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PRETEENS

Mathematically, the teen years start at 13. In actuality the physical, cognitive, emotional, and behavioral aspects of the “teen years” start earlier.

Much earlier in some cases. And certainly long before some parents are ready.

The reality is that children grow up faster these days. The average age of first menstruation in white US girls is 12.6; in blacks, 12.1. Puberty can start in girls any time between 8 and 13 years. In boys between 10 and 14. The two things to note is that the range of normal is wide and that the onsets of puberty and menarche are occurring in kids that we don’t think of as adolescents. We think of them as little girls or little boys.

The age of puberty started decreasing during the first half of the 20th century. Better nutrition, a cleaner environment and the conquering of many infectious diseases brought better health which made it possible for reproduction to start at younger ages. In all mammals sexual maturation responds to the health of the animal and the environment (availability of food). Better health is a good thing but the ability of young girls to reproduce is not. In the human mammal energy must go into schooling, not child-bearing, in order for the young person to learn how to successfully compete in a complex environment.

There is another aspect to our contemporary environment that is troubling. Children are exposed to TV and marketing to an unprecedented degree. When I was a young child the only ads for clothes I might wear were drawings of dresses in newspapers. Look around you. Today you see 5-year-old girls wearing outfits that are provocative as well as inappropriate.

Powerful forces in the environment are encouraging our children to grow up too fast. Hence you might have an 8-year-old ask for a bra because her friends are wearing them or a 10-year-old ask to go to a sleepover where both boys and girls will be present.

You have known all along you will have to deal with the “terrible teens” but didn’t expect them to start so early.

The so-called “terrible twos” and the teen years are both a challenge to parents for the same reason. The developmental task for both groups of children is to figure out how to use their newfound autonomy. As autonomy proceeds in children parents lose control. It’s easy to strap a toddler in a stroller where you contain both the kid and the behavior but it gets harder when you have to chase a child in the playground heading for the big slide.

My advice for parents of Preteens:

Pick your battles. A bra is no big deal in the scheme of things but that sleepover is a no-no.

Stand firm. In the case of both Twos and Teens, at the very time they are protesting the loudest, they need parental control. They know they aren’t ready for what they are asking but they need your help to say no.

Work with other parents. Most of them will welcome a chance to decide with other parents on safe and appropriate standards for their preteens.

Involve your preteens in healthy activities like sports and the arts. The busier they are at this stage the better although they also need some down time each day.

Encourage autonomy by giving your preteen more responsibility around the house (meal preparation, yard work) so they feel they count like grown-ups do.

Encourage your preteens to talk about their future. A real downside to advertising is that it keeps us stuck in the present. Buy it today! Everybody has one! But preteens need to be thinking about their tomorrows.

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