When to Worry About Your Preteen

Before you know it your preteen child will begin to transform into an adolescent. Just as you watched your baby learn to walk and talk, you’ll watch your preteen walk a little further away from you and begin to talk about video games, clothes, music, and being cool.

When children enter puberty it’s hard to know when emotional intensity and mood swings are part of the normal changes of puberty or signs of more serious issues such as depression and anxiety.

During the early preteen years your child might still tell you what’s going on, but as preteens travel on the road to becoming a teenager, and behaviors start to change, it’s common for parents to lose sleep thinking about all of the things that could go wrong.

In 4th grade, my youngest daughter suffered from having “mean girls” talk hurtfully about her. The cliques got so bad that she transferred to a different school just for 5th grade. We listened to her concerns and helped her find a good class with a teacher who turned out to be wonderful, and a classroom where hurtful gossip didn’t exist.

It was a good move, and yet it was only the beginning of her realization that growing up meant moving away from the protection and comfort she experienced when she was younger. She would have to learn how to cope with the hurt she would experience from other students.

I can remember how my anxiety increased when she went off to middle school. She was smart, kind, and mature, but I knew she would be influenced by her peers, even more than in the past. I wondered how I would know if she was safe and in a healthy environment.

Middle school also added a new level of the conflict she felt previously. On the one hand she wanted to fit in with the popular crowd, and on the other hand she was comfortable with the girls who weren’t as cool, but were kinder and less driven. This complex issue stayed with her for years. I paid attention, but because she didn’t complain a lot, it wasn’t until after she went to high school that I found out that she had been unhappier than I realized, and needed more support than she got.

Your child’s temperament and communication style will influence how quickly you see trouble brewing. If you have an intense and talkative child, you may become aware of problems quickly as your child shows strong reactions to school stress, bullying, or peer pressure. The teachers might even call you if your spirited child is acting like the class clown or having trouble controlling his impulses. If your child is more of the cautious or withdrawing type, she may internalize her feelings and rather than complain, yell, or cry, she may keep her troubles to herself, or write in her journal.

Pay attention to the changes you observe over time, especially if there is change of functioning. For instance, if your son used to love to play with his friends on the weekend or after school, but now just stays at home reading or wanting to watch TV, there may be a problem. If your daughter was getting good grades, but she suddenly brings home C’s or D’s, that’s a red flag.

Other signs that there may be a reason for concern is sudden weight loss or gain, new friends who make you feel uncomfortable, sleep problems, on-going headaches or stomach aches, and withdrawn and moody behavior that lasts more than a few days at a time. If your child frequently says things like, “I’m so ugly or fat, that’s why no one likes me,” then it’s time to put a plan of action into place.

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