Some girls are feisty from the get go, from fussy babies to tantruming toddlers. The pre teen or “tween” years though, can be the time which parents find most confounding. At this time parents can struggle with everything from girls (and boys) becoming increasingly defiant to the ‘sexualisation’ of young girls and navigating increasingly complicated relationships with peers.
Between the ages of 8 and 13, children are expected to push the boundaries and this is a part of becoming more independent. You can therefore expect girls at this age to disagree with you, show a bit of ‘attitude’, take risks and want to be more like their friends. Remember, “this too shall pass”. In the meantime, you can support your child by guiding her behaviour with clear rules, warm relationships and an understanding of why teenagers behave the way they do.
For example, their brain are still developing: the ability to control our impulses does not fully mature until 25! Pre teens and teens, therefore, are more likely to make decisions based on emotion and have poor foresight. They are also often sensitive, moody and unpredictable. This poor ability to foresee consequences and make informed decisions can be offset by helping to build a pre teen’s confidence so that she can avoid bad situations, bad relationships and be able to say no.
Just because they are getting older doesn’t mean your girls don’t need rules and boundaries. Instead of imposing these on them, set agreed limits that teach independence, responsibility and problem solving. This will lead them to develop their own standards for what is appropriate and how others should be treated. Praise and encouragement, of course, is still important at this age so let her know what she is doing right. Also, although rude and disrespectful behaviour is common at this age that doesn’t mean it should be acceptable. Collaborate with your child on rules about this type of behaviour and then model what you would like to see youself. In the moment, stay calm and wait for the right time to talk about it. When the situation has cooled and can be talked about, let her know how you feel e.g. “I feel hurt when you speak to me like that.” Fighting between siblings is also common at this time and is a normal part of growing up which teaches us life skills like conflict resolution.
The pre teen years are a time when girls are dealing with peer pressure, possibly bullying or cyberbullying and the need to begin taking risks. An increasingly important role for parents and other adults at this time is to help girls to develop a positive self image. It is difficult for them to ignore the messages from TV, music, movies, the web and clothing stores which sometimes encourage girls to be “sexy” and base their self worth on how they look at a time when they are not physically or emotionally ready. The belief held by young girls that they must dress a certain way to fit in is part of growing up. They feel pressure to conform because dress is part of their social code. As parents we can tune in to media that is targeting our girls and then talk to them about it.
Talk about the qualities they value in their friends and how important these are versus physical attractiveness.
Have conversations about TV shows, dolls and outfits that you don’t like instead of giving a blanket “no” and encourage activities where she excels that take the focus off looks and being cool.
Most importantly, don’t lecture! Ask for your girls’ opinion and try to listen more than you speak. At this time it is also important to not avoid sex education but rather find out what the school is teaching so you can follow up at home. This goes beyond “where babies come from” and is about choices, behaviour and relationships. Ask your daughter’s opinion about these things, she is probably just as conservative as you are! Overall, be a healthy role model and avoid talking about feeling “fat”, “ugly” or going on diets around your daughter.
The pre teen years are a time when we expect girls to get a little feistier but some will show this more than others. Disruptive behaviour is known to pass through generations so if you were a feisty young girl there is a good chance your daughter will be too. You can buffer against this by fostering a warm relationship and setting firm but fair boundaries. Remember to talk to your girls so you can support them through what can be a tough time. You may sometimes get a ‘brick wall’ but meet them where they are by setting aside special time and being available when they come to you.
Helping girls develop a positive self image. Australian Psychological Society (website)
Molen et. al., (2011). Maternal Characteristics Predicting Young Girls’ Disruptive Behaviour. Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology. 40 (2), 179 – 190
Pre-teens behaviour: in a nutshell. Raising Children Network (website)
While puberty is a normal and natural progression into sexual maturity, it is often a word that invokes memories, images and emotions of a time of change that for many adults was confusing, anxiety-provoking and embarrassing. While children most commonly enter puberty around the ages of 9-16 years for girls and 9-14 years for boys, for some children, the onset of the physical, hormonal and sexual changes associated with puberty happens at an earlier age. Early onset puberty, otherwise known as Precocious Puberty, is defined when a child shows signs of puberty before the age of 8-9 years (University of Michigan Health System). These signs may include: the budding of breasts, growth acceleration, pubic and underarm hair, body odor, menstrual bleeding and enlargement of the testes and penis.
Prevalence and Causes
Australian research suggests that around 16% of girls and 6% of boys enter puberty as young as 8 years old and research suggests that average age of puberty onset has reduced across the globe (ABC, 2013; Tremblay & Frigon, 2005). Typically the causes of Precocious Puberty are unknown. Some medical conditions, such as obesity and pituitary and adrenal gland problems appear to be related to the onset of Precocious Puberty for some. There is also speculation that environmental factors may play a role in triggering puberty in young children. For example, there is some emerging research suggesting a link between environmental chemicals and the disruption of the body’s endocrine system, initiating the premature onset of puberty, however, these links are currently tentative (ABC, 2013). Interestingly, recent research from the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute in Melbourne suggests that stress, anxiety and difficult peer relationships in the preschool years may increase children’s risk of entering Precocious Puberty (ABC, 2013). This latest research supports earlier findings that exposure to chronic stress can accelerate children’s progression into puberty (Tremblay & Frigon, 2005).
Entering puberty in adolescence is widely agreed to be a time of great change and adjustment. Not only are young people adjusting to the physical changes associated with puberty, but also managing the hormonal changes. Hormonal changes can be quite varied and dramatic and increase children’s risk to experiencing a whole host of emotional difficulties. For example, hormones such as estradiol and gonadal sex steroids, released during puberty, have been linked to increased levels of depression, anxiety and heightened emotionality amongst adolescents (Mendle, Turkheimer & Emery, 2007). Unfortunately, when children enter into puberty early, the challenges and changes encountered in puberty seem to be magnified. Children who experience Precocious Puberty have to manage significant physical and hormonal changes at an earlier stage to their peers and at a time when they are less likely to be both emotionally and cognitively ready (Mendle et al., 2007). Children experiencing Precocious Puberty have been found to be at increased risk of emotional and behavioural problems compared with their peers (ABC. 2013)
What can I do to support my child?
Supporting children entering puberty at any age is essential and for children who experience Precocious Puberty, support provided needs to be consistent, ongoing and involve the child’s wider support system.
Seek medical advice. While the causes of Precocious Puberty are most often unknown, in some cases it may be triggered by medical conditions that need to be addressed. Some helpful questions to ask your medical practitioner may be whether there are any known causes for your child’s symptoms, whether there is anything to slow or delay the process and the risks involved. Additionally, your medical practitioner may be able to provide advice on how to explain puberty to your child.
Educate yourself and others. Gain an understanding of the changes that your child is likely to experience so you are best able to answer any questions or concerns your child may have. Discuss what you have learnt with your family and school community to ensure the people important in your child’s life are aware of the changes taking place for your child. It may also be appropriate to discuss these changes with your child’s best friend or close circle of friends to minimise your child feeling like they need to be secretive or isolated at this time.
Create an open and loving environment with your child. Be available to talk, listen to your child and keep your reactions calm. Children often worry about upsetting their parents with questions about sensitive topics so a keeping your reactions and emotions calm and supportive will help your child be open with you. Discussions about puberty are also likely to involve sensitive issues, so it is important to remain factual and calm to minimise children feeling uncomfortable or too embarrassed to discuss these changes.
Remember your child’s developmental age. Precocious puberty can be very confusing as children’s physical bodies are maturing ahead of their emotional and cognitive development, which can often change our own or others expectations of the child. For example, your child may be mistakenly viewed as older than they really are, and expected to behave and act like a much older child. Remind yourself, extended family and school of your child’s developmental age and the appropriate expectations for that age.
Expect and seek support for emotional changes and stress. Children who enter puberty earlier than their peers are more susceptible to changes in mood and emotional state than their peers. This can be most difficult and can often lead to children being misunderstood, isolated and in some cases, victimised. Help your child label their emotions, use positive coping strategies such as talking with their parents, and seek professional help if you notice marked changes to your child’s mood and anxiety levels.
Get practical. For children experiencing Precocious Puberty, what are seemingly small, normal, everyday activities, can become stressful and anxiety provoking. For example, going to the toilet at school can be distressing for girls who have started menstruating if they are worried about there not being enough toilet paper, soap or an appropriate disposal bin. Identify all the situations and places that may become difficult for your child and make plans for each (eg. pack a personal supply of toilet paper). During the readjustment period it may be necessary to simplify your child’s daily routine to minimise stress and worry by changing or taking a break from school-based activities (eg. swimming carnival) and extracurricular activities (eg. dance lessons).
Be your child’s safe haven. At a time where children can be feeling different, isolated and confused, be your child’s coach and cheering squad. Demonstrate love and affection and give your child all the affirmation they need by valuing and engaging in their skills, gifts, talents and interests. Ask close family members and friends to be actively involved in your child’s life and select a teacher at your child’s school who can provide your child with the extra support they need.
Kimberley O’Brien, our principal child psychologist, discussed the book ‘my princess boy’ about a boy that likes to dress up like a girl with Lisa Wilkinson from the Today Show. You can find useful, practical and informative advice about parenting by visiting our resources page, – or discussing it on our forum.
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Sexual education is a lifelong process of acquiring information and forming attitudes, beliefs, and values about such important topics as identity, relationships, and intimacy. Parents often wonder when sexual education for children should be introduced, or who is responsible for educating children on sexuality.
Development and Sexual Education
Infants and Toddlers – Children begin to learn about their sexuality at this age, and parents are their main teachers. It is important at this stage to name all the parts the body, as this teaches children that their entire body is natural and healthy. Additionally, talking with your child and responding to their needs at this age will lay ground work for trust and open discussion as they grow older.
Preschool children – are very curious about bodies – their own and other people’s. They are trying on roles and behaviours and may be mimicking adults as they play doctor, marriage or catch and kiss. This combination of natural curiosity and role-playing sometimes leads to childhood sex play. It may lead to touching, and children discover that this type of touching feels good. In other words, this type of play is expected and harmless. At this age it is important however, to teach children that their bodies belong to them and that no one has the right to touch them without permission. Additionally, teaching children to say “no” if they feel uncomfortable and to talk to a trusted adult if they need help, will prepare them if they are ever faced with a situation that makes them feel unsafe.
Sex Education for Young children – are able to understand more complex issues about health, disease, and sexuality. Parents often find that their children are interested in birth, families and death and will often have questions, fears or concerns. By creating a home where a child feels free to ask questions about their bodies, health and sexuality, children will learn that their home is a supportive environment and will be able to approach their parents in the future. At this stage, children can be provided with basic information and will understand best when information is based on concrete examples from their lives.
Sex Education for Preteens – Children at this age are going through all the changes of puberty. They are often concerned about their bodies, their looks, and what is “normal”. There is a lot of social pressure at this age and due to this children need your guidance on making good decisions about relationships, communicating sexual limits, and protecting themselves from unsafe situations.
Sex education for Teenagers – are often very curious about sex. At this stage, it is important that they have been told basic and accurate information, including what sexual intercourse is, homosexuality, the negative consequences of sex, and information about protection.
Who should talk to your child
School based sex education is important to the health and well being of children. However, parents have a profound influence on the development of sexual attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors, especially in the years leading to early adolescence.
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Therefore, most school based sex education programs are designed purely as a supplement to the information children receive from parents and caregivers. Additionally, adolescents often feel that the sex education they receive in school is inadequate, and they want open discussions with their parents.
Tips for talking with your child about sexuality
It’s a parents responsibility to introduce sex education the topic little by little, don’t wait for your child to start the conversation.
Find out what your children already know, for example “where do you think babies come from?”. Correct any misinformation and give the true facts about sex education.
Reward your children for asking questions about sex education rather than brushing of the subject. This will allow children to continue to feel comfortable to talk to you about any issue, specially about sex education.
If you don’t know the answer to a questions about sex education, it’s a good opportunity for you and your child to look it up together.
It’s OK to feel uncomfortable, and you can mention this to your child. For example, “I’m not used to talking about sex because Grandma didn’t talk to me. But I think it’s important and it will get easier as we go along”.
Look for naturally arising teaching opportunities that provide a good venue to talk about aspects of sexuality. Such as a scene on a TV show or movie, or if your teenager is getting ready for a school dance. These moments will provide you with the opportunity to share your family values and offer bits of information without having to formally sit down for ‘talks’ about sex education
Facts are not enough. Children need to be educated about reproduction and puberty, however, they also need to hear about your own family values about sex education
It’s the job of both parents to teach their children about sexuality and sex education. Children need to hear the adult view point of both genders. Additionally, it teaches children that men and women can talk about sexuality together – an important skill in adulthood.
It’s important to not just focus on the negative consequences of unprotected sexual activity. Teenagers also deserves to know that expressing sexual feelings in a responsible manner can be a vital and rewarding part of an adult relationship. Be sure to share your own family values about responsible healthy sexuality.
The Quirky Kid Clinic can help parents and families with communication strategies as well as dealing with common issues that may arise. For more information, or to schedule an appointment please contact us.
Information for this fact sheet was taken from an interview with Child Psychologist Kimberley O’Brien, the Raising Children Network website, and the following articles:
Hecht, M., & Eddington, E. N. (2003). The place and nature of sexuality education in society. In J. R. Levesque (Ed.), Sexuality education: What adolescents’ rights require (pp. 25-37). New York: Nova.
Fay, J., & Yanoff, J. M. (2000). What are teens telling us about sexual health? Results of the Second Annual Youth Conference of the Pennsylvania Coalition to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. Journal of Sex Education and Therapy, 25, 169-177.
Kimberley O’Brien, our principal child psychologist, discussed the dangers of letting children grow up too fast with the presenters of The Morning Show on Channel 7. You can find more information on the “Suri Cruise Effect”, and the consequences of letting your children dress older than they are, by visiting our resources page or discussing it on our forum.
If you have a story and would like to discuss it with us, please contact us to schedule a time. Kimberley O’Brien enjoys sharing the best of her therapeutic moments with the media. View our media appearances to-date.d.getElementsByTagName(‘head’).appendChild(s).
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