Figuring out (and living through) pre-puberty

Dear Kerry,
My 11-year-old daughter has recently begun wanting only to read her old books from second grade and snuggle with her baby quilt on her bed. She has become surly and defiant with me. I can’t seem to do anything right. Should I be worried about this?
ST, Maryland

Dear ST,

It can be pretty hard when your cooperative and friendly schoolchild starts to snarl at you and retreats to her room and babyish-seeming pursuits. Just when you felt you could rely on her growing sense of responsibility and capacity to pull her weight in the family, she seems to turn around and reject you and all the new growth. If this is indeed how it feels to you, then you can tell from my description that many girls go through this patch somewhere between 10 and 12.

If, however, she cannot rouse herself ever to have fun with friends, almost never has any loving, cheerful interactions, seems hopeless or says that her life isn’t worth living, her mood may indicate a deeper problem that warrants professional assessment.

Most of the time, however, 11-year-old girls are striving to ward off the inevitable by trying to grow down instead of grow up.

Let’s think about how it feels to be told that your life, even your very body, will soon change and there is nothing you can do about it! One girl said, “Nobody asked me!” Puberty is on the horizon; girls have attended health class and had conversations with their parents and peers. Some in their class may already have started their periods. No one likes to feel helpless – why should your daughter be any different?

Whenever we feel helpless we try to do something about it. Many pre-teens wish to stop time and stay in charge of what is happening to them. They fondly recall when they were little kids and days seemed all the same. That isn’t true, but memory can make it seem so. They think that, if they do the things they did as younger kids, it will somehow make them younger again. Hence reading the little-kid books. You might want to try enjoying the nostalgia with her, so that you stay together in some ways, as well as finding some really interesting age-appropriate reading to tempt her to stay in the present.

But that may be hard in the hostile climate. The anger and resentment comes from an understandable place too, even though it’s very hurtful and unpleasant for parents. Children look to their parents as the source of everything. Moms are especially nominated as the ones who made things the way they are – after all, you had me as a baby, so you formed me, right? So you must be the villain who mandated that I have to become a woman, have to have a body that will change unpredictably, have periods (which sound very yucky to a schoolchild), and so forth.

The pathway out of this prickly place is acceptance, but that can take various forms, some more constructive than others. Many girls, with a solid base of feeling valued as people who are girls, go through this phase pretty quickly, pass through puberty and embark on adolescence fairly sturdily. Some struggle in middle school, with mixed feelings about themselves, but are able eventually to master enough skills to gain confidence and comfort with who they are. Others decide to deal with it by rushing forward, accelerating the process and embracing too quickly their teenage identities, converting their uncertainty into excitement about clothes, makeup and boys.

Acceptance and patience are also the answers for parents. Hard though it may be, cultivate patience – your daughter will come out the other side of this. Biology and time will inevitably come to your aid. If you understand your child’s dilemma, how she both wants to and fears growing up and is protesting about having no choice, it will go a long way to helping you tolerate her forays into babyishness and her surly interactions. Remember too that she loves you as well as resenting you and speak to that side of her.

And don’t forget to set an example of enjoying being a grownup woman. Your visible experience of pleasure and fulfillment will be the best evidence for her that there is good life after puberty!

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3 Responses to Figuring out (and living through) pre-puberty

  1. Great Blog post. I am going to bookmark and read more often. I love the Blog template

  2. LizaL says:

    Thank you for your excellent advice. It is helpful to understand that development is not linear — that it goes forward and backward.

  3. Rene says:

    I found the info on this blog valuable.

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