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Early Adolescence (9 - 13) = Change for the Worse

Early adolescence is when the separation from childhood begins.

As more fully described in my book about adolescence, Surviving Your Child's Adolescence, the opening stage of adolescence, Early Adolescence, can prove a hard adjustment for parents as they suddenly see their child change for the worse.

The unwelcome transformation usually begins in late elementary school, and for virtually all young people by middle school. What a loss! Parents will never have their son or daughter as endearing, adoring and adorable "child" again.

First comes the disorganization with its frustrating (for parents) loss of focus; then the negative attitude with its litany of criticisms and complaints; then comes rebellion, with its active and passive resistance; and then comes early experimentation, with its testing of limits to see what can get gotten away with.

Parents must not take any of these unwelcome changes personally. These behavior changes do not represent actions the child is taking to purposely upset the parents. These are actions the child is doing for himself or herself to separate from childhood and to begin the journey toward more freedom and independence. Put other parents in your place, and, to varying degrees, your child would still be going through the same transformation. Consider these phases one at a time.

Phase One: Disorganization

What parents typically notice first is a diminished mental capacity in the child. Now the young person becomes more disorganized, distracted, forgetful, messy, prone to a wandering attention and to losing and losing track of things.

As a Dad once poetically described it: "It's like the wheels have come off the truck." The child who used to be competent when it came to taking care of responsibilities and maintaining a consistent focus and direction seems to increasingly be out of effective self-control, veering all over the road of life.

What's going on? "Does our child have ADHD or ADD?" asked a mother concerned with this surge of impulsivity and lowered capacity to concentrate on any one thing very long. In most cases, the answer is "No." Leaving childhood behind, the girl or boy discovers that the old self-management system that used to work in that simpler, sheltered time is insufficient to cope with the more complex world of adolescence that has now begun. This is why middle school feels so difficult and daunting compared with elementary school. For parents, this is not a time to be frustrated, impatient, angry, critical, or punitive with the young person for all this slippage; it is a time for them to coach the young adolescent in developing new self-management skills to cope with challenging the demands of this next phase of growth.

They have to help the young person create mental and physical organizational systems to manage this new complexity. They have to remind and check and supervise, training the early adolescent to manage themselves in ways that work. This takes practice, and the more patient and persistent and consistent parents are, the sooner the new skills that are needed will be learned.

Phase Two: The "Bad Attitude"

Around this time, what parents notice next is the negative attitude — the birth of the "bad attitude," as parents often call it. What happened to the child who was full of positive energy all the time and a pleasure to live with? Now a turn for the worse seems to have taken place. It's like someone has pulled the plug on the young person and all his or her positive energy to do anything has been drained away.

He has entered a phase of what one parent poetically described as "developmental lumphood." All the early adolescent seems to want to do is lay around and complain about having nothing to do. But when parents suggest some work around the place that needs doing, the adolescent just gets angry: "Oh, leave me alone, you don't understand, I'm too tired!"Then a friend calls and he's out the door.

Tired of what? Of doing nothing, of being bored, of being frustrated, of not knowing what to do with him self. He knows what he doesn't want to do, but he has no clear vision of what he does want to do. When it comes to motivation and direction, he's riding on empty, and he doesn't like it.

Now, as positive energy drains away, negative energy begins to build. All of a sudden, it's like having a critic in the family. He's critical of positive suggestions, of family activities, of other members of the family, and of what parents often don't see-critical of himself: "I hate being just a child!"

He seems to be in a mood to reject everything and everyone. Why? Because he is rejecting the child he was, rejecting himself, and angry at that rejection, he turns anger at self-rejection into criticism of those around him. What particularly attracts his anger are parental demands and limits, rules and restraints, which now stand in the way of the increased freedom he wants. So a sense of grievance, a chip on the shoulder, develops: "What gives you the right to tell me what I can and cannot do? You're not the boss of the world!"

But parents are the bosses of his world, and now he doesn't like it. As a child, he didn't mind their authority that much, but as an early adolescent wanting more freedom to grow and room to become different, but not yet knowing how to achieve these objectives, he resents their direction and opposition.

The birth of the "bad attitude" begins early adolescence because people do not change unless they are dissatisfied with who and how they are. And the early adolescent is developmentally dissatisfied. He doesn't want to be defined and treated as a child anymore.

This attitude change that provides the motivation for adolescence to begin can coincide with puberty, but it doesn't have to. When it does, the release of growth hormones only makes the process more emotionally intense and urgent to live with. Early adolescence begins the separation from childhood and the desire to act more grown-up. Puberty, the development of sexual maturity that usually starts unfolding during the early adolescent years, complicates the search for an older identity as the journey to young manhood and young womanhood also begins.

Phase Three: Rebellion

People do not rebel without just cause, and now the negative attitude has given the adolescent adequate grievance. Now resentment at "overprotective" restriction and "unfair" treatment by parents is used to justify objecting to their demands.

Rebellion is not primarily against parents. It is actually directed against the old compliant and dependent definition of being a child. To outgrow this definition, the adolescent rebels out of childhood. Early adolescent rebellion is opposition against old self-definition acted out against parents for transformation's sake.

Rebellion takes two forms in early adolescence: passive and active resistance. Active resistance has to do with debate and disobedience. Passive resistance has to do with procrastination and delay. The more strong-willed your child, the more of each type of resistance you will likely receive. Ultimately, both kinds of resistance serve the same growth need: to help the adolescent gather the power to change.

And resistance works. To some degree, on some occasions, parents will be too distracted or too tired to follow up on a demand. They will allow the adolescent's resistance to back them off for some period of time, or entirely. "More freedom" then becomes the name of adolescent power gained.

By actively resisting, the early adolescent expresses more disagreement and complaints about parental demands, questions the rightness of rules and the parental right to make rules, and endlessly argues about most anything for argument's sake. "It's like we're training a trial attorney," parents will complain, weary of the unremitting verbal challenge to their authority.

By passively resisting, the early adolescent will put off obligations and requests until it takes repeated reminders for the young person to do what she was supposed or told to do. "I will, in a minute!" she promises. But by now, parents know that a teenage minute can drag on for over an hour. "Do the dishes now!" they command in irritation. "Well, you don't have to get upset about it!" retorts the teenager, and finally does as asked, but not completely. She doesn't use soap. And the parent feels back to square one.

What's going on? It's a compromise called delay. It's like the adolescent is saying, "You can tell me what and I'll tell you when. When I get enough 'when,' I'll do what you want — partly." It takes power of parental insistence (supervision or nagging) to wear this resistance down: "I will keep after you and after you and after you until what I asked is done."

Phase Four: Early Experimentation

With new freedom gained from rebellion, the early adolescent now has room to experiment with more risk-taking, to learn about the forbidden, and to test limits to see what he can get away with. Where the negative attitude had to do with gathering the motivation to change, and rebellion had to do with gathering the power to change, early experimentation has to do with gathering the experience to change, experience that lies outside the prohibitions that parents and other social authorities have prescribed.

"Which rules are firm and which are not?" That is the question the early adolescent wants to answer. The only way to find out is to do some limit testing to see what he can get away with. Where no adverse consequence occurs, that is a place where more social freedom is apparently allowed. The more illicit freedom an early adolescent is permitted to get away with, the more unmindful of social rules he becomes.

This is the age when experimentation with trying substances can begin, particularly inhalants, tobacco, and alcohol. This is the age when experimenting with not doing homework can begin — "I forgot it," "I did it at school," "I'll do it in the morning," "There wasn't any." And this is the age when three common kinds of social violations can occur: pranking, vandalizing, and shoplifting. Shoplifting is not primarily about getting something that is wanted; it is about seeing what one can get away with — risk-taking usually in the company of friends.

Some parents write this early experimentation off as innocent mischief and leave it at that, but such permissiveness is not a good idea. Better for parents to close the loop of responsibility by causing their early adolescent to face the consequences of what he did — to encounter the victim and confess, hear the victim's emotional response to what was done, clean up any damages done, and make some kind of restitution. Let violations go, and worse limit testing and rule-breaking are likely to follow.

Parents, don't lose faith in the foundation of family values you have laid in childhood just because your early adolescent seems to be rejecting them now through inattention, criticism, rebellion, and experimentation, believing and behaving differently than you have taught. These differences are more trial in nature than terminal, temporarily adopted for experimental and developmental use. Hold to your rules and values. Come adulthood, your son or daughter will reclaim most of that early instruction and end up more similar to you than different.

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, Surviving Your Child's Adolescence (information here).

Next week's entry: Mid Adolescence (13-15): Urgency for Freedom.