Got a child who still seems little to you but is suddenly acting like a mini teenager? You’re probably in the throes of parenting a preteen through the “between” years. This age group, which usually describes kids ages 9 to 12, is better known as the tweens. From shyness to independence and little kid bodies to puberty, this can be a wildly exciting and tumultuous time of life for you and your tween.
“Parenting tweens can be challenging for parents, because their ‘little kid’ who liked to cuddle, learn about the world about them and was generally happy can suddenly be replaced with a physically maturing, impulsive, moody human being,” says Dr. Dipesh Navsaria, associate professor of Pediatrics at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. “However, it’s important to keep in mind, much of the time, this is developmentally normal.”
It’s all but guaranteed that there will be rocky patches when parenting a tween (replete with eye rolls and borderline-concerning obsessions with friends), but when you have a better idea of what’s going on with your child — mentally and physically — it can make this period of parenthood easier for both you and your child.
Changes parents can expect from their tweens
From the explanation for your child’s new obsession with privacy to the motives behind their ever-changing personality, here are four key developmental stages to keep top of mind when you’re parenting a tween.
Generally speaking, puberty happens during the tween years, but the age range varies.
“Puberty occurs earlier in girls than in boys, between ages 9 to 14,” says Navsaria. “For boys, the onset of puberty happens around ages 12 to 16. Depending on one’s genetics, as well as other factors, it can vary quite a bit and that variation can be normal.”
Navsaria also says that, for reasons experts don’t completely understand, the onset of puberty seems to be getting earlier in girls over time. Among the possible culprits of early puberty may be hormone-disrupting chemicals, such as bisphenol A (BPA), a synthetic chemical found in some plastics, as well as rising obesity rates, since reproductive capabilities can be triggered by reserves of fat tissues.
During puberty, anxieties about sex usually crop up (for both parents and kids), but according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), a common misconception for parents is that “sex” solely translates to intercourse for kids. The reality is, it casts a much wider net for kids this age. Tweens think more about whether or not they’re attractive to others and if they’ll gain a boyfriend or girlfriend than the actual act of sex.
The AAP advises parents to keep lines of communication open with their child during this time and to try to educate them about sex in a way they see fit (as the alternative is learning about it from misinformed friends and the internet). Also, keep in mind that talking to your child about sex doesn’t mean you’re endorsing it. In fact, kids who feel comfortable talking to their parents about sex often have intercourse later than those who don’t.
2. A new way of thinking (literally)
According to Navsaria, from a developmental perspective, tweens are able to think in more abstract ways than they were before, having the ability to better intellectualize that the world doesn’t end with what’s right in front of them at that very moment.
“Tweens are able to use more logic, reason and deduction than a younger child can,” Navsaria says. “It’s not as advanced as it would be in a teen or adult, but it’s notably different from before.”
However, even though your child will be able to think in more conceptual terms than ever before, don’t expect them to make the best choices all the time.
“The prefrontal cortex — which is the part of the brain that handles decision-making, judgment and planning — is still relatively immature in tween and teen brains,” says Navsaria. “This explains the impulsive thinking or lack of thinking through consequences that is commonly seen in this age group.”
The AAP also notes that the reason risk-taking behavior is so prevalent in adolescents is because the regions of the brain that are hypersensitive to reward (the anterior insula and the ventral striatum) are highly activated during this time.
3. Increased need for privacy
According to Ali Hamroff, a licensed psychotherapist who works with adolescents at Liz Morrison Therapy in New York, tweenhood is often the time kids show more of a desire for privacy. (In other words, cue the closed doors.)
“Since tweenhood can be a confusing time, it isn’t uncommon for kids in this age group to not feel as comfortable sharing things with their parents — even if they shared everything in the past,” says Hamroff. “Their bodies are physically changing, and they might start to develop feelings that they never had before. Things like this can be embarrassing, causing them to shut down.”
While your child’s sudden desire for secrecy can feel like a bit of a blow to the ego, try not to take it personally. According to the Child Mind Institute, this behavior is completely normal; it’s common for tweens to choose their friends over their parents as a sounding board (and just about everything else).
Even if you know any input from you is going to be met with “uuuuugggghhh, moooooom,” it’s important to tell your tween that your door is always open.
“Allow your child to know that they are loved and that, if they wish, they can come to you about anything — even bad choices,” says Hamroff. “This creates a solid foundation for a trustworthy, independent child, and it also helps you and your child to remain close, with you having a better understanding of what they are going through.”
4. A new personality every day
If your child goes to bed one night loving dresses and JoJo Siwa and wakes up all about jeans and heavy metal, no, they aren’t going crazy. In fact, they’re right on track, developmentally.
“The preteen years are an ever-evolving time,” says Hamroff. “This is when they start to explore their identity, learn more about themselves and become exposed to new things, due to an increase in time spent with friends and peers.”
According to Hamroff, it’s perfectly normal for tweens to regularly switch their style, group of friends and/or interests during this time since they’re still trying to determine their place in the world.
“The tween age can be a confusing time for both kids and parents, who are watching their innocent child morph into a mini-teenager,” she says. “But it’s important for parents to keep in mind that, at this age, kids are trying to figure out the world for the first time somewhat independently. They don’t necessarily know how to feel or act.”
Hamroff recommends creating an open, loving and supportive environment for your child, no matter how irksome their new quirks and habits may be (notice a theme here?), and, at the same time, help them develop their independence.
“It’s really important for tweens and teens to feel that sense of love from their parents while they’re testing out new interests or independence,” Hamroff says.
The tween stage is temporary
Even though the tween years can be maddening at times for parents, it’s important to remember that your love and support is still imperative to your child — and that this time, for better or worse, won’t last forever.
“I’m not gonna lie, watching my daughter go from a cartwheeling, princess-loving, completely innocent girl to an eye-rolling tween was rough at times — and even hurtful on occasion,” says mom of one Kristen Lee, of Brooklyn, New York. “But my husband and I always knew it was harder for her, so we kept our cool as much as we could and tried not to take things personally. We all made out through the other side, and we’re just as happy and close as we always were. And she has turned into such a cool person.”