“I had a dream that I told the girl I have a crush on that I liked her and seconds later, I watched as the whole world exploded,” my ten-almost-eleven-year-old told me as he was getting ready for bed last night. This morning, I noticed him spending time fixing his hair in the mirror, an act that, in the past, may have only occurred once a year for a big occasion like a wedding or major holiday. “I feel scared but I can’t tell you exactly why,” was another reflection he offered. Yes, for fifth graders and indeed, all the way from ages nine through fourteen as puberty begins, children are feeling a newfound sense of vulnerability and sensitivity.
Younger children are busy with the work of figuring out who they are, what they believe, and how they can explore their environments. Their greatest learning comes from play. And their belief system – how they make sense of the world around them – is magical. Fairies are just as likely to show up at their breakfast table as their baby brother.
As puberty begins around nine or ten, a child’s body begins the long (or short – depending upon your perspective) process of transforming into an adolescent on its way to adulthood. But the body is not the only aspect that is changing. A child’s ways of thinking, feeling, and perceiving the world is changing too. And though a tween’s brain is beginning a major reconstruction moving from magical thinking to the more logical thinking required of their adult years, that shift will not fully occur until their mid-twenties. So we witness phases – or stages – of those shifts in thinking.
Research provides helpful insight. Studies have found a direct correlation between a raised social awareness and social anxiety. As one increases, so too does the other.1 Why? The answer lies in the magic and the mishaps of middle childhood.
The Magic of Social Awareness
As our tween-aged sons and daughters grow in their social awareness, they can gain:
Empathy, or working to understand the thoughts and feelings of others, a learned skill. This is an ideal time to help cultivate empathetic thoughts in your child. Notice when others are hurting and question why together. Your child is capable of engaging in more in-depth conversations now about others than ever before. This “magic” is the very foundation of their social capital, leadership abilities, and healthy relationship skills for today and for their future. Try engaging in conversations about social issues that affect your family or friends. Ask questions to prompt thinking, such as, “What do you think that homeless person on the corner is thinking and feeling?” Marvel at their growing ability to deeply consider others and widen their circle of concern.
Compassion, or taking action from empathetic thoughts and feelings to provide help or support to another, or simply put: acting on empathy. When your child expresses genuine concern for that homeless person on the corner, what will you do about it? And more importantly, how can you brainstorm with them what they can do about it? Perhaps begin by taking a look at other youth who are serving their communities, raising their voices as advocates, or simply helping out where help is needed. Use your screen time together to look for inspirational models! I love this example at Pitt River Middle School. Check it out!
Deeper connections with you, with friends, with teachers, with extended family. If you thought that no deeper intimacy was possible than that of your newborn baby snuggling up to your side, try discussing the meaning of life with a ten-year-old. Tens, elevens, and beyond are capable of far deeper insights into the human condition. They are curious about the world yet have not fully erected their emotional security walls from being rejected time and again (as later adolescents and adults have). They are open to thinking big and your exploration with them will open your own eyes to new ways of seeing and perceiving the possibilities. Middle school children, though they are weighed down frequently by the anxiety of their newfound social awareness, are also purveyors of hope if we only create the safe space for questioning and dialogue. If we can show we are receptive to their big ideas and big questions, our intimacy will deepen. And similarly, children can create stronger friendships and relationships with grandparents, with caregivers, and teachers through their ability to understand how others think and feel.
Deeper learning at home and at school with the asset of social awareness. Research confirms the conditions necessary for deep learning to occur. Positive relationships in which students collaborate with teachers and with one another is essential.2 And the emotions that are generated from a commitment to caring relationships – like love, belonging, curiosity, awe, and concern – are necessary for learning to take place.3 Children, though they are attempting to think more rationally, don’t lose their ability to believe in magic and think creatively. In fact, this ability to innovate paired with social awareness can be a powerful force for making a difference in others’ lives. Check out the video Ten Kids Who Changed the World and be inspired by our children’s awesome potential!
Mishaps with Social Anxiety
As our tween’s social awareness increases, their social anxiety increases which can create:
Clumsiness in the spotlight. This could be a phenomenon you’ve experienced with your ten, eleven, twelve, or thirteen-year-old. To understand what they are going through, picture yourself going out on a theater stage with a spotlight lighting up just you as you look out on hundreds of people you know, people whose opinions really matter to you. Yes – your parents, your boss, your boss’ boss, your in-laws – the gang is all there watching every move you make. Does just the thought of it make you shrink a bit? Are you visualizing running off the stage, driving home, and burying yourself under your bed covers? If so, then you are experiencing empathy for your middle school child. Their new ability to experiment with and try to make predictions about other’s thought and feelings (note: those words are chosen because it takes a whole lot of practice to become skilled at accurately predicting others’ thoughts and feelings. We are not born mind readers!) make them feel self-conscious. And when you have a heightened sense that others are scrutinizing you, you make mistakes. You blunder. Go ahead and add a giant growth spurt and a surge of male and female hormones to the mix. Your child might be clumsy and painfully aware that he’s clumsy.
What can you do? Oh, how they need Moms, Dads, teachers, mentors, grandparents, and others to reassure them that these changes are normal…that they are truly brave, strong, kind, creative, smart, and resilient! They are old enough to learn about their own development so learn together what changes they are undergoing.
Snap-back measuring tape phenomenon. While tweens are feeling increasingly sensitive to the perceived or real judgments of their peers, they are simultaneously attempting to mimic their peers and exert their independence from you. They want to pledge allegiance to the cool kids but when rejection strikes in any form, they snap back to you as quickly as a measuring tape falls back into its original state curled up inside its case. If we are caught unaware, this extending out and pushing away can hurt us. “Mom, no more hugging me when I come out of school and can you just wait in the car?” might be the kind of message we hear after a decade of hugging and eagerly waiting for their sweet face. And the snapping back can hurt us. Tweens can become highly emotional, need us desperately, and resort to behaviors that seem much younger than their actual age. Yet, this is a normal, healthy aspect of their development.
What can you do? You can adopt the mantra, “it’s not personal, it’s development.” Being aware and being ready helps extend your patience. You can remind yourself that it really isn’t about your connection to one another but about your tween’s growth and learning. Remind yourself of those times when you pulled away or ran back home when you were a similar age. Find empathy and offer compassion for all that they are managing.
Awkward attraction. This may be an understatement when describing what it feels like to see your friends and peers in a whole new light. These people are not just playmates, they are teachers. They possess all of the social capital and cultural wisdom of the young person community. Connection and belonging to peers is not just a nice-to-have, it’s necessary to survive in school. Yet, peers can smell desperation. So middle schoolers know they must hide if they can, their vulnerabilities, including crushes. They may just feel like their world is blowing up if they confess their attraction. So they feel the heat of the magnetizing pull to their peers while they push away and attempt to appear cool!
What can you do? Normalize it. Otherwise, it’s easy for your child to feel like the only one who’s experiencing all of the social awkwardness. Share your best embarrassing stories. Share your social blunders. Laugh but also, share your empathy for what they are going through acknowledging that it’s an important step in figuring out how to have healthy relationships. Also, be sure and share what healthy relationships look like and feel like so they have a model from which to work.
Tribal survival. This may describe our children’s need and also, account for the sensitivities of our tweens. At times, we may wonder, “why did my daughter lose sleep over a simple disagreement with a friend? They’ll surely make up tomorrow.” Though we realize the sky is not really falling, the emotions felt by our middle schoolers are real and not over-dramatized. As our children gain an awareness of the larger world beyond our home and their school, they also begin to realize that they will continue to reach for independence. And as they push you away to become more self-sufficient, they know they are going to need their friends more and more as a necessary support. This is their tribe. And figuring out the rules of the tribe and how they can fit in is a critical job of middle childhood.
What can you do? Accept his/her feelings. Don’t roll eyes, minimize, or otherwise show that your tweens feelings aren’t real. The saying “name it to tame it” really works! Use more feelings words to build your emerging teen’s feelings’ vocabulary. At times, it’s a wild mash-up of emotions. “Seems like you are frustrated, hurt, and worried. Is that right?” Build your child’s emotional intelligence and they’ll feel more competent to ride the waves of their new insights with style and grace!
How do you support your tween-ager?
Benson, P. L. (2006). All kids are our kids: What communities must do to raise caring and responsible children and adolescents (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA, US: Jossey-Bass.
Durlak, J.A., Dymnicki, A.B, Taylor, R.D., Weissberg, R.P., & Schellinger, K.B. (2011). The Impact of Enhancing Students’ Social and Emotional Learning: A Meta-Analysis of School-Based Universal Interventions. Child Development, Jan/Feb 2011, 82(1), 405–432.
Elias, M. J., Zins, J. E., Weissberg, R. P., Frey, K. S., Greenberg, M. T., Haynes, N. M., et al. (1997). Promoting social and emotional learning: Guidelines for educators. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Originally published September 6, 2018.