Parents' Guide To Understanding Preteens, Their Attitude and Behaviour

Early adolescence is a period of confusion for both preteens and parents. Here’s how you and your preteen can understand each other better.

By Nivedita Mukerjee

Parents' Guide To Understanding Preteens, Their Attitude and Behaviour

As your child gets to her first ‘double digit’ milestone birthday – the big 10 – don’t you find a change in your attitude as a parent? The ‘cute and cuddly’ phase is now replaced by expectations from the child, which are either your own or a reflection of what your parents had expected from you.

As your child grows into a preteen, she also starts showing the ability of taking care of some of her needs on her own. So, it is also the time for you to overhaul your own roles and responsibilities. Your parenting style now needs to be changed from nurturing and stimulating to providing wider exposure, greater challenges and connecting with your child for a more meaningful relationship. The three years from ages 10 to 12 is the best time for you to establish a long-lasting connection with your soon-to-be teenager.

With your child becoming a preteen, there are a few important changes you may notice in his personality. Your preteen may

  • Keep small secrets from you.
  • Keep to himself at times.
  • May not answer queries related to his routines or friends.
  • Expect you to listen but not comment or give advice.
  • Anticipate nonjudgmental responses when he confides in you.
  • Try to negotiate the norms of discipline, school, homework, family time, etc.
  • Need your support to launch himself into the outside world.
  • Seek security at home while trying to fit into his peer group.

Let’s now look at the other important changes your child may display once she becomes a preteen.

Preadolescent behaviour

What are the behaviours that most children exhibit during the wonderful preteen years? Over the years, as an educator, I have spent a considerable amount of time with preteens. I have interacted with them on a variety of topics. I have travelled with them on school trips to study history, geography, sciences – all the while trying to understand them. My long and intense interactions with preteens helped me learn a great deal about their behaviour. Some of the typical characteristics I observed in children aged 10–12 years are:

  • They display a spectrum of behaviours, which may swing between extremes.
  • They are talkative and friendly, but may sometimes be assertive to the point of being rude.
  • They like to go to school, and are happy to do a reasonable amount of homework.
  • They are good at memorising facts.
  • They are curious and impulsive.
  • They enjoy physical activities like swimming, running, climbing, jumping and riding, but also get tired easily.
  • They can turn rebellious and argue or talk back.
  • They are often hungry, both for food and new experiences.
  • They resist tasks that are imposed and do not care much about the consequences. However, they have a sense of right and wrong and can be reasoned with.
  • They care for pets and siblings, and so it’s a great age to introduce them to activities like community service, which would help them develop empathy.
  • They enjoy participating in group activities, forming clubs, exhibiting their skills to peers and competing with them.

While these are a few general observations, you must consider the characteristics of your child while dealing with her. This includes her temperament, home and family environment, friends in school and neighbourhood, extra-curricular interests, maturity level, health conditions, etc.

Cognitive development

For children aged 10–12, developmental milestones are not clearly defined. However, as a K-12 educator, I have spent a lot of time in discussion with parents to try and understand what preteens go through during this time.

They go through many physical changes, but the time and pace vary. The physical changes are accompanied by cognitive changes as well. During this time, most children start thinking, reasoning and learning from experiences. They develop the ability to understand the consequences of actions. They can conceive ideas of projects in an abstract way. They do not need to see or touch material to plan how to use them. They can understand complex emotions and anticipate how you will react to what they may say or do. They can also explain or provide an excuse for their acts, or even fabricate a cover-up story. To deal with such a scenario, you should have open interactions with your child, establish mutual trust, and be less judgmental with your words and actions. This will help your child develop the courage to be honest with you.

You need come to terms with the fact that your child is now starting to think with more cognitive maturity, which is almost adult-like. The mental changes happening in your child are a part of the process of ‘identity formation’. At this time, your child goes through different phases of struggles, an analysis of which helps him understand himself and his roles. This self-analysis helps him learn to deal with negative emotions like fear, sadness and anxiety, and prepares him to handle different situations in life. But you might also observe some contradictory behaviours like taking a long shower before participating in a save water campaign. Or spending hours texting his friends only to criticize a peer for indulging in gossip.

Understanding you

While you always make the effort to understand your child, it is also important that your child understands you. Here’s a questionnaire to help you find out how well your child knows you (you can add more questions to this list as you think fit).

  1. What makes mummy/daddy happy?
  2. What makes mummy/daddy sad?
  3. What makes mummy/daddy laugh?
  4. What does mummy call daddy when she is upset?
  5. How does daddy call mummy when he is looking for something?
  6. How old is mummy/daddy?
  7. How tall is mummy/daddy?
  8. How did mummy/daddy look when they were children?
  9. What does mummy/daddy do best?
  10. What is the most used phrase by mummy/daddy?
  11. What is the job of mummy/daddy?
  12. What does mummy/daddy do when you are not home?
  13. What does mummy/daddy like best about you?
  14. Which places do mummy/daddy like to visit often?
  15. How do you understand that mummy/daddy love you?
  16. If you were to give a new name to your mummy/daddy, what would their names be?
  17. If your mummy/daddy were characters in a film/cartoon/computer game, what would they be?
  18. What activities do mummy/daddy enjoy the most?
  19. What does mummy/daddy say to you always?
  20. How does mummy/daddy make you laugh?

Be prepared for the most unexpected honest answers from your child, but it would give you an idea about how much your child knows and understands you. This exercise might also encourage your child to create a similar questionnaire about himself and ask you to answer the questions. This, in turn, will help you know more about him than you already do.

Suggested readings

‘Your Ten-to Fourteen-Year-Old’ by Louise Bates Ames, Frances L. llg and Sidney M Baker is a good one to start with. In this book, the writers have presented their observations, consultations and discussions with parents. You may also read ‘Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child’ by John Gottman. Reading these books, and more, will help you learn the behaviour pattern of preteens. And being informed will help you take appropriate steps towards building a great relationship with your child.

Nivedita Mukerjee is a journalist, educator and parent. She writes about matters that concern a child’s success and well-being. She can be reached at niveditamukerjee10@gmail.com.