Hello! Welcome to the wild world of preteens. It seems like just yesterday she was learning her ABCs and you were her favorite person. In the blink of an eye, your little baby has morphed into an eye-rolling, foot-stomping, rule-testing pre-teen. It’s exhausting. Or, at least, it can be.
The number one rule to keep in mind is that the attitude is probably not actually about you. Yes, they are saying they hate you, roll their eyes, huff, and slam the door at you. In reality, there are things going on under the surface they may not be communicating. Maybe a friend was unkind. Maybe they are frustrated with their appearance. Maybe school is especially stressful right now. There are so many reasons a kid can be struggling. Pre-teen years, for many of our kids and, personally, for ourselves, were The Worst™.
Ages 10-12 mark the end of innocent childhood for many people. Bodies are changing in sometimes painful and awkward ways. The dress that fit yesterday is too small today. And thanks to the cruelty and insecurity of other kids their age, normal growth is seen as scary or wrong. It is during these years that they become more aware of peoples’ opinions of them. I can remember with startling clarity the moment my peers took note of me with scrutiny. Nearly 30 years later and my whole body cringes if I think about that moment too long. What is worse is that probably no one else remembers or cares, so why should I?
Of course, not everyone is the neurodiverse cluster of questionable mental health that some of us are. Some kids probably grow up completely adjusted, sympathetic, empathetic, kind, intelligent, and confident—at least that’s how it works in my mind. I have friends in all walks of life and our common denominators are that we harbor insecurities that, to an outside observer, seem ludicrous.
Pre-teen years are confusing. Barbie dolls and Tonka trucks seem like baby toys to them, but they still crave playtime. Their skin is breaking out and they are wildly ashamed, but they don’t know how to make it better and are too embarrassed to ask. Their peers seem like they are better, faster, stronger, and prettier even though those same peers likely cry themselves to sleep over the same insecurities.
Preteen years also bring the first real junction of friendships being tried. Kids that enjoyed each other’s company during early grades find themselves changing friend groups because of class schedules and groupings.
If we add in the dynamic of foster care and adoption, the preteen years are even more complicated. Trying to navigate the emotional rollercoaster of foster care and attachment feels almost impossible. So what is a parent to do? (I mean, besides having a hidden stash of chocolate and a firm resolve to not cry or yell when your insecure kid presses your buttons.)
I think every parent, even if they’ve been parenting that child since infancy, still struggles with this juncture. This is a natural age for children to pull away from their parents a little and test their boundaries. It’s normal for them to request they be able to tuck their own selves in and become embarrassed by parents when they are just existing. It’s normal for them to stop talking to their parents about important things.
None of that is desirable, but it is normal behavior. For the adoptive parent, it might even mean good news. If your children have suddenly developed an ability to be audibly angry at you, it means they feel safe enough to express their emotions. They’re sure you’re not going to throw them out or hurt them because they speak their mind. As infuriating as it is, every time they roll their eyes or argue with you, if you don’t react in a negative way, you’re building a connection.
It is also around this age where clothing can become very important. Where she didn’t like dresses at all last week, she might only want to wear dresses exclusively this week. They are trying on personalities and costumes like an improv show. Eventually, they’ll decide what they like and what they want to be like. The preteen years are the safest time to do that. They are already transitioning from childhood to young adulthood. It is a natural point in time that they want to change things about themselves.
If you are feeling frustrated with your preteen, that is normal. You’re not alone here. Other parents are navigating the waters of a child growing up. You are not the first nor will you be the last to feel like every decision you make right now might ruin your child’s life.
If you have accepted placement of a preteen as a foster child or adoptee, it may take up to a year before the child feels comfortable telling you anything real. Their lives are difficult and you are the closest target to exert their frustration over that. Don’t expect them to be grateful for losing their homes, families, friend groups, and possessions overnight. Even if you are the best-case scenario for them at the moment, they might still resent you. It’s not about you. It’s about them trying to find equilibrium.
Try and remember what it felt like for you to be a pre-teen. For me, it was a hellacious time I wouldn’t accept any amount of money to return to. I know a number of people who feel the same. It is a time when your brain is bathed in hormones and it’s difficult to make sense of anything. Friends that were friends are now enemies. Boys that didn’t care about girls at all are now obsessed with the idea of a girlfriend. It’s a weird time and I think we need to remember that as we go forward.