Sara, age 9, had always been a thoughtful and cooperative child. Suddenly she seemed like a different person. She began talking back and flat-out ignoring her mom's attempts to get her to finish her homework, get off the phone, or do anything else. Her mom was bewildered and a little frightened. Who was this rude stranger who was impersonating her sweet-tempered daughter?
Concerned, she approached Sara's teacher, who assured her that Sara was the same girl she'd always been. Not only that, her behavior was entirely to be expected. Excess production of hormones during puberty can cause mood swings in tween girls and boys. Sara would soon return to her old self, the teacher promised. But in the meantime, she advised, Sara's mom should try to ignore the worst and remain calm and loving.
What to Expect
Increasingly, preteens are exposed to stress and demands that can lead to moods and behaviors guaranteed to challenge any parent's patience. But because moods actually reflect a state of mind or feeling, it can be hard to identify them as such. What you see instead are the symptoms: being self-absorbed, stubborn, forgetful, or grumpy. It's not always easy, then, to respond in helpful ways.
You'll find the root of the problem is often tied to social and commercial pressures, academic stress, physical and hormonal changes, a yearning for greater freedom, and the desperate desire tweens have to be liked and to have status within their peer group. It's typical for 7 year olds to envy their classmates over clothes or possessions, and for 8 year olds to have concerns about class tests and homework. Nine-year-old girls, already affected by hormones, may be super-sensitive about how they match up in terms of their looks or grades. Ten and 11 year olds may become resentful when they're not granted the same freedoms and rights to roam as their friends, and 12 year olds are certain to brand even the most judicious parental restrictions as "totally unfair!"
Moods tend to take hold when your child feels either put out or put upon. When events don't go as planned or as hoped, or your child feels neglected, it's only natural that he may feel humiliated, angry, jealous, or even powerless, and as a result, want to retreat inside himself for a time. The bad behavior that often follows is usually an attempt to regain ground and restore self-respect. You are often the target because your child knows you won't reject him for the behavior, even if you may not like it.
How You Can Help
- Be aware of hormonal changes. The first changes occur before there is any outward sign, so don't be surprised if your child's new moods and volatility catch you off guard. Once early puberty is evident, children can, understandably, become anxious about what exactly is going to happen to their bodies and when. Perhaps most significantly, the brain undergoes a major transformation that reduces a child's ability to control her behavior and makes it harder for her to "read" both emotions and social situations. It's not surprising, then, that your child feels strange, wonders who she is, becomes more prone to confusion and exasperation, and starts to "lose it" — even before the actual teenage years arrive.
- Encourage your child's budding judgment. Starting at about age 8, children begin to develop the ability to think and reflect in abstract and logical ways, to look at the world from other people's perspectives, and to formulate their own ideas. Sadly, you will no longer be seen as godlike and faultless. So when your arguments are challenged more frequently, regard it as a sign of your child's healthy development, rather than as something that needs to be squashed. Realize that you will probably have to frame your reasoning more carefully than you did when your child was younger — chances are, "Because I said so!" will no longer suffice.
- See "rudeness" in context. There is a difference between being intentionally offensive and being irreverent, aggressive, or honest, so think carefully about what behavior, for you, crosses the line. If your child is warm, affectionate, and helpful most of the time, an occasional demonstration of "disrespect" is probably not that serious, and under some circumstances, may even be appropriate. Irreverence, for example, used at the right time can lighten a mood. If the rudeness continues, however, explain to your child what upsets you about the behavior and why, and agree on some tougher rules. Another option is to refuse to take the bait, and instead, go out of your way to be polite and attentive.
- Watch for patterns in moodiness. Most likely, your child's bad moods — and the incidents that set them off — will be fleeting. But if your child's unhappy mood lasts for more than a week or two, consider talking with her teacher or pediatrician. Also take notice if there are changes in your child's sleeping and eating patterns, if she doesn't want to go to school or to friends' houses, spends too much time alone in her bedroom, exhibits poor concentration, or falls behind in her school work. These can all be signs of longer-term unhappiness and should be discussed with your child's doctor.
3 Ways to Respond
- Be understanding. Although it can be hard not to take your child's bad mood personally, remind yourself that she may not have intended to upset you.
- Get to the bottom of it. Rather than becoming annoyed or overly cheerful, acknowledge your child's bad mood and ask her about it. Say, "You seem a bit quiet/touchy. It's not like you. Has something happened?" If your child is younger and declines your overtures, encourage her to open up. But if your child is older, realize she might prefer her privacy. You might say, "That's fine, but if you decide differently, I'm here to listen."
- Give more time and attention. It's tempting to steer clear of your child when she's in a bad mood, but that's when she needs your love and acceptance the most.