Pre-teen and teenage 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.
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. These brain changes have 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.
Encouraging good behaviour in pre-teens and teenagers
Encouraging good behaviour in pre-teens and teenagers 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 and teenagers, it’s best to negotiate and agree on limits with your child, and then help your child work within them.
Rules, limits and boundaries help your child learn independence, manage and take responsibility for their behaviour, and solve problems. Your child needs these skills to become a young adult with their own standards for appropriate behaviour and respect for others.
Praise and encouragement are powerful motivators. Pre-teens and teenagers still need your approval. When you notice and praise your child for positive behaviour, it can encourage them 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 and teenage years, especially during middle adolescence – 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 them that they helped make the rules, and that they agreed to them. Your child is also more likely to follow the rules if they think they’re fair.
Modelling these rules in your own behaviour shows that you mean what you say.
If you need to talk with your child about 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 and teenage behaviour
Fighting with siblings
Sibling fighting is natural. 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 guide your children towards sorting out their conflicts, you help them develop these skills.
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 always about doing something against your will. Peer influence can be positive. For example, teenagers might be influenced to try new activities or get more involved with school. But it can be negative too. For example, teenagers might try things like smoking or do risky things.
If your child is confident, with a strong sense of themselves and their values, it’s more likely they’ll know where to draw the line when it comes to peer influence.
Bullying is when someone deliberately and repeatedly upsets, frightens, threatens or hurts someone else or their property, reputation or social status. It can be verbal or physical. It can happen face to face, behind someone’s back, or online. When it happens online, it’s called cyberbullying.
Bullying is serious, and your child will need your support to sort it out.
As your child gets older, they’ll probably want to go to parties with their friends, or host a party at home.
If handled well, teenage parties can be an important and positive aspect of your child’s social life and development. By talking about ground rules, planning ahead in case things go wrong, and keeping the lines of communication open, you can help your child stay safe – and have fun too.
Risk-taking is an important way for pre-teens and teenagers to challenge themselves and learn about limits. It might be trying new tricks at the skate park. But it could also include more concerning behaviours like truancy, smoking, alcohol or other drug use, unsafe or underage sexual behaviour and gambling.
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 and teenage behaviour
A lot of pre-teen and teenage behaviour is a natural part of growing towards late adolescence and 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 they can tell you what’s going on
- talk to other parents and find out what they do
- talk to your child’s school teachers to see if they’ve noticed any changes
- consider seeking professional support – good people to start with include school counsellors, teachers and your GP.