Focus on the Family

Tween and Teen Development

Tweens and teens experience many physical and emotional changes that can be confusing for parents. Dr. Meg Meeker explains those changes and offers tips for parents to respond effectively so their sons and daughters can thrive during their teenage years.

One of the most frequent concerns parents talk about is the behavior of their tween or teen. A moody 12-year-old daughter won’t listen. A 15-year-old son throws a fit when he can’t have the curfew he wants.

Tweens and teens can be tough for parents, so let me try to help. We need to discuss girls and boys separately because, contrary to what American culture claims, there are enormous differences between girls and boys and what they experience during puberty. Let’s look at girls first.

Changes in Teen Daughters

When a girl begins puberty, she is more emotionally volatile. This unnerves many girls because they aren’t used to having anger, sadness or fears erupt for no reason. They are confused and frustrated by the fact that these feelings come without warning, and they don’t always make sense.

Understand your tween will act in a peculiar way and this may have nothing to do with you. Mothers, in particular, feel responsible for their daughters’ feelings and want to help them get over them. The problem is, you can’t. When your daughter picks on her little brother, argues with you about what she can wear or slams doors, pay attention. When this happens, I help girls identify it. I might say, “When you are mad at everyone, that is a clue that you are experiencing changes that you can’t control. So, go in your room and spend some time alone.”

Tween and teen girls experience physical changes that can rattle them too. Usually, girls begin puberty before boys and this may make them feel awkward. When they begin having body odor and breast development, they become very self-conscious and often want to hide the changes with baggy clothes. Others, however, may want to flaunt their breasts if boys begin to make comments.

When they begin to menstruate, they will feel at a loss as to what is normal and what isn’t if no one has discussed this with them. This is why a parent (preferably mom, but dads can do an awesome job) needs to talk with them and explain what’s happening. This takes the fear out of menstruation for girls.

Most girls are uncomfortable talking about pubertal changes, but don’t let this stop you. You may be uncomfortable as well, but forge ahead anyway. One of the messages girls receive when a parent won’t talk to them is that menstruation is shameful. You want your daughter to feel positive about her body.

Changes in Teen Sons

Boys, too, can feel just as awkward about physical changes. Some who develop later worry that something is wrong with them or that they won’t ever develop. If this is your son, reassure him that he’s normal. If you’re concerned, don’t be afraid to consult with your pediatrician. Contrary to what many parents think, boys do go through mood swings. They can cry more easily, get angry for no reason or become sensitive to people’s comments. Boys who feel badly about their bodies will pull away from people, act insecure and avoid girls in particular.

Tween and teen boys become very competitive about body changes and compare themselves to their friends. In the locker room, they will compare the size of their genitals with their friends. Some boys who are more developed may make fun of boys who seem to be a little delayed in their development. This contributes to a lower self-esteem, and most boys are too embarrassed to tell their parents what is going on.

Just like with girls, it is vital that someone (best if it’s dad but mothers can do a good job) explains to a boy what he can expect as far as physical and emotional changes. If a boy is left in the dark, he can be afraid that he is not growing appropriately. He will also begin to have strong sexual feelings that are new. Some boys feel ashamed or guilty, and parents must help them realize that the feelings are not only normal but also healthy. After all, God Himself designed boys to have these feelings. I know it’s tough to talk about, but it’s very important.

The Teen Mind

Psychologically, both daughters and sons begin a developmental phase where they want to be independent. They think differently than they did when they were 10, and this is healthy. But it also means that they will butt heads with their parents. They will argue about schoolwork, bedtime, foods they want to eat, when they can start dating and who their friends are. Christian kids may tell their parents that they don’t want to go to church or youth group and this really upsets parents. They assume that their child is giving up his/her faith.

Girls and boys move through the teen years with different psychological needs. Girls, for instance, don’t feel the need to separate from parents like boys do. They can remain close and not have their identity threatened, though they may pull away from their fathers because they are uncomfortable with their bodies.

A word to dads: if your tween or teen daughter suddenly treats you like you are an alien or hugs you like you are an overgrown porcupine, don’t take it personally. Her behavior is all about her, not you. Her disengagement doesn’t mean you’ve done anything wrong. She’s just trying to figure out who she is as a budding woman and not as a little girl.

Boys, on the other hand, need to emotionally separate from their parents (particularly their mothers) in order to know that they can be strong men. Boys who depend on their mothers throughout their teen years and into their twenties have a hard time leaving home.

Puberty can also trigger physiological problems with kids. Hormonal shifts can trigger biological depression in kids who are predisposed. So, if your son or daughter begins to be sullen, withdrawn and seems down all the time, watch him or her carefully. It may be a passing phase, but it could be an indication that something more serious is going on.

Teens and Technology

Tween and teens also begin to encounter more adult issues. Phones, internet and video games open up a new, unnerving world. Many parents allow their kids to have phones, watch R rated movies or play violent and sex laden games because they feel their kids are “good” kids, but that is all the more reason to avoid inappropriate content.

Most parents erroneously believe that their child is mature enough to handle more screen time. Don’t be fooled. Nice kids still have a problem saying no to friends who look at bad material and easily get swept up into social media or horrible video games. If your son or daughter is a nice kid, be smart and keep junk away.

The research surfacing on the harm of screens, social media and violent games for kids is chilling. Social media is clearly linked to depression in girls, and boys who play violent games are more aggressive when they are older. Some research indicates that screen time actually changes brain development. This makes sense because the brain is being hardwired during the teen years. Whatever goes in actually changes the way the brain functions.

Most parents, in my experience, won’t regulate their kids’ screen use because they don’t want their kids to feel like the odd person out with friends. Some say their kids have major temper tantrums if they take screens away. Let me warn you: if your child gets really mad when you take the phone or games away, this is a red flag that he or she may be addicted. It’s like taking alcohol away from an alcoholic.

We forget that tweens and teens are vulnerable to manipulation by media and have difficulty regulating screens themselves. Don’t expect your teen to exercise discipline with screens. Remember that teens can have sensory issues just like younger kids. They can have real difficulty with the noise or visual stimulation from screens. Kids with ADHD see their condition get worse when they are playing games or watching too much on their screens because fast changing images interrupt their ability to focus on quieter activities like reading a book or doing math problems.

We also know that screens can have a profound effect on a child’s moods, so it is crucial that parents monitor their child’s moods very carefully. Normal teen behavior includes: emotional volatility, angry outbursts, a desire to be alone sometimes, arguing over making independent decisions and wanting to spend more time away from home with friends.

Abnormal teen behaviors that should be a red flag that something deeper like depression, anxiety, drug or alcohol use are going on include: sadness that lasts longer than 2 weeks, isolation on a regular basis, change in sleep patterns (either sleeping more or less), change in friends, change in grades, talk of death or referring to dying, cutting or complete change in appearance, shift in eating (less or more), disengagement from family, sadness or hopelessness, loss of interest in activities previously enjoyed, restlessness, aches and pains that are unexplainable and poor self-esteem.

Many kids have some of these symptoms for a period of time but, if 4-5 stay consistently, then get to your child’s doctor and say you suspect depression in your child.

Tweens and teens struggle with issues that kids even 10 years ago never had. They are lonely and isolated because screen time only offers superficial connections, constantly over stimulated by visual and auditory noise and pressured to make decisions about their sexuality or gender far too early. In short, many are simply overwhelmed and not mature enough to handle everything coming at them.

It’s up to you to help your teenagers. Be there, show up and pay close attention to what is going on in their lives. I promise, when they are older, they will thank you.

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