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.
By Michelle Anthony, PhD



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

While tweens and young teens are growing in all areas, in none is it more obvious than their social/emotional development. These changes coincide with the transition to middle school, which demarcates 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 11-13 years feel about themselves. There are two aspects of egocentrism at this age: the imaginary audience (where your child believes that others notice and care intensely about her appearance and actions) and the personal fable (where your child believes that his experiences and emotions are unique and experienced by him alone). As a result, children this age are highly self-conscious, while at the same feeling powerful and invincible. Although children this age know that others have differing points of view (in contrast to the preschooler who displays egocentrism), this knowledge leads her to become preoccupied with others’ perception of her. 

Eriksonian Stages

Middle schoolers are at the tail end of what researcher Erik Erikson calls the age of Industry vs Inferiority. During this stage, they become aware of themselves as individuals, and they work 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. During this new 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. The Identity phase is only just beginning in early adolescence; it will continue until children are about 19-years-old. 

Behavior Changes and the Rise of Peer Group Importance

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. At once they feel invincible, the next, 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 his own point of view, thoughts, beliefs and intentions (metacognition and self-knowledge). He must learn to successfully share space with others, regulate his own reactions, and adapt to various environments. He must develop his social cognition (understanding of how social situations work, how to use pragmatic (everyday) language and communication skills) to successfully navigate social and academic interactions, and learn to relate to the world, other people, and experiences as an individual. To do this he needs interpersonal skills, problem solving skills, conflict resolution skills, and survival skills. Whew! 

Middle school is when children begin to spend significantly more time with friends over family. While needing to be an individual, they do not want to stand out from peers, particularly same sex peers. They seek group membership at almost any cost, including acting cruelly to others outside the group. The rate of social cruelty and bullying spikes during these years, especially among girls, and young teens are particularly vulnerable to the influence of aggression in all its forms. 

MORE: When Teasing Becomes Bullying

Adolescent self-esteem comes into play with friendship making, as well as social behaviors in general. Supporting the development of your child’s metacognition (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 he used, or what he 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. 

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 determining factor in adolescent mood swings. Sleep deprivation has also been associated with impulsive behavior and delinquency, emphasizing its importance to emotional health among adolescents. 

MORE: Is Your Child Getting Enough Sleep?

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 his emotions. Allowing appropriate outlets is important. At this age, physical or creative expressions are encouraged. For example, your child can create avatars with emotions. 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

New findings at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIH) help explain some of the science behind the “storm and stress” associated with the teen years. Research reports that connections between the various parts of the brain increase over childhood as a result of white matter production and myelination (increase in connectivity and efficiency among neurons). These changes move from the front of the brain to the back between the ages of 6-13, subsiding after puberty. This growth connects the regions specialized for language and understanding spatial relations. Thus, the parietal and temporal areas that mediate spatial, sensory, auditory, and language functions are mostly mature by age 13. 

Recent research demonstrates that there is a surge in the production of gray matter just before puberty (peaking at age 11 for girls, 12 for boys), largely affecting the frontal cortex, where executive functions are housed. (Executive functions include the ability to think, plan, maintain short-term memory, organize thoughts, control impulses, problem solve, and execute tasks.) This same research finds myelination of the gray matter develops slowly, with this region not fully maturing until young adulthood. 

Prior to the maturation of the frontal lobes, young teens seem to use the amygdala to process emotions, a brain center responsible for mediating fear and other gut reactions. In addition, when shown emotionally loaded images or situations, teenage brains showed responses that were greater in intensity than were either younger children or adults. Research demonstrates adults use the frontal lobe as opposed to the amygdala for such processing. Scientists thus posit that 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. However, 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. 

Photo credit: ©gpointstudio/iStockphoto

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