Middle School

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What to do if (when) your tween reverts to terrible twos

Tween pouting - what to do if (when) your tween reverts to terrible twos 

When I was in high school, I remember telling my younger sister that she had “an attitude.” She always had her hand on her hip, mouthed off to anyone she could – at any chance she got – and, in general, acted too cool (read: moody) to be a functioning part of the family. The door slamming that went on when my sister was a tween still echoes in my ears.

I didn’t understand it then, but, according to the experts, it’s perfectly normal for tweens to behave as though they’re repeating the terrible twos.

“This is a good topic,” says Andrea Share, a social worker and family counsellor in Toronto who experienced the tween years with her three children. “Tweens are forced to grow up quickly as they are exposed to all sorts of things that their brains may not be prepared for,” she says. “This exposure may lead them to wanting to emulate what they see on television, in ads, on the Internet, and in social media in general. Unfortunately this may lead to some wanting to dress and act in a more sexualized manner. They may want to experiment with other behaviours – illegal, risky or just inappropriate for their age – in order to feel as though they are ‘fitting in’ with others or to feel more grown up.”

Even teens themselves can feel out of control, but that’s because hormones play a part in all this, too.

“Adolescence is a period of immense physical and emotional growth,” says Dr. Dina Kulik, an emergency medicine physician at The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto and pediatrician at Kindercare Pediatrics. “A tween’s body is maturing rapidly, which leads to awkward bodies and self-consciousness.”

She adds that social hierarchies are developing and many students feel academic stress. “Hormones such as testosterone and estrogen are increasing, leading to what can feel like the pre-menstrual syndrome experienced by older women. The prefrontal cortex (the decision making area of the brain) is immature leading to impulse control issues,” she says.

Parents can expect their budding adolescents to be more moody, irritable and impulsive. “Your tween may feel physical discomfort and fatigue as bones and muscles grow quickly,” says Dr. Kulik. “Self-consciousness about changing body habits may lead to social withdrawal and sadness. Some kids experience extreme sadness and anxiety and benefit from a mental health assessment. If you think your child may be experiencing these symptoms please talk to your doctor.

Assuming your tween is experiencing standard ‘tween-age’ issues, Andrea offers a few tips: “The best advice I can provide to parents is to stay connected with your tween,” says Andrea. “Ensure your child has healthy outlets for energy and make sure they continue to have them. And continue to communicate into the teen years.”

Why is this happening?

Psychologists use the term “individuation” to describe the process through which children separate from their parents emotionally. There are three periods of development during which it is especially pronounced:

Early childhood (autonomy):

During toddlerhood, it is normal for children to go through periods of oppositionalism and negativity – so much so that this period is often referred to as the “terrible twos”. This insistence on independence – I choose what I wear, when I clean up, whether I eat – is a reflection of the child‘s normal affirmation of her growing sense of autonomy.

Early adolescence (differentiation):

The second individuation crisis derives from your child’s realization that he is not only separate from you, but different. The young adolescent may not yet know exactly who he is, but one thing he knows for sure if that he is not a carbon copy of his parents. It is during this stage that adolescents begin challenging their parents’ opinions and beliefs, questioning their authority, and pointing out their shortcomings. As is the case during early childhood, parent-child relationships improve after the individuation crisis of early adolescence is over, usually by about age 15 or so. Although he is not yet an emotional adult, the eminently more calm and reasonable 16-year-old bears little resemblance to the young adolescent who debated everything for the sake of debating and pushed your limits (and buttons).

Early adulthood (identity):

Most adolescents go through this third stage sometime in their 20s. By now, the young person has begun to develop a sense of identity and has realized that her beliefs, opinions and values are not identical to her parents’.

– Excerpted with permission from You and Your Adolescent: The Essential Guide for Ages 10-25, by Laurence Steinberg, PhD. Simon & Schuster, ©2011.


Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, October 2014.

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