If you’re the parent of an 8-to-11-year-old, perhaps you’ve noticed a surge in back talk, defiance and sensitivity. Simple requests may be met with intense outbursts. You may be asking, whatever happened to my amiable child who liked pleasing me? If so, you’re not alone! And your child is not the only one going through this “phase.”

It’s called “peri-adolescence” and Sarah Gillen, a Marriage and Family Therapist and Parent Coach, has coined the developmental stage to help you understand your child’s behavior better and help you maneuver through this turbulent time.

I’ve invited Sarah, a co-author of our upcoming book, “Parenting by Strengths: A Parent’s Guide For Challenging Situations” to share her research and insights with us:

Q. Let’s start first by defining what you mean by “peri-adolescence.”

A. This is a developmental phase before the pre-teen years. For girls it tends to be ages 8-10 and for boys, it’s ages 9-11. We’re seeing emotional reactions in children that we normally don’t expect until they’re about 13. These changes have been accelerated in children by chemical and cultural events.

Q. What are the classic signs?

A. Not all children will have these behaviors, but many will.

In girls, we’re seeing great angst, despair and frantic unhappiness that comes out as anger. The girls are fighting with their parents. It looks like a disruption in the parent-child relationship.

For boys, they are already jockeying for position and hierarchy among other boys. They are more aggressive, braggy, more confrontational, much more on edge, and challenging authority.

Q. Why is it important to classify this as a phase?

A. If this is identified as a developmental stage, we can identify behaviors, pay attention to them and have a chance to learn how to respond better. If we don’t recognize the developmental phase, then parents see the behaviors as insubordination and/or control issues. Parents then react in one of two ways. They may feel helpless or come down like a ton of bricks. Both approaches are unhelpful and may damage the parent-child relationship.

Q. Why are these behaviors that we normally expect of pre-teens and teens coming earlier?

A. There are three reasons:

1. Each generation is getting larger. The body mass to height ratio is larger and it triggers development sooner. This is the most benign reason.

2. The environment. There are plastics that mimic estrogen. There are hormones in meat products. There are over six million chemicals in our world that our body doesn’t know what to do with.

3. Our culture. Everything has speeded up. Music, TV shows, sentence structure and pacing in books and magazines have sped up drastically. Computers have also made it difficult to protect children from adult content, so they are exposed to material that they are not ready for – sex, drugs, and violence. The culture with their peers has become one in which they are expected to be interested in activities that are not appropriate. Sadly, often it’s the parents who push them.

Q. Are there actual physical changes that are occurring?

A. Yes. Hormones start developing as early as age seven just a tiny bit. As kids move toward 10, their hormonal system is making changes to their bodies to support the more obvious changes to come. We may not notice it on the outside, but it’s happening internally. There is also a dismantling period in the brain when some synapses are removed to make way for the building of the corpus collosum and pre-frontal cortex which begins around age 12.

Q. How are most parents responding?

A. Most parents are shocked, appalled, scared, confused and helpless. They’re wondering “Who are you and what did you do with my child?” The emotional reactions of their child are so unexpected that it can be upsetting. A child might say, “You’re the worst family in the world! I have to get out of here!”

Q. Can parents with kids in this phase slow it down or prevent it if they have younger children?

A. No. You can’t keep it from happening. What you can do is limit the exposure to some cultural aspects. For instance, my child didn’t use a computer until age 7. We didn’t have a TV until last year and I control what sites she visits on the computer now, but she still hit peri-adolescence with full force. I don’t think it’s healthy to try to isolate your child completely from the culture. They’re going to have to learn to deal with it eventually.

Q. What strategies can parents use to best handle these challenging behaviors?

A. I have a website with more information on this phase at www.periadolescence.com. I’ve also identified five important responses and teach parents how to use their signature strengths to change negative patterns that may have developed. Parents can then feel empowered to handle this phase and are more likely to remain close to their child.

Author's Bio: 

Visit www.getparentinghelpnow.com to receive the free mini-course “The 7 Worst Mistakes Parents Make (and How to Avoid Them!) and find instant answers to 17 common parenting problems. Toni Schutta is a Parent Coach and Licensed Psychologist with 15 years experience helping families find solutions that work.

Visit getparentinghelpnow.com to receive the free mini-course “The 7 Worst Mistakes Parents Make (and How to Avoid Them!)

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