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How to Tell When Your Child Has Started Adolescence

Some things that seem "wrong" with your child can mark the onset of adolescence

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“How will I know when my child has started adolescence?’"

Actually, it’s not hard to tell. What follows itemizes about 25 behavior changes that commonly emerge between ages 9 and 13, in late elementary or early middle school, that can signal the entry into adolescence.

If your daughter or son is demonstrating at least half of these, I suggest that you don't act like something has gone "wrong" with the girl or boy, but instead declare childhood to be over and adolescence to have begun, and adjust your expectations accordingly.

In no particular order, here is a non-exhaustive list of some behavior markers to watch for:

  • The young person finds parents more socially embarrassing.
  • The young person acts like parents understand and know less.
  • The young person becomes more argumentative.
  • The young person voices more complaints about parental unfairness.
  • The young person more frequently delays in response to parental requests.
  • The young person more frequently tests established parental limits to see what can be gotten away with.
  • The young person displays lowering academic motivation and desire to do schoolwork.
  • The young person displays more distractibility and difficulty concentrating.
  • The young person becomes more disorganized and forgetful.
  • The young person lives in an increasingly messy room.
  • The young person bridles more about household chores and responsibilities.
  • The young person becomes less openly communicative.
  • The young person wants more personal privacy.
  • The young person is more frequently bored.
  • The young person is less receptive of physical affection.
  • The young person becomes a more self-centered family member.
  • The young person values time with peers over time with parents and family.
  • The young person has an increasing preoccupation with personal appearance and dress.
  • The young person pushes for more social freedom and experimental expression.
  • The young person is more self-critical.
  • The young person spends more time getting ready to go out in public.
  • The young person is more vulnerable to parental teasing and joking.
  • The young person is more drawn to youthful media and entertainment icons.
  • The young person is more moody, emotionally intense, and easily upset.
  • The young person’s relationships with peers are afflicted by more social meanness (teasing, exclusion, bullying, rumors, ganging up.).
  • The young person, wanting to stay up later, becomes more nocturnal.
  • The young person is more drawn to social media, texting, and Internet entertainment.
  • The young person strives to act and appear more womanly or manly.
  • The young person takes parental efforts and services more for granted.

Just mark the changes that seem to apply. As suggested at the outset, if you check 50 percent or more, you’re probably parenting an adolescent. Congratulations! Now the harder half of parenting begins, as you wrestle with where and when to hold on and where and when to let go, trying to stay caringly connected with your daughter or son as adolescence begins to grow you apart, as it is meant to do.

It's important that parents do not get hung up by holding on to the younger relationship after childhood has passed. That precious period with their best buddy and boon companion is now over. Encouraging younger behaviors that they miss, making sad comparisons to how things used to be, and criticizing changes not to their liking can make the detachment and differentiation of adolescence harder for the young person. ("My parents hate to see me growing up!")

For parents, adolescence begins with loss of childhood compounded by increased aggravation, since most mothers and fathers are likely to find some of the common changes in the above list unwelcome. Not only have they lost an endearing child; they have gained a more independent-minded adolescent who starts pushing against their authority, pulling away, and getting around their rules and expectations for more freedom to grow.

Adolescence is a time of more thankless parenting when parents must continue to provide a family structure of responsible behavior for the young person to rattle around in. This means parents must often take loyal stands for the adolescent's best interests against what she or he urgently wants, enduring more disapproval and conflict in the process. Such hard decision-making means that parenting at this stage is not a popularity contest.

What works best is to treat adolescence as something as magical as childhood, only different. Now, seeing the little girl grow into a young woman or the little boy grow into a young man, parents are privileged to play an important role in this extraordinary transformation.

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, SURVIVING YOUR CHILD’S ADOLESCENCE (Wiley, 2013.) Learn more at

Next week’s entry: Why Adolescents Lead Double Lives

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