“I am the worst person ever. I’m never going to be good enough,” my 11-year-old daughter wailed with tears streaming down her face. I had just stepped into her room to ask her to pick up the clothes that were lying on the floor—something I’ve done countless times before. She normally responds with easygoing humour, so her intense and emotional outburst caught me off guard.
David Walsh, psychologist and author of the book Why Do They Act That Way? A Survival Guide to the Adolescent Brain for You and Your Teen, suggests that parents look at it this way: “Think of a car. During the preteen years, it’s like the gas pedal is to the floor, and the brakes are on back order.”
Between nine and 11 (some kids start earlier and some later), growth hormones begin to take centre stage, while the brain’s executive centre (where emotions are managed) is undergoing major construction, explains Walsh. He recalls asking his son what he was thinking after he was fined for skateboarding down a set of stairs clearly marked “No Skateboarding.” The answer? He wasn’t thinking at all.
In the months leading up to my daughter’s outburst, there had been subtle signs that she’d officially become a tween. She was more aware of her appearance, more concerned about doing well at school, and was eating and sleeping more than usual. Another difference—and a frustrating one for her—was increased forgetfulness and disorganization.
All of those changes are normal, according to Dina Kulik, a paediatrician at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, who sees many parents and their preteens in her private practice. Distraction, impatience and sensitivity are also on the list. Kulik says it’s important for parents to be aware of changes in their preteen’s mood and behaviour, so they can anticipate and plan for them. Sometimes it’s a drop in school performance or decreased interest in previously enjoyed activities that offers clues a preteen is feeling stressed or experiencing lower self-esteem. Many kids aren’t comfortable sharing their concerns or feelings because they’re embarrassed or confused about what’s happening. How can you help?
It’s a period where independence and assertiveness often come into play, says Toronto psychotherapist and parenting expert Alyson Schafer. Challenging authority (with an eye roll) can be a way to rebel against being a conformist or goody two-shoes. “Respond to the content, not the tone,” says Schafer. A moody preteen doesn’t have to spoil your family dinner when she tells you she hates your meatloaf; tell her you’re sorry she’s disappointed, then move on to the next topic. Christy Lawson, mom to an 11-year-old in Burlington, Ont., has been using this approach when it comes to her son’s new argumentative side. “I try to stay calm and logical,” she says. “Often, he’ll come back to apologize if he’s been rude, instead of waiting for me to resolve things. It reminds me that he’s in the middle of being little and growing up.”
Ensure your child gets plenty of rest and eats well, doing only as many activities as he can handle, and is active at least 60 minutes a day. Even better—join him for a walk or to throw a ball in the yard.
Listen without going into problem-solving mode, so kids feel like they can open up to you. I like to talk to my daughter in the car—I keep my eyes on the road and throw out a conversation starter, like, “You don’t seem yourself. Want to talk about it?” I find we communicate well by text, and Schafer agrees that, for some kids, this helps reduce the intensity or intimidation factor. We’ve also been relying on humour to cut the tension. It reminds her that we’re on her side and always see the best in her—even when she’s rolling her eyes.
Preteen mood changes can seem very similar to the signs of depression, which is something kids in this age group may struggle with. If your child is experiencing sadness and/or anxiety that appears to be more than ordinary moodiness, talk to your child’s doctor.