The tween years — those magical, change-filled years between about 8 and 12 — can be stressful for the whole family. Raging hormones, social changes, the new academic demands of middle school and body-image issues add up to Stress Central for the family with an 11- to 14-year-old.

Stressed-out boy Stressful events are inevitable, but how we perceive them is under our control. Acute stress — intense and short-lived — is marked by physical symptoms such as a racing heart, sweaty palms, fast breathing and a rush of adrenaline. For many people, talking in front of a group brings on this type of stress. Chronic stress, not as intense but lasting days to months, is more damaging to us over the long run. This stress is associated with disease (such as high blood pressure), because the body is constantly aroused as if there is danger. For adults, it might be a boss who makes work dreadful, living in an abusive situation or not having enough money to cover monthly bills. For children, it can be an unfair teacher, being bullied by other children or living in a home where there is constant fighting. Stress knows no age, gender or social class boundary. If not handled effectively, it can be detrimental to any person’s health.

The effects of stress

What are some physical effects of stress? Headaches, stomachaches, backaches, general fatigue, lack of appetite or overeating, and trouble sleeping are common. Our bodies are sending us a message: Find a way to manage stress!

School causes major ongoing stress for many children. Academic demands change in middle school years. There are more teachers to know, different students in each class and harder coursework with more homework. For those with difficulty getting organized, moving to the middle school can be traumatic, because the student has to keep up in several different classes, each with different expectations. Parents can help their student arrange different notebook sections for each class. Set a time and place for homework — then make sure that it gets done.

A tween’s best friends may not be in the same classes; if he’s socially hesitant, he may struggle to make new friendships. Parents can help make this manageable by suggesting their tween try to make just one new friend per class. On the other end of the personality spectrum, the social butterfly spends so much time maintaining friendships that schoolwork suffers. Parents can help by setting limits on phone and computer time spent communicating with classmates.

The role of hormones

The hormonal changes that get under way by the age of 11 or 12 may make for more irritability and other physical issues. Most young girls develop more quickly than their male classmates; some are fully developed by 12. If they are teased about this — by boys or girls — it can be very stressful. Meanwhile, as boys enter puberty, most encounter uneven growth. They seem to be all arms and legs, gangly and often clumsy. Boys may have more acne problems than girls as well. There are wonderful books on puberty for both sexes. Read one together before puberty starts!

Both genders, when asked, believe they do not measure up to the “ideal” touted in magazines and the visual media. The stress of looking good can feel overwhelming to a tween. What messages do you give your youngster about good looks? Support the idea that they have their own unique and wonderful look.

Peer pressure

Added to school and hormones is the pressure from peers to “fit in.” This age group wants to feel accepted by others and be included in a social group. Most kids this age don’t have the tools to make good judgments, so the peer pressure to become sexually active, take drugs and join wayward cliques can be strong, even when it goes against values they have known growing up. Finally, many young people are overscheduled. They experience stress from trying to do too many things — and never having enough time. School, homework, sports, music and dance lessons, volunteer activities, scouting and social groups all compete for their time. With the increases in demands at school and homework, limiting your tween to one or two extracurricular activities can help keep their stress level low.

Helping your tween

How can parents help make this period go more smoothly and teach their children to handle stress more effectively?

  • Communicate. Keep the lines of communication open; listen carefully to their issues. Talk to them about how to identify and express their emotions in a healthy way.

  • Develop or maintain healthy habits. Continue to provide reasonable food options (less sugar, salt and fatty foods; more vegetables, fruit and lean meat) and daily exercise at home. Like a fine car, a well-run body needs good fuel. Many girls cut back on sports during this age, especially if they are not elite-level athletes. Encourage them to continue to be active. Suggest stress-reducing activities like yoga or martial arts.

  • Be a role model. How do you handle stress? Do you need a drink or pill to handle daily stress? Do you yell or lash out when you are upset? Your child is watching you and learning how adults handle stress.

  • Learn to relax. Help your child learn what relaxed feels like by finding activities that calm her. Some ideas: Suggest she take a walk or hike, meditate, read, listen to music, watch a funny movie or take a bubble bath.

  • Laugh more. Learn to find the humor in any situation. Research shows us that laughing is a great stress reliever.

Dr. Lovelace is a clinical psychologist with more than 30 years of experience working with children and their families. She practices in the Puget Sound area.

Read about it

A few good books about stress and children:

The Hurried Child by David Elkind. This book features a great discussion about the stress of over-scheduling children, and the pressures that kids feel to achieve.

Hot Stones and Funny Bones by Brian Luke Seaward. A series of interviews with teens on how they cope with stress, and great information from the author, who has a doctorate in psychology.

The Stressless Home by Robert and Susan Bramson


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