What to Expect as a Parent
When your child reaches the age range of 8 to 12, you may notice subtle and obvious signs that they are no longer a child but not quite a teenager either. Welcome to the “teenage” years! This intermediate stage of development is a time of change. Your child is starting to become more independent. They may reach sexual maturity. And the opinion of their peers is superior to yours. “Sometimes it takes parents by surprise,” says pediatrician Sarah Ann Anderson-Burnett, MD, Columbia University specialist in adolescent medicine.
Teenage Parents: Sound familiar?
Puberty causes all those body changes you remember from your youth: growth. Body odor. Hair where there was none before. Acne. Girls may develop breasts and begin their first period. Boys’ voices may deepen, and their testicles enlarge.
“It’s normal for the physical changes associated with puberty to begin as early as 8 years old in girls and as early as 9 years old in boys,” says pediatrician Sharifa Glass, MD. She is an assistant professor at the University of Houston College of Medicine.
This is an excellent time to talk to your teen about this, so they know what to expect.
“Starting from 8 to 9 is a perfect time to start this conversation,” says Anderson-Burnett. You can overcome awkwardness together. “As scary as it is for parents, it’s just as scary for kids.”
Need for independence
A child who used to tell you everything may become silent instead of sharing with peers.
“They begin to distance themselves from their parents, often considering their friends as family,” says Shannon Odell, a psychologist and child and adolescent psychologist in Portland, Oregon. “It can look like arguing with parents and ignoring them, breaking the rules, and challenging parental authority.”
Get ready to try something you might not have expected before your teenage years.
Omar Ruiz, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Wellesley, Massachusetts, describes what that might look like. “Teenagers are notorious for showing attitude by rolling their eyes, sucking their teeth, speaking out, raising their tone of voice, refusing to follow directions, or using vulgar language towards adults,” he says.
Adolescent independence is every day and expected. It would help if you allowed it, up to a point.
“They still need you as parents,” says Anderson-Burnett. “They still need structure. But now, they are building their independence and learning to have their voice. And this is just as important in this development as their physical development.
Appreciate your peers
You may have told your child what to wear, eat, and watch in the past. As teenagers, they will look at their friends.
“Their relationships with their peers become a major factor in most of the decisions they make, how they develop as a person, how they talk, how they behave, what they value, what they believe, as well as how they dress, eat, play sports,” says Odell.
As a parent, you still count. But the dynamics may feel different for both of you.
If your teen starts to pull away, keep talking about regular and essential topics. “Relationships during this time lay the perfect foundation for your child to trust you with even tougher and more uncomfortable conversations,” says Glass.
Watch for signs of unhealthy peer pressure for example, experimenting with drugs, alcohol, or sex. “Sometimes teens start acting risky at their peers’ urging,” says Odell. “Because they [brain’s] the frontal lobe is not fully developed and will not be fully developed until the age of 25, they tend not to think through the consequences of their actions.”
Teenagers form an opinion about their bodies. They can be influenced by the comments around them and what they see online. And the impact is not always what you would like.
“The idea of ’I don’t like my body’ — it really starts in high school and as early as 8 and 9 years old,” says Anderson-Burnett. She likens these poisonous ideas to seeds that, if kept watered, will thrive as a teenager matures and can lead to problems like eating disorders.
Watch what you say about your own body. Take care of how you talk about your child’s eating habits and body type. “Obviously what they eat contributes, but how you talk about it is how they see themselves,” says Anderson-Burnett. Your child will notice this and may absorb these messages on their own: the healthier your physique, the better for your son or daughter.
Formation of their self-identification
Some older teens think about dating, including what gender they like, how they react matters.
“If you can support them and say, ‘OK, that’s who you are, I support you,’ it will lead to… [in] my personal clinical experience is different results than with real resistance,” says Anderson-Burnett.
If you or your child is uncomfortable talking about specific topics, consider letting them speak to an adult of your choices, such as an uncle, aunt, family friend, or someone else in your social circle.
“They listen to someone they can trust,” says Anderson-Burnett. “Essentially, you teach your child early on the power of the web and how to use that web to your advantage. [in] their development.”
Perception as “older”
Sometimes adults—for example, teachers, neighbors, or strangers—treat teenagers as older than they are. Studies show it happens more often to black and brown teens than white teens, Anderson-Burnett notes.
“They are still small children, but they can be treated like adults at school or when interacting with other people in society,” she says. “Perhaps your child experiences more antagonism because of views on how they must act although they belong to a certain chronological age.
Your child may not realize that they are experiencing what is known as “growth bias,” so they may not know how to tell you about it. If you think this might be happening, ask your teen.
“Talk about how people treat you differently? Do you feel like you’re being treated differently than your classmates?’ Anderson-Burnett says. “I think we underestimate the power of conversation.”
As with everything else your teen goes through, start a conversation, listen, and keep an open mind.
Sarah Ann Anderson-Burnett, MD, pediatrician; Associate Professor of Pediatrics, Columbia University Irving Medical Center, New York.
Sharifa Glass, MD, pediatrician; Associate Professor at the University of Houston College of Medicine.
Shannon Odell, PsyD, Licensed Child and Adolescent Psychologist, Portland, Oregon.
Omar Ruiz, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Wellesley, Massachusetts.
Georgetown Poverty and Inequality Law Center: “Interrupted Childhood: Erasing Black Girls’ Childhood.”