Helping Preteens Understand their Developmental Milestones
While standing in line at a grocery store the other day,
I overheard two parents swapping stories from recent experiences they’d had
with their seventh and eighth grade children. Each narrative was worse than the
next—preteen and early teen behavior that would make anyone listening wonder
how we’d survived as a species without banishing our offspring to distant
Of course, twelve- and thirteen-year-olds have great qualities, too. They are just sometimes overshadowed by self-absorbed, difficult behaviors that are very hard to live with day in and day out. Fortunately, professionals who study cognitive development and neuroscience have explanations for why humans have evolved in this particular way, and greater understand usually leads toward greater empathy and patience. The theories generally boil down to this: children at this stage in their development need to separate from their parents and the other adults who have influenced them. And in middle school, there’s a powerful and often abrupt urge for students to distinguish themselves from previous generations. Unlike their early childhood years when nearly every aspect of their lives was filtered through parents or other adults for approval, this stage marks a first tangible step toward being an empowered and independent-thinking adult, an identity they will hopefully firmly establish and successfully maintain the rest of their lives.
Developmental specialists observe that children at this age generally sort parents’ behavior and values into two categories: those they accept and may adopt, and those they reject, usually wholeheartedly. So when I listen to music from the 1970s and 1980s with my children, it’s quite likely those songs will be rejected in the same way I rejected the Frank Sinatra my mother loved when I was a kid. And why did that matter then as it does now? Each generation needs to establish its own tastes, styles, and ways of being in the world based on today’s values and influences.
Of course, this isn’t permission for preteens to be rude or disrespectful. They
can learn to express differences politely or let parents know they need more
time with peers who share their values. And at school, the expectation to be
respectful is particularly important to maintain a healthy learning environment.
And it's important to remember there’s light at the end of the tunnel for parents
and teachers: while these behaviors can be difficult and even painful at times,
neurological development is on our side. As children age, adolescents increase their
capacity to perceive their parents and teachers not as objects to accept or
reject, but as people who have made their own choices while going through their
own stages of development. And that’s the beginning of a common ground that can
lead to all kinds of understanding and tolerance with preteens, adolescents,