Middle school was a big change for Deanna F., twelve, of Middle Village, New York. Her mother, Josephine, said her daughter was becoming developed in every sense of the word: “Very moody! Also, her interest in boys! It’s breaking her father’s heart.” Although Deanna talks frequently and openly with her mother, Josephine still feels like there may be subjects her daughter is leaving out: “I want to know everything that happens in her daily life, and I know I don’t.”
Indeed, the changes that go on in the pre- and early-teen years, from age eleven to thirteen, are astounding. Children are transformed physically, emotionally, sexually, and socially, making that first year of middle school tough for both parents and children.
A Physical, Psychological, and Emotional Upheaval
Although for some the transition happens slowly, to many parents it can seem as though the child who got on the school bus in the morning has morphed into someone else by the time he comes home. The giggly girl who smiled all the time is now sullen and poker-faced (could it be that she’s embarrassed about her braces?). The happy-go-lucky team player is suddenly argumentative and challenging, looking for a fight. Preteens behave differently with friends, they become moody or elated without much cause, and, of course, they start to look different.
According to Elizabeth M. Casparian, Ph.D., director of educational programs at HiTOPS  in Princeton, New Jersey, around the age of eleven or twelve—sometimes earlier in girls—parents will begin noticing all sorts of physical changes in their children, such as body odor and breast budding in girls. A growth spurt may include longer arms and legs and, in boys, thicker facial hair and body hair, cracking voice, and wet dreams (nocturnal emissions). In girls, the changes include vaginal discharge, the onset of menses, and breast development.
But for Maureen O., of Glendale, New York, mother to three daughters, “The biggest challenge we are facing right now is friends. Girls especially at this age can be extremely mean to one another.”
Dorene K., of Massapequa Park, New York, mother to Bryan, twelve, and Michele, eight, concurs: “[They seem to feel] insecure about themselves and everything around them—girlfriends, boyfriends, smoking, fighting.” On the other hand, there’s “a tremendous push for more freedom.”
The eye-rolling and talking back, unpleasant as they may be, are markers of what goes on when preteens begin to separate from parents and form their own identity and set of values.
Smoothing the Way for Your Preteens
Parents can help make this transformative phase smoother by preparing their children for all the various changes to come.
Dorene’s son, Bryan, “fudges” a lot when he’s trying to get some new information out of her.
“He’ll talk around it or completely change the subject,” she says. “Sometimes, after we’ve talked for awhile, he’ll tell me the ‘real’ story, and sometimes he doesn’t, but I know that he’s at least absorbed what I’ve said because a lot of times when we talk about it at a later date, he’ll say the stuff I’ve said to him as if he thought of it himself.”
Topics that might come up include body changes (“Do I have cancer if I have sore breasts?”), sexual issues (“Am I sex-crazed if I have erections?”), or less tangible issues, such as the changing social structures of middle school.
“It’s hard to make friends,” says Steven M., thirteen, of Macungie, Pennsylvania. “It’s kind of cliquey. Since I’ve gotten older, everyone started sticking with their [old] friends, and no one’s expanding and making new friends.”
How to Get Around the Embarrassment
Preteens often clam up because they might think you won’t understand.
“Parents need to open the door in order for their children to know that it is okay to ask, be curious, or worried,” Casparian says. “Kids are looking for permission, and if no one offers, they will wait to find the information on their own from friends or from school.”
In addition to talking frequently, Casparian suggests using books as a complementary resource.
“This sends the message to children that their natural curiosity is normal,” she says. “It also allows children to read as much or as little as they need.”
By paying attention to cues and leaping at opportunities to develop a new type of relationship, you can help make puberty tolerable—if not actually pleasant!—for your preteen.
Common Questions Preteens Have (and How to Answer Them)
Q: Why does everybody hate me?
A: Well, that’s your opinion. Do you feel like you sometimes hate other people? It’s something you get over when you start talking or interacting with that person. Give it a try.
Q: Why can’t I get a tattoo?
A: I know you won’t like the answer—because I said so—but frankly, right now, I’m the parent and I want you to wait. Ask me again when you’re eighteen.
Q: Gross! Why am I so disgustingly sweaty?
A: Sweat glands! This is the time of life when they really go into overdrive, especially in your armpits, groin, palms, and soles of your feet. When the sweat comes into contact with bacteria on your skin, it smells. Radical cure: a daily bath or shower, plus deodorant.
When and How to Have the “Big Talks”
Here are some tips from Dr. Andrea Libresco, a professor of curriculum and teaching in the School of Education and Allied Human Services at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York.
- Pick up nonverbal cues. If they are hanging around you, even if they’re not saying anything definitive, this might be a sign that they have something on their mind.
- Take lots of family car trips. It can be helpful to talk here, when they are next to or behind you, and don’t have to look into your eyes when they speak.
- Use movies, shows, and even doctor’s appointments for “talkable” moments. “A parent’s worst nightmare is not that you’ll hear something terrible, but that you won’t hear about it at all,” says Libresco.
- Carpool as much as possible. Be a fly on the steering wheel and be quiet when you drive them and their friends. They tend to forget you’re there.
By Dina Santorelli