn independence and take responsibility for their own behaviour.
- If your child suddenly displays a change in attitude, has severe mood swings or behaves in ways that are totally out of character, or if there are issues such as poor school attendance and you suspect there are underlying and serious problems, talk to your health professional or your child’s teachers, or consider other professional support.
- Finally, remember that this too will pass – it will just take a lot of time and patience.