Pre-teens behaviour: what to expect and why

As part of growing up and becoming more independent, your child needs to test out independent ideas and ways of behaving. Sometimes this involves disagreeing with you, giving you a bit of ‘attitude’, pushing the limits and boundaries you set, wanting to be more like friends and even taking risks. This can become more common as your child moves towards the teenage years.

Although it can be stressful for you, this is all a normal and common part of growing up. And this phase will pass.

Some of the changes in pre-teen and teenage behaviour are explained by the way teenage brains develop. The parts of the brain responsible for impulse control don’t fully mature until about age 25. The brain changes offer upsides and downsides – pre-teens and teenagers can be imaginative, passionate, sensitive, impulsive, moody and unpredictable.

Confident teenagers have the ability to avoid people and situations that aren’t right for them, and to find those that are. You can build your child’s confidence by looking for practical and positive activities that give your child a good chance of success, and praising your child for putting in a good effort.

Behaviour management for pre-teens

Encouraging good behaviour in pre-teens is about communicating openly with your child, being consistent, and creating and maintaining a warm and loving family environment.

This positive and supportive approach to behaviour often means you have less need for discipline strategies. When you do need to use discipline for pre-teens, the most effective strategies focus on setting agreed limits and helping your child work within them.

Rules, limits and boundaries help your child learn independence, manage and take responsibility for her behaviour, and solve problems. Your child needs these skills to become a young adult with her own standards for appropriate behaviour and respect for others.

Praise and encouragement are powerful motivators. At this age your child still needs your approval. When you notice and praise your child for positive behaviour, it can encourage him to keep behaving in this way. Praise also sets a positive tone for your relationship.

Handling disrespectful behaviour

Rude or disrespectful behaviour can happen in the pre-teen years – although not all children behave this way.

If this kind of behaviour is an issue for your family, setting clear rules lets your child know what you expect. For example, you could say, ‘We speak respectfully in our family. This means we don’t call people names’.

Involving your child in these discussions means you can later remind her that she helped make the rules, and that she agreed to them. Your child is also more likely to follow the rules if she thinks they’re fair.

Modelling these rules in your own behaviour shows that you mean what you say.

If you need to talk to your child about some rude behaviour, staying calm and picking your moment will help the conversation go better. It can also help if you focus on your child’s behaviour. Instead of saying, ‘You’re rude’, you could try saying something like, ‘I feel hurt when you speak like that to me’.

Our video guide to disrespectful behaviour takes you through a behaviour scenario and shows you how different approaches to handling disrespectful behaviour get different results.

Common concerns about pre-teen behaviour

Fighting with siblings
Sibling fighting can be stressful, but it’s normal. And as long as it doesn’t get physical, it helps children learn important life skills, like how to sort out problems, deal with different opinions and treat others with respect.

When you coach your children in sorting out their conflicts, you help them develop these skills. You can also motivate them to resolve fights themselves. For example, if they’re fighting over the computer, you could take away their access to it until they can work out a solution together.

Peer influence
Peer influence is when you do something you wouldn’t otherwise do because you want to feel accepted and valued by others. It isn’t just doing something against your will, and it can actually be positive. Sometimes it might involve following scenes, trends and fashions to feel part of a social group – this is normal for older children and teenagers.

If your child is confident, with a strong sense of himself and his values, it’s more likely he’ll know where to draw the line when it comes to peer influence.

Cyberbullying
In the pre-teen years, your child might have more access to the online world. Cyberbullying is using digital technology to deliberately and repeatedly harrass, humiliate, embarrass, torment, threaten, pick on or intimidate someone. It can be tough to spot, but there are steps you and your child can take to prevent and stop cyberbullying .

Risk-taking
Risk-taking is an important way for pre-teens to learn about themselves and try new things. It might be trying new tricks at the skate park. But it could also include more concerning behaviours like truanting or smoking.

You can help your child learn to assess risks. Talking about your family values and keeping the lines of communication open is also a good idea. And you might be able to channel the desire to take risks into extracurricular activities or community activities like sports, music or drama.

If you’re worried about pre-teen behaviour

A lot of pre-teen and teenage behaviour is a normal part of growing towards young adulthood.

But you might be worried if there are changes in your child’s attitude or behaviour, along with other changes like mood swings, withdrawal from family or friends and usual activities, or poor school attendance.

If you’re concerned about your child’s behaviour, you could:

  • discuss your concerns with your child to see if she can tell you what’s going on
  • talk to other parents and find out what they do
  • consider seeking professional support – good people to start with include school counsellors, teachers and your GP.