It's just a phase, right?

What To Do When Your Pre-Pre-Teen Turns... Mean

A recent study suggests age 8 is the hardest to parent — with 6 and 7 not far behind.

Written by Alexandra Frost
Originally Published: 

They aren't angry toddlers anymore. But they haven't grown up enough to tell you off in classic teen fashion, like teens through the centuries. What's going on with that middle age group — our young elementary friends, ages 7 to 11 ish — who are in the midst of pre-pre-teen angst, moodiness, and well, mean attitudes? Turns out a lot, as these are key developmental years, though they aren't discussed as prominently in social media forums and parenting groups.

A 2020 study of 2,000 parents reveals just how we're all feeling about parenting those pre-pre-tweens, suggesting that age 8 is actually the hardest to parent. In addition, parents reported age 7 is the worst for tantrums, rivaling those "terrible twos" and "threenagers" we thought had given us a run for our money. Additionally, 6-year-olds were most likely to embarrass their parents, though parents found it an easier age to manage overall. This points to the pre-pre-teen group as quite a difficult age we might not have seen coming.

"This age range, middle childhood, sees rapid challenges and growth in physical, social, and cognitive skills," says Dr. Jeff Temple, licensed psychologist and director for the Center of Violence Prevention at the University of Texas Medical Branch. "For many, this is when puberty begins — which also means more awareness of their body and comparing their body to others or the ideal. Kids in this age range also experience substantial transitions, like moving from elementary to middle school. All these changes can be scary and stressful."

As is the case with most kid phases, it's totally normal, and with a bit of know-how, parents can adapt to their grouchy and moody offspring with some parenting hacks.

Prepare for those mood swings.

Like with any age group, if you know the forecast is a bit cloudy with a serious chance of mood swings, you will be ready for them. Temple explains that mood swings are a normal part of this age group's daily life and can last minutes or days.

"In addition to the normal moods that we all experience, they are dealing with new-found autonomy and responsibility, new friendships, new breakups with friends, new thoughts, and new feelings. They're also figuring out who they are, what they like, and why they are the way they are and like what they like. If that all sounds confusing, imagine how these kids feel. It's tough and scary and exciting and new," he says.

Model acceptable behavior at home and in public.

Sure, it may be the "worst day" of your 8-year-old's life when you ate the last chicken nugget in the freezer (according to them), but parents have a unique opportunity to model acceptable behavior in all circumstances, Temple says.

"As for teaching politeness, boundaries, and other social cues, that all comes down to modeling. We are social creatures – your ducklings will do what you do. So be nice to your partner, the waiter, and the flight attendants. Speak positively of their teachers and friends. Demonstrate how to respond assertively and positively. Be nice to them," he explains.

You can even vocalize how you'll make an effort to be nice to someone when you aren't having the greatest day, showing that we can feel something difficult while still being polite to others.

Remember how serious friendships are right now.

You might be able to take or leave girl's night this week, but for your pre-pre-teen, friends are life. They might have even told you that exact line. Amorette O'Brien, licensed marriage and family therapist and owner of North Star Family Therapy in Windham, N.H., says that friendships deepened in this age range, and "there is often an accompanying increase in the importance that kids place on the opinions of others."

Temple adds, "Kids start to gain some independence from family and become increasingly interested in and influenced by their friends," which can be a tough transition for parents.

This can be as simple as taking their conversations about their friends seriously — because they sure do. While our tendency coming out of those younger years is to protect and defend them, Temple emphasizes their need to experience conflict and work through it, which parents can help with.

"Try to remember what it was like to be their age — that every friendship was the world. That everything a friend said to you mattered. Not being able to go to a sleepover felt quite literally like the end of the world. Have that understanding, give them grace, and love them."

Get ready to hear how you are the worst… for now.

Temple's own child told him at age 7 that he "ruined their life," he recalls. "As irrational as her saying that was and as funny as it is now, it hurt at the time." Like many shocking stages of parenting, just knowing that this is a typical experience that many kids and parents go through can help.

"While we want to make sure we as parents are meeting their needs, often the best and healthiest thing we can do is accept that this is part of parenting. Your kid is going to hate you at some point; they're going to tell you that you're the worst, and they're going to compare you to their friends' parents. Just keep loving and supporting them," Temple says.

Though it can feel ironic and impossible, O'Brien encourages parents to keep their cool to offset kids' big emotions. "Remain calm. Kids are experiencing heightened emotions and often do not feel they can control them. When we as parents respond in kind with strong emotions, we get caught in a cycle of high emotions and low logic or reason," she says. "This does not help anyone." Instead, she recommends we acknowledge our children's emotions without feeling we have to match them. "Let's be a non-reactive presence when they feel out of control. Parents finding their own coping mechanisms is critical to managing this stage."

Don't overlook this stage, staying vigilant for potential mental health concerns.

It doesn't get the attention of hot-topic issues like sex, drugs, and driving, like teenage "issues" might. And sometimes, parents don't have the support of a postpartum through early childhood preschool community, like they did when their kids were younger. Instead, it can feel like the middle ground, no man's land, without a map to navigate how to handle it.

"I believe this age is overlooked because as kids get older, so does their exposure and engagement in riskier behaviors, such as driving, sex, etc. However, this is an important age for learning coping skills and self-regulation," O'Brien says.

Temple adds, "The adolescent years are often forgotten. Tweens are seen as tall kids, and teens are neither kids nor adults."

But as kids' mental health condition rates continue to soar, it's important to stay vigilant about potential issues beyond typical pre-pre-teen angst that can arise. It can be hard to tell the difference, Temple says.

"The difference is often a matter of degree and duration, and how typical the behavior is of your child. Being bored, having difficulty concentrating, irritability, and feeling worthless are all consistent with being an adolescent. They are also consistent with depression," he says, recommending parents keep an eye out for:

  • Symptoms that last an especially long time.
  • Symptoms that are particularly severe and get in the way of their everyday functioning, like school and friendships.
  • Thoughts of suicide — be sure to take it seriously, assume they mean it, and get some help.

O'Brien adds, "We can be preventive by having our kids speak to a therapist or finding a mentor who is able to help them adapt to changes in their lives. Research shows that having a mentor is one of the greatest protective factors our kids can have in their lives."

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