Social Development in Pre-Teens: What You Need to Know

Understanding the complicated time of pre- and early adolescence will help you best guide your child through it.



Social Development in Pre-Teens: What You Need to Know

While tweens and young teens are growing in all areas, it's most obvious in their social-emotional development. These changes coincide with the transition to middle school, which marks the shift to adolescence as we think of it.

Understanding this complicated time will help you best guide your child through it. 

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Adolescent Egocentrism 

Around puberty, adolescent egocentrism emerges, deeply affecting how 11- to 13-year-olds feel about themselves. There are two aspects of egocentrism at this age:

  • The imaginary audience — that's where your child believes that others notice and care intensely about their appearance and actions
  • The personal fable — where your child believes that their experiences and emotions are unique and experienced only by them (not others) 

Egocentrism leads to teens being highly self-conscious, while at the same feeling powerful and invincible. Unlike a preschooler, tweens and teens know others have a differing points of view.  

Eriksonian Stages

Middle schoolers are at the tail end of what researcher Erik Erikson calls the age of Industry vs Inferiority. They're becoming aware of themselves as individuals, and working hard to be responsible and to accomplish more complex tasks.

As they move towards the next stage, Identity vs Role Confusion (around age 12), they begin to form values and challenge the self-confidence they have built over the preceding years. This phase continues until around age 19. 

During this Identity phase, they seek to find the identity they will take with them into adulthood, along with the peers they feel reflect their values and sense of self.

Behavior Changes

The middle school years are marked by significant personality changes. By definition, children this age show erratic, inconsistent behaviors: one moment they are happy, the next, weeping. In one instant they are affectionate and loving, the next, they resent their parents. They feel invincible, then feel invisible.

Parenting young teens is an investment in patience, empathy, and continued support, despite all evidence from your child to the contrary. 

These years are important ones for your child to develop increased independence from you, to shift the center of his social world from home to peers, and to explore and discover his talents and interests within a larger community of influence. To do this successfully, your child needs to learn how to: 

  • Interpret others’ perspectives and emotions
  • Determine their own point of view, thoughts, beliefs, and intentions (metacognition and self-knowledge)
  • Learn to successfully share space with others
  • Regulate their own reactions
  • Adapt to various environments
  • Develop their social cognition—that is, an understanding of how social situations work
  • Understand how to use everyday language and communication skills to successfully navigate social and academic interactions
  • Learn to relate to the world, other people, and experiences as an individual

To do this, they'll needs interpersonal skills, problem solving skills, conflict resolution skills, and survival skills. Whew! 

The Rise of Peer Group Importance

Middle school is when children begin to spend more time with friends than family.

They crave being individuals, but do not want to stand out from peers. Tweens and teens will seek group membership at almost any cost, including acting cruelly to others outside the group. Social cruelty and bullying can spike during these years.

Adolescent self-esteem comes into play with friendship making, as well as social behaviors in general. Supporting the development of your child’s metacognition (aka their ability to think about how they think) is the first step to helping them make better decisions across the board.

To foster good decision making and to improve your child’s self-esteem, support low-stakes decisions in various areas (e.g., academically, in sports or clubs, etc.). After, have your child articulate what went well, what strategies they used, or what they might do differently. When your child is facing a challenging decision, be a sounding board.

While it is usually easy for children to see potential social benefits (e.g., popularity), the personal fable often prevents them from considering potential risks. Asking a simple question such as, “what’s the potential downside?” can spark new ways of approaching tough choices. Sometimes it helps to enhance strategies in low stakes situations. 

Be Prepared for Big Emotions

Mood swings and irritability are common in the middle school years, particularly within the family.

Increased pressures at school and within peer groups, along with confusion and anxiety over puberty, are often cited reasons for the increased emotionality in young teens. Teens’ drive for independence, their need to define their individuality, as well as their increased logic and reasoning skills lead to the “talking back” that often increases during this time. Recent brain research points to inadequate sleep among this age group as another reason for adolescent mood swings. 

Maintaining limits on acceptable ways to interact and express emotions, including giving your child time alone with music, books, or sports to calm down and gain perspective, will help your child learn to direct and manage their emotions. Allowing appropriate outlets is important. At this age, physical or creative expressions are encouraged. 

Take the topics that matter to your child seriously and give her credit for bringing up challenging topics. Include your child in discussions about complex issues, including politics, values, and tough topics (e.g., poverty or war). When pushed past your limit, rather than lose your cool or exert your ultimate power, take time to consider the issue: “This is a complicated matter. Let me think on this and we can talk more about it.”

If you notice signs of depression or self-abuse, involve the support of a professional right away. 

The Adolescent Brain

Scientists believe the parts of the brain responsible for emotional responses are fully developed, possibly even hyper-reactive in young adolescents, compared to adults. However, the parts of the brain responsible for keeping emotional, impulsive responses in check have not reached maturity, and thus children this age aren't yet capable of making decisions that accurately assess risk or that are free of impulsivity. 

While these brain changes may be what equips tweens to transition from dependence to independence, they may also be some of the reason behind their drive for pleasure seeking and limit testing. Adolescents’ still-developing frontal cortex and the need for social connection and acceptance may also explain their risk-taking behavior. 

But as compelling as these changes are, they alone do not account for the behaviors we see in young adolescents. Instead, they interplay with genetics, environment, and experiences, making this transition from childhood to adulthood extremely complex. 

Shop books for ages 11 to 13 below! You can find all books and activities at The Parents Store.

Social Skills
Stages & Milestones
Age 13
Age 12
Age 11
Child Development and Behavior
Adolescent Issues
Social and Emotional Development
Middle School