As your child reaches the 8- to 12-year-old age range, you may begin to notice subtle and obvious signs that they’re no longer a youngster but not quite a teen. Welcome to the “tween” years!
This in-between stage of development is a time of change. Your kid starts to be more independent. They may hit puberty. And their peers’ opinions outrank yours.
“Sometimes, it catches parents by surprise,” says pediatrician Sarah Ann Anderson-Burnett, MD, PhD, a Columbia University specialist in adolescent medicine.
Tween parents: Does this sound familiar?
Puberty brings on all the body change you recall from your own youth: Getting taller. Body odor. Hair where there wasn’t hair before. Acne. Girls may develop breasts and get their first menstrual period. Boys’ voices may deepen, and their testes may enlarge.
“It is normal to start seeing physical changes associated with puberty as early as 8 years old in girls and 9 years old in boys,” says pediatrician Sharifa Glass, MD. She’s an assistant professor at the University of Houston College of Medicine.
That’s a good time to talk about it with your tween, so they know what to expect.
“Starting at 8 and 9 is a really appropriate time to begin to have that conversation,” Anderson-Burnett says. “As scary as it is for parents, it is just as terrifying for the children.” You can get past the awkwardness together.
A Need for Independence
The child who used to tell you everything may become tight-lipped, sharing with peers instead.
“They do start to distance themselves from their parents, often considering their friends as more like their family,” says Shannon Odell, PsyD, a Portland, OR, child and adolescent psychologist. “This can look like picking fights with and ignoring parents, defying rules, and challenging parents’ authority.”
Get ready for a taste of what you might not have expected until the teen years.
Omar Ruiz, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Wellesley, MA, describes what this can look like. “Tweens are notorious for showing attitude, through rolling of their eyes, sucking their teeth, being short with their responses, elevated tone of voice, refusing to follow directions or using vulgar language towards adults,” he says.
Tween independence is normal and expected. You should allow it, up to a point.
“They still need you as their parent,” Anderson-Burnett says. “They still need structure. They still need guidance. But now they’re building their independence and learning to have their own voice. And that is just as critical in this development as is their physical development.”
Prizing Their Peers
In the past, you may have told your child what to wear, eat, and watch. As tweens, they’ll look to their friends.
“Their relationships with their peers become a primary factor in most of the decisions they make, the development of their personality, how they talk, how they behave, what they value, what they believe, and also how they dress, eat, exercise,” Odell says.
As the parent, you still count. But the dynamic may feel different to you both.
Even if your tween starts to pull away, keep talking -- both about ordinary and important topics. “The relationship at this time lays a great foundation for your child to confide in you for even tougher, uncomfortable conversations,” Glass says.
Watch for signs of unhealthy peer pressure, like experimenting with drugs, alcohol, or sex. “Sometimes tweens will start to engage in risky behaviors at the urging of their peers,” Odell says. “Because their [brain’s] frontal lobe hasn’t fully developed and won’t be fully developed until they’re 25, they tend to not think through the consequences of their actions.”
Tweens develop opinions about their bodies. And the influences aren’t always what you’d like. They can be influenced by comments around them and things they see online.
“The idea of ‘I don’t like my body’ -- that actually really does start in middle school and as early as 8 and 9,” Anderson-Burnett says. She likens those toxic ideas to seeds that, if they keep being watered, will flourish as the tween grows up and could lead to problems like disordered eating.
Take care with how you talk about eating habits and your child’s body type. “What they’re eating obviously contributes, but how you speak about it is how they’re going to see themselves,” Anderson-Burnett says.
Watch what you say about your own body, too. Your child will notice, and they may take on those messages themselves. The healthier your own body image is, the better it is for your son or daughter.
Building Their Self-Identity
Some older tweens think about dating, including what gender(s) they’re attracted to. How you react matters.
“If you’re able to support them and say, ‘OK, this is who you are, I support you,’ it really leads to -- [in] my personal clinical experience -- different outcomes than when there is an actual resistance to it,” Anderson-Burnett says.
If you or your child feels awkward talking about certain topics, you could consider letting them talk with an adult you choose, like an uncle, aunt, family friend, or someone else within your circle.
“They’re listening for someone they can trust,” Anderson-Burnett says. “You’re essentially teaching your child early on the power of a network and how to use that network to their advantage [in] their development.”
Being Perceived as ‘Older’
Sometimes adults -- like teachers, neighbors, or strangers -- treat tweens as if they’re older than they are. Research shows that this is more likely to happen to Black and brown tweens than to white tweens, Anderson-Burnett notes.
“They’re still young kids, but they may be treated in school or interactions with other folks within society as adults,” she says. “Your kid might be being antagonized more because of the view of how they should be acting, despite the fact that they are a specific chronological age.”
Your child may not realize that they’re experiencing what’s known as “adultification bias,” so they may not know how to tell you. If you think that might be happening, ask your tween.
“Talk about, ‘Are people treating you differently? Do you feel like you’re being treated differently than your classmates?’ ” Anderson-Burnett says. “I think we undervalue the power of conversation.”
Just like with everything else your tween is going through, start the conversation, listen, and keep an open mind.