This is Part 11 of my Puberty and Growth Series
So far in this series, we’ve discussed physical changes that occur during puberty. But puberty is not just about changes in height, muscle, fat and sex organs, it also starts a cascade of changes in the brain.
As mentioned in a previous post, you can think of brain changes during puberty as you do a house remodel, substituting “brain” for “house.” Just like extra equipment is brought in before a house remodels, the brain boosts up neurons (gray matter) and synapses (junctions between neurons) right before puberty. Once the hypothalamus releases sex and growth hormones, the brain starts to rewire itself, a process that last until about 24 years of age. But the first couple of years can be rocky.
The brain remodel has real effects on the behavior of tweens. Parents may not be aware of these changes, finding themselves in a constant battle with their child. This puts connection and communication with their tween at risk, at a time they need it more than ever.
So let’s go through 7 shifts in behavior you can expect to see in early adolescence and positive ways to deal with them.
1. From Periodically Emotional to Frequently Emotional
A girl headed to bed suddenly screams she forgot to do her math homework. The parent chimes in “I asked if you finished your homework, and you said yes!” The girl starts to cry saying she’s going to get a bad grade. “That’s ridiculous,” the parent says. “You always do well in math.” The girl cries even more and right before she slams the door yells, “You don’t understand!”
What makes this brain remodel interesting is it occurs back to front, starting with the limbic system (emotional center) and ending with the prefrontal cortex (judgment and reasoning center). In other words, the emotional center is getting ramped up while reasoning and judgment lag behind. The influx of hormones also plays a role.
“When it comes to hormones, the most important thing to remember is that the teenage brain is seeing these hormones for the first time,” writes Francis Jensen in The Teenage Brain. “Because of that, the brain hasn’t yet figured out how to modulate the body’s response to this influx of chemicals.”
There are sex differences, too. The female hormone estrogen is linked to chemicals in the brain that controls mood. It takes a while for estrogen levels to stabilize during puberty which may increase moodiness in girls.
“As for parents during these times of emotional duress, the watchword for them is to go slow when an emotional outburst occurs, to be empathic and invite talking out instead of popping off and provoking acting out,” writes Carl Pickhardt, Ph.D., in his Surviving Adolescence Column on Psychology Today. “And it helps if they understand and convey the value of emotions, the most important one being that feelings are good informants. They are to be accepted, not argued with and discounted.”
See Episode 10 of the Healthy Family Podcast with Kelly Meier about ways to communicate and connect with children.
2. From Manageable to Disorganized
It can seem like tweens regress when they enter middle school because they often seem more disorganized and messy. But there is so much going on including more responsibilities at school that it should be no surprise that their brain has trouble juggling it all.
The term used is executive function, and it’s the part of the brain responsible for planning and meeting goals. Problem is, the prefrontal cortex, in charge of these functions, is lagging behind in development (see prefrontal cortex functions below). Don’t get me wrong, changes are still being made to that part of the brain but tweens will need a lot of support.
Parents can help tweens develop systems and structures for all their demands, including keeping their room clean. Once they get comfortable with using the system, parents can gradually back off. But parents need to supervise and provide support before they demand a child takes full responsibility.
3. From Self-Focused to Friend-Obsessed
All of your sudden a 12-year-old wants a trendy shoe his friends are wearing. His dad is in shock that his independent boy cares about what other kids think. The dad chimes in with “If everyone jumped off a bridge….” Let’s just say it doesn’t go well.
The brain is actively working on the circuits that sensitize your child to his social world. Tweens and teens are learning how to be adults and it takes years to master complex social interactions.
And it starts with conformity, which really boils down to vying for inclusion in peer groups. During this period, tweens are super sensitive to social rejection. Fitting in is vital.
In his book Surviving Your Child’s Adolescence, Pickhardt recommends parents do two things. First, help tweens cast a wider social net by increasing their exposure to a variety of social groups so they don’t feel dependent on one.
Second, he recommends letting your child know that you are aware of how kids can act and that you are there for them:
At this age, we are aware that there is more social meanness as people compete to join groups and fight for position. Teasing, exclusion, bullying, rumoring and ganging up all become much more common. If any of these forms of social cruelty come your way in person or your cell phone, or over the internet, please tell us so we can support and coach you in how to respond and, with your permission, intervene if you can’t get it to stop. And of course, please do not get involved in committing or going along with this social meanness because that just makes the problem worse.
The goal is to be there for your child, helping guide him through the ups and downs of friendship. Just remember, it’s normal for him to want to fit in (this won’t last as later in adolescence he’ll want to be different!).
4. From Rested to Tired
Due to changes during puberty, melatonin has a delayed release in the brain, making the pressure to go to sleep later — and wake up later — by about two hours. This internal clock shift happens around the age of 12.
The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends children between the ages of 6-12 get 9-12 hours a night. Teenagers typically need less sleep, about 8 to 10 hours. It is estimated that 57% of middle-schoolers and 65% of high-schoolers get too little sleep.
A well-rested child should go to bed and wake up fairly easily. She should also be alert and not feeling tired during the day. But if she has trouble getting to sleep, waking up, and is constantly falling asleep during the day (and is crabby), sleep may be deficient.
This can be tough because start times for middle schools are often early, despite recommendations to start schools after 8:30 am. You can get your tween involved by creating a family media plan to keep cell phone’s/Ipads off at night, do homework early, and get a bedtime routine down so the child is in bed with a book about an hour before falling asleep.
5. From Confident to Self Conscious
An 11-year old girl is getting dressed and having a hard time figuring out what to wear. For the first time ever, her mom hears her comment negatively about her body.
The mom rushes to say how beautiful and perfect her daughter is. But this doesn’t seem to register and she ends up upset anyway.
Self-consciousness and puberty go together. As the brain focuses on her social word and avoiding rejection, it’s normal to compare herself to her peers, something called “social comparison theory.” Trying to get a tween not to compare herself to others is pointless because it’s one of the ways she learns about herself.
But talking about her real feelings is what you want to do, instead of trying to make her feel better. So go ahead and ask why she’s feeling this way and you’re sure to hear something about a friend, a comment someone made, or a school event as the trigger. Once you know why you can help her along. But if you just chime in with “you’re perfect,” she never gets to work out these very normal feeling of not measuring up.
6. From Compliant to Combative
Parent: Do you want to go to the park this weekend?
Child: “That’s boring,” “I just want to stay home!”
In Surviving Your Child’s Adolescence, Pickhardt explains that a negative mindset is one of the first signs of puberty. What’s really behind the bad attitude, is a tween having trouble separating from his childhood self. This is a transition period where old activities don’t seem interesting but she’s not sure exactly what to replace them with.
Parents can look at tweens’ discontent as the impetus needed to grow, just as someone needs to be unhappy with a job before they can start looking for a new one. This is where the two central tasks of adolescence come in: autonomy and identity formation.
Children at this stage need more autonomy. They want more say in family decisions and success in this area is likely to translate to more cooperation because they feel respected. They also will be trying on different hats to figure out who they are. Their identity used to be focused on adopting the roles and personality of parents but they naturally tire of this and move on to their own interests. But they some freedom to choose wisely.
So if your child is drawn towards tech for his school elective, but you really want him to play an instrument, allow him to make the choice he wants. If your child is unsure, help him go over all the options.
This type of parenting is called “autonomy supportive” and it’s linked to better outcomes in children. In other words, you’re there to encourage her, provide options, and offer support, not tell her what to do. As one review points out autonomy supportive parents “refrain from using controlling and pressuring parenting tactics such as guilt-induction and love withdrawal.”
Of course, tweens have the rest of adolescence to figure things out but building a foundation now helps pave the way for more success later.
7. From Carefree to Stressed
There is a lot of change going on in a tween’s world- worries about friends, separating from childhood, more responsibilities, the potential for inadequate sleep, and wrestling with the question…who am I? This crazy amount of change plus the increase in emotional sensitivity makes tweens more vulnerable to the effects of stress.
In The Teenage Brain, Jensen explains how adolescents respond differently to the stress hormone THP. For adults, this hormone has a calming effect but in the teen, it increases anxiety. Adolescents also have higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol in their system. In other words, it’s adding stress to an overactive stress response.
Look for how tweens recover from stress, referred to as self-regulation. If not resolved, each of the aforementioned changes could trigger too much stress for the brain to handle. It’s the difference between a tween who gets emotional but gets over it and another child who stays worried or depressed. Two different tweens encounter challenges with friends, one finds resolution while the other gets in a bad crowd or becomes socially isolated.
So during this period, stay on top of what is going on and how your child is behaving. The table below details red flags to be on the lookout for. It’s the ideal time to get professional help before maladaptive coping strategies get wired into the brain. Usually, parents gut feelings about problems are right.
Don’t miss Episode 5 of the Healthy Family Podcast with Maia Szalavitz where we discuss the early warning signs of addiction.
I am convinced after this series that the period of adolescence needs just as much attention as the first decade received. All the research I’ve read point to a close relationship with parents as protective. This is not helicopter parenting but really being there to support, teach, and help children as they enter this long “adult-in-training” period.
Have you noticed any of these behavior shifts in your home?
Posts Included in the Series:
Intro: 6 Things About Puberty and Growth Every Parent Should Know
1. The Stages of Puberty: What Families Can Expect
2. How to Get Your Child Through Puberty Without Hating Their Growing Body
3. How to Normalize Sexual Development with Elizabeth Trejos-Castillo [Podcast]
4. Why Puberty is the Ideal Time to Invest in Bone Health
5. 15 Simple and Delicious Calcium-Rich Recipes for the Whole Family
6. Preventing Eating and Weight-Related Problems in Your Child. Project EAT’s Principal Investigator Dianne Neumark Sztainer [Podcast]
7. Seven Things “Always Hungry” Adolescents Wish Their Parents Knew
8. Nutrition from Head to Toe During Puberty (Part 1)
9. Nutrition from Health to Toe During Puberty (Part 2)
10. 8 Ways to Talk to Kids About Nutrition so They Actually Listen
11. 7 Shifts in Tweens’ Behavior Every Parent Should Know About
12. How to Keep “Cultural Faves” From Ruining Your Tween’s Health and Well Being [NEXT]