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Is Your Pre-Teen Really Just a Mini-Narcissist?

The developing pre-adolescent is more fragile than we used to think.

"Purple is dis-gusting!," your 12 year old daughter sneers, leaving you to puzzle over her intensely emotional reaction.

"But yesterday it was your favorite color."

"NOOO! No one wears shirts like THISSSS."

And with that surly hiss, your trip to the mall has instantly devolved--from routine shopping expedition to "Real Housewives" episode.

Anyone who has ever shopped with the twelve and over set will instantly recognize it all: the utter contempt, indignation, and let's not forget, that major ‘tude. But, as one expert notes, your child isn't being spoiled or difficult--she is just trying to carve out her identity. Clothing choice is just one way to figure out who she is--and wants to be.

Girls use fashion to solidify ever-evolving images and demonstrate who they are to the world. "Adolescents are still developing psychologically. Even if they act over-confident, more often than not they struggle with fragile esteem and feel constantly insecure. What look like entitled or selfish behaviors are more likely attempts to compensate for an underlying vulnerability," says Dr. Valerie Golden, a Clinical Psychologist in Minneapolis, MN.

And boys are not immune to struggles with identity, either. Take your eleven year old son. He may not seem to be fussy about what he wears, but don't be fooled. Sports gear (think colorful basketball shorts--even in the winter--and the "in" sneakers) help boys feel secure, sure of themselves. And nowadays, the right cell phone matters just as much--and sometimes even more--than the coolest clothes.

It is a normal part of healthy development; the youngest adolescents will begin to be aware of the existence of social groups. Many attempt to use their peers to package themselves, create a personal brand. Putting forth the "right" image becomes crucial at this point in development. And tweens don't just spin the image of who they are; they attempt to fashion who they want to be. "A child this age can leave the house in the morning feeling one way about him or herself, and come home at the end of the school day feeling like an entirely different person. Emotions and self-image fluctuate drastically, and can change hour to hour and even moment to moment," notes Dr. Golden.

Sound like a horror film yet? The young adolescent's day to day existence is even more fraught than previously realized. And when the self is this weak, it is easily injured by criticism. Any slight, big or small, real or imagined, can leave a tween feeling humiliated, exposed, and desperate. The sense of self is so fragile, some may want to quit playing a favorite sport after making just one bad play; others might decide they "hate" a teacher after only a single interaction. And friendships seem to come and go like the wind.

For those who are keeping score: pre-teens are so brittle as to spend much of their waking life engaged in apparently selfish behaviors and disrespectful stances--but their seemingly rude turns are often desperate attempts at bolstering esteem and spinning a desired public image.

Is the prognosis for their functioning--and our culture--as grim as it sounds? Do such flimsy egos and their persistent emphasis on image-making mean our tweens are all just a bunch of mini narcissists?

Not really. Healthy adolescents aren't really all that different from babies. Just as the baby needs to take in what psychologists call "narcissistic supplies," which are gathered from the outside as a means of fostering normal development, so do tweens need external affirmation--and constantly--to build their ever faltering esteem. Imitating peers, trying on outfits, casting off friends, and undergoing wild fluctuations in preference and self-image are normative for members of this age group. When tweens feel insecure or fragile--and what sixth grader doesn't worry constantly about his or her social standing, competence, and appearance?--they attempt, through minute and routine interactions, to use their peers in much the same way a young infant uses it's mother. They try to get approval and attention, a process known to psychologists as "mirroring," and they do so in tacit, unspoken, and unconscious ways--all in a bid to battle daily insecurities and pump themselves up.

So each time a young adolescent sees aspects of him or herself mirrored in a peer who is dressed in the same tee shirt or carrying the identical cell phone, he or she gets an ego boost--and feels less vulnerable. Try bearing that in mind next time your child hisses at you at the mall!

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