What's Normal, What's Not?

Changes in your tween sometimes unpleasant are to be expected; but some can indicate a problem beyond typical growing pains.
Nov 06, 2012



Happy, confident girl laying on bed in bedroom

Nov 06, 2012

During middle school, a new environment, lots more homework, new social mores, and puberty all combine into a stew of uncertainty that can feel overwhelming for kids. These milestones can help you discern normal middle school turmoil from red flags indicating that your child may need help from you, her teachers, or even a doctor or psychologist.

What’s Normal

  • Girls generally start puberty earlier than boys (anytime from age 8 to 15; boys start between 10 and 15) — and with it comes changes such as weight gain, new body hair, acne, body odor, etc. 
  • Kids (even those who were previously even-keeled) can become moody or sullen without warning or explanation.
  • The growing need for privacy and independence may mean more time spent in their rooms with the door closed.
  • A child who effortlessly earned As in elementary school may struggle with the organizational challenges and increased homework middle school brings.
  • Kids may start to become much more concerned with their appearance, and worry much more about wearing the right clothes or having the right hairstyle.

What’s Not

  • Extreme, rapid changes in body weight, up or down, which go beyond puberty changes. Though eating disorders don’t usually begin this early, it’s not unheard of, so parents — especially of girls — need to be alert to any sudden weight loss.
  • Intense feelings of sadness, going way beyond moodiness, which could indicate depression. Another indicator of depression is a child who seems to sleep all the time.
  • A child who previously went off to school happily each day starts to dread school, or feigns illness in order to avoid going. This could signal serious social or academic issues, or the possibility your child is being bullied at school.
  • Kids who don’t talk about friends, who never socialize and who spend an inordinate time in their rooms alone with the door closed — again, this could signal depression or social isolation.
  • A significant and sudden drop in academic performance — if an A or B student starts getting Cs and Ds, this goes beyond the normal academic adjustment to middle school and warrants a meeting with teachers or a school counselor.

“Anything that feels extreme or extremely different is noteworthy,” says Ellen Sachs Alter, a family psychologist at the Family Institute at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.  “Most changes in middle schoolers will be nuanced, more evolving, which is typical.”  So if your child seems to be going to extremes, it’s time to intervene and get her the help she needs. Start with the school’s guidance counselor or your family physician.

Stages & Milestones
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Age 12
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Adolescent Issues
Child Development and Behavior
Social and Emotional Development