Jeremy Fink, LCSW, provides psychotherapy to adults, children, adolescents, and couples and is the Director of The Dynamic Counseling Center. He has extensive experience
At my clinic, I counsel parents of children in the early adolescent phase of development who often rack their brains trying to figure out what is happening to their once obedient and sweet child and seeking strategies for resolving unruly behavior and attitudes. Parents must first understand that their child’s attitude and behavior is not a result of being a bad parent. Rather, what seems most common amongst parents of pre-teens is a lack of understanding and unrealistic expectations.
The most common mistake made by parents is the changing of their parenting style in reaction to their pre-teen’s new and troubling method of relating. Parents who yearn for the copasetic relationship of prior years often attempt to develop a “friendship” with their child. Unfortunately, the attempt at friendship instead of parenting generally results in a mutiny in which the child takes over as the family’s executive and the parent loses control. Conversely, being overbearing and not respecting your child’s attempt at individuation will foster a negative emotionally charged relationship that have been linked to a host of mental health problems.
As a parent, you must choose your battles, prioritize the values that you want to instill and communicate, and not avoid or hesitate to uphold boundaries and enforce age appropriate consequences. Abstain from engaging in yelling matches and try to keep your emotions under control; be empathic to their developmental need to separate, and manage your own feelings about being their best friends. Parenting pre-teens is at best a challenging job and is often a thankless job and even the most competent parents struggle with feeling un-cool and emotionally distraught as they set limits and consequences.
Parents with children who are in early adolescence may be prone to cracking under the pressure, relinquishing their role as the familial executive and failing to set appropriate limits and boundaries. The frustration, humiliation, futility, and rage, which may be experienced by the parent, can affect the parent’s sense of competence and self-esteem, which may in turn be disruptive to the pre-teen’s developing sense of self. If a parent can understand this stage of their child’s development better they may be able to respond more effectively, empathize with their pre-teen, and set appropriate limits while not reacting emotionally or having their authority overthrown.
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It is not until the transition from early adolescence to adolescence proper occurs (9-10th grade), when, what Jean Piaget (1972, 1990) referred to as the formal operational stage of cognitive development sets in, allowing the child the mental ability to consider the many possibilities and perspectives of an issue. Early adolescents or pre-teens, in contrast, children between the ages of 9 and 12, experience a developmental growth spurt, at a rate similar to that of a two-year old child; however, cognitively they have not yet reached the formal operational stage and thus experience difficulty with deductive logic, cause and effect relationships, and judgment. They are often unable to link events, situations, and feelings together, and lack a comprehensive understanding of the past, present, and future. In addition, with the onset of puberty, pre-teens are driven by their hormones, which can make them quite unruly and referred to by some parents as Jekyll & Hyde. Parents report that their children were sweet, thoughtful, and articulate; however, as they begin to enter adolescence, as if by drinking a transformative potion, they emerge as some sort of Tasmanian devil, slamming doors, screaming, and yelling through the house.
Pre-teens may be egocentric and self-centered in behavior, appearance, thinking, and feeling. Their behavior at times seems to be a performance before an imaginary audience, believing that others are as preoccupied with their behavior as they are. They tend to have an exaggerated sense of self-importance and may attribute a seemingly distorted seriousness to their emotional states. Pre-teens frequently feel a need to be secretive and to express ideas that are at variance with their true thoughts, feelings, and wishes. On the one hand this is an adult skill that is used by adults for the sake of social politeness and more sophisticated social behavior; however, your children may use it as a tool for deception and exploiting weaknesses in the parental system to achieve what they want. Your pre-teen may also be fearful of the future and of adulthood. They are still children but are juxtaposed between an adult’s world of responsibilities, independence, and future planning and a child’s world of imagination, fantasy, and dependence upon parents. Pre-teens will often disguise their fear of adulthood by behaving in a cavalier or dismissive fashion towards issues important to their parents.
Cognitive conceit (Elkind, 1988) is a form of dichotomous thinking maintained by pre-teens who begin to regard themselves as being smarter or wiser than their parents and other adults. Pre-teens are grappling with the reality that adults are not omniscient, and consequently conclude that if their parent doesn’t know everything as they once imagined, they in truth know nothing and should not be in charge. In addition, the influx of information from media promotes this mindset of cognitive conceit through messages of anti-adultism, further confirming that adults, in particular parents, are stupid, “lame,” and un-cool. During this phase, cognitive conceit becomes exacerbated when parents, often affected by the emotional turmoil, begin to lose confidence in their ability to parent, resulting in the avoidance of limit setting and the dethroning of their authority.
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