The pre-teen years see lots of big changes – physical, emotional, cognitive and social. During this time, children’s bodies, emotions and identities change in different ways at different times.
For girls, you might start to see early physical changes from about 10-11 years – but this can be seen as young as 8, or as old as 13. Physical changes around puberty include breast development, changes in body shape and height, growth of pubic and body hair, and the start of periods (menstruation).
For boys, physical changes usually start around 11-12 years – but this can be seen as young as 9, or as old as 14. Physical changes include growth of the penis and testes (testicles), height increase, change in body shape, erections with ejaculation, growth of body and facial hair, and changes to voice.
You might notice that your child shows strong feelings and intense emotions at different times. His moods might seem unpredictable, and these emotional ups and downs can lead to increased conflict. This is partly because your child’s brain is still learning how to control and express emotions in a grown-up way.
Young people get better at reading and processing other people’s emotions as they get older. This means your child might be more sensitive to your emotions. But while she’s developing these skills, your child can sometimes misread facial expressions or body language.
Your child is likely to be more self-conscious, especially about his physical appearance and changes. Adolescent self-esteem is often affected by appearance, or by how teenagers think they look. As your child develops, he might compare his body with those of his friends and peers.
And your child could go through a ‘bulletproof’ stage of thinking and acting. Your child’s decision-making skills are still developing, and she’s still learning about the consequences of her actions.
Your child’s body is maturing physically, but his brain development
, thinking skills and emotional development
are happening at their own speeds. What you see on the surface doesn’t always match what’s happening on the inside.
Young people are busy working out who they are and where they fit into the world. So you might notice that your child is searching for identity. This search can be influenced by gender, peer group, cultural background and family expectations.
Seeking more independence is common. This is likely to influence the decisions your child makes and the relationships your child has with family and friends.
Your child might want more responsibility too, both at home and at school.
The nature of teenage brain development means that teenagers are likely to seek out new experiences and engage in more risk-taking behaviour. At the same time, your child is still developing control over her impulses.
On the upside, your child is likely to be thinking more about ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. He’ll start developing a stronger individual set of values and morals. He’ll question more things. Your words and actions shape your child’s sense of right and wrong.
You’ll probably find your child is influenced more by friends, especially when it comes to behaviour, sense of self and self-esteem.
She might also be starting to develop and explore a sexual identity. This might include romantic relationships, or going out with someone special. These aren’t necessarily intimate relationships, though – for some young people, intimate or sexual relationships don’t happen until later on in life.
The internet, mobile phones and social media can significantly influence how your child communicates with his peers and how he learns about the world.
Video Teenage independence
In this short video, parents and teenagers separately discuss what age is appropriate for teenagers to do different independent activities. These include getting to a friend’s house on public transport, going on an outing with friends, and catching the bus to school.
Parents talk about their concerns with increasing independence and the importance of staying in touch with what their children are doing.
Staying connected with your teenage child can be an important part of
supporting your child’s social and emotional development. You can check
out our Talking to Teens interactive guide
to see how different approaches to staying connected can get different results.
Changes in relationships
Your child’s relationships with family and peers will undergo dramatic
changes and shifts. But maintaining strong relationships with both family and friends is vital for healthy social and emotional development.
You might notice that your child wants to spend less time with her family and more time with her friends and peers. If you find this hard, it might help to know that friends are more likely to influence
your child’s short-term choices, such as appearance and interests. Your influence is important on your child’s long-term decisions, such as career choices,
values and morals.
There might be more arguments with you. Some conflict between parents and their children during the teenage years is normal, because children are seeking more independence. It actually shows that your child is maturing. Conflict tends to peak in early adolescence. Even if you feel like you’re arguing with your child all the time, it isn’t likely to affect your relationship with him in the longer term.
And it might seem like your child sees things differently from you now. This isn’t because she wants to upset you – it’s because she’s beginning to think more abstractly, and is questioning different points of view. At the same time, some teenagers find it difficult to understand the effects of their behaviour and comments on other people. These skills will develop with time.
Through all of this, a strong relationship with you is an important foundation for building your child’s resilience.
Video Adolescent development and teenagers with special needs
This short video features mums and dads of teenagers with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). They talk about how their child’s special needs affect development through the adolescent years. They say they can see their child’s social, emotional and physical changes. But when it comes to some behaviour, as one mum says, ‘Is it Ellis being a teenager, or is it the ASD?’
These parents agree that interventions such as speech therapy and social skills classes have made a big difference to their child’s development.