Why is my pre-teen being so difficult?
Your pre-teen’s life has just become a roller-coaster ride – and yours too!
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Your pre-teen’s life has just become a roller-coaster ride – and yours too!

Just yesterday your primary school kid was obedient, easy to communicate with and a pleasure to live with. Now suddenly they’re moody and bad-tempered – typical teenage behaviour that you thought still lay in the future.

The truth is kids aged 10 to 12 can be just as difficult as teens, says Loni Gildenhuys, a family therapist of Pretoria. And it’s no wonder – it’s not easy having one foot in your childhood and the other in your teens.

Why is my child suddenly being difficult?

Preteens are subjected to more stress than we realise. Their bodies are starting to change and the amount of homework they have to do is increasing, all while they’re struggling to find their place in society.

A preteen’s body is developing faster than their emotional maturity and it can be hard for them to emotionally process the physical changes, Gildenhuys says. The result is moodiness and emotional outbursts.

Another factor is their struggle to become independent which results in them talking back and challenging you, says Melissa Bothma, an educational psychologist of Cape Town.

One way preteens try to establish their independence is to want to spend more time with their friends than with family.

The problem however is that not all the kids in your child’s peer group will be developing at the same pace, Gildenhuys warns. “One might still be a child and prefer to play outside while his classmates are already eyeing the girls.” If your child develops more slowly, their peer group might consider them “not cool” and bully them.

How can I help?

Gildenhuys and Bothma offer these tips:

  • Use examples from your own youth and share how you experienced puberty, hormones and growing up. It will help your child to realise you understand what they’re going through.
  • Set an example. If you lose your temper in an argument and shout at them, you’re teaching your child to behave in the same way. Try to resolve conflict calmly.
  • Don’t give your child too much freedom. A preteen is still a child and shouldn’t be treated the same way as a teen or young adult. Set boundaries, be firm and don’t tolerate disobedience. But try to involve them in your decision-making – it will help satisfy their need for independence.
  • Let them visit and communicate with their friends, but be strict: it should happen only after they’ve done their homework.
  • Break down stereotypes. Children are easily influenced and can snap if they feel pressured to be as thin or pretty as celebs. Explain to them that pictures of famous people in magazines are doctored on computers and that real life is nothing like it’s portrayed in movies and TV series.
  • Enter their world. Ask your child about their favourite music, TV series, school subject and friends. This will tell you if they’re being subjected to bad influences.

Should girls and boys be treated differently?

Many girls start to develop breasts and menstruate before their 12th birthday. Be sensitive about this and go out of your way to ensure they’re not made to feel embarrassed or ashamed.

Remember, each child is unique, no matter their gender, and should be treated as their personality dictates. Ask yourself how much their body has developed and how emotionally intelligent they and their friends are. Let this lead you.

And what about those hormones?

It’s not unusual for kids at primary school to have relationships. So when preteens hang out together there should be parental supervision. At their age you still have the biggest say in their lives.

“It’s also important to know your child well so you can decide whether to discuss things such as sex,” Bothma says.

If your child says they’re in a relationship, you should find out why, Gildenhuys advises. Many children think they’re in a relationship when it’s just an innocent friendship.

Some kids feel comfortable being by themselves while others prefer company. This could be the reason why a 10-year-old says she has a “boyfriend”.

If you feel uncomfortable about the relationship, discuss it with your child and explain why you disapprove or are concerned, Gildenhuys says.

“If you say no, emphasise what they can gain from your decision and don’t focus on what they have to give up.” For the rest, hang in there – this phase will pass.

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