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When 12 Feels Like 20

How to help today's tweens act their age.

Jmsilva istock
Source: Jmsilva istock

It’s not you. Kids really do seem to be growing up faster these days. It’s hard to remember life before social networking. It is however, easy to place the blame there. To be fair, it is not all about the Internet and social media. Have you tuned into your tween’s favorite TV show lately? You might be quite surprised. Tween-targeted shows reflect storylines that may seem more complicated than the tween drama you remember growing up—and a lot more provocative.

If it seems as if your tween knows far more at 12 than you did, that’s probably because she does. Her access to information is far more global.
Kids today grow up faster than ever before. Perhaps the greatest irony is that while our kids seem more mature, earlier, many of us strive to remain young. 40 is the new 30 and 50 is the new 40. At the rate our tweens are growing up and we're trying to stay young, you have to figure that we'll seem the same age as our kids in no time. 30 is 20 and 12 is 20? There’s something clearly wrong with this concept!

How should we slow it all down for our kids—and can we?

According to several recent studies, both boys and girls are reaching puberty up to two years earlier than reflected in standard medical texts. Medical professionals attribute these changes mainly to better nutrition. Obese girls, according to some studies, may actually be more prone to precocious puberty (early puberty onset). Other rationales also under continual investigation are, an increase in stress, and increase in exposure to certain chemicals.

Do the clothes make the tween?

Today’s tweens often dress as if they are older as well. This is due in great part to marketers and manufacturers. Walk into any store targeted at tweens and you may be shocked by the clothing selection. Available apparel often mimics adult selections in miniature sizes. Today’s tweens have far more access to the media. As a result, tweens are more easily exposed to the fashions sported by celebrities, they covet what they see. Marketers relate that they are simply providing what the public wants. With little else available however, are our tweens really being given much choice? During the tween years, kids are so focused on what others think that they will quickly grab on to the newest trend. To miss out could mean social suicide, which is not a risk most tweens are willing to take.

Tweens who dress older and seem to act older can sometimes send the message that they can think older. This, however, is far from true. If we want our tweens to act their age, it is up to us to treat them that way. The tween brain lacks the capacity to truly understand the potential consequences of acting older. Sometimes, precocious behavior can be perceived as provocative. The inclination to dress and even act older is often reinforced because tweens are given extra attention by this behavior. This is especially true for girls. Boys who look older are offered more responsibility, which can lead to higher expectations. When these kids fall short, their behavior can be misinterpreted as being volitional which is so often not the case. It’s difficult to fault someone for acting his age.

How can we reverse this trend?

A good place to start is to make sure we are monitoring tween exposure to media. It is important to use these experiences as teaching moments. We can empower our tweens by talking with them and seeking their opinions about what they have heard and/or seen. We can learn a lot by listening. Our tweens look to us for support and guidance, in response it is important to provide the structure, predictability and limits they need to negotiate the world. It is important to acknowledge that technology has opened the world wider for our tweens. Although they may think on a grander, far reaching level because their access to the world allows them to know more, their brains still need time to grow. It is up to the adults in their world to set reasonable expectations about who they are and how much they really know. When we treat children like children they are more likely to act that way. Childhood is short. By adjusting our expectations to allow our tweens to act their real age, we can ensure that it stays sweet.

More from Jennifer Powell-Lunder Psy.D.
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