Toddlers and teens have a lot in common. They are cranky, hard to please, intractable, dramatic, and unpredictable. Twice exceptional preteens can take it to a whole new level. While it can be unnerving, there is a good reason why your preteen is acting like a toddler. A toddler’s brain is all about learning language and an adolescent’s brain is trying to acquire emotional language. There is a lot of growing going on.

However, the rates of maturation among the areas of the brain are not equally distributed. The pre-frontal cortex, which controls problem solving and making choices, lags behind. The limbic system, which helps with emotional regulation and impulse control, is also still developing. Teen brains do not have as much myelin in these areas, so communication within the brain is not as efficient. The teen brain’s high emotional drama and impulsivity, coupled with low planning and risk assessment skills, makes life pretty difficult.

whee2Our preteens’ rapid physical, cognitive, emotional, and neurological growth (which includes the dreaded hormone surges) is critical to their healthy development. But, hold on to your hats, it is happening sooner than it used to. Puberty was reported to begin at 16 in the 1860s, at 13 in the 1950s, and today it often begins around age 8!

Tantrums, selfish behavior, impulsivity, bad moods are often their way of dealing with this mental and emotional mash up. They are egocentric, but also very concerned about how others see them. They are beginning to see things from others’ points of view, but still incapable of insight. Their brains are also highly excitable. Whatever excites them wires new connections, which reinforces that behavior. This can be especially worrisome if the exciting behavior is dangerous.

So how do we support them through this tumultuous growth period?

whee3Making sure they understand how their brain is growing, and why they feel the way they do, can give them some stability. For twice exceptional children, it also helps them not feel patronized or dismissed. Our children really hate being treated like a child (even when they are acting like one). A science-based discussion about why and how their brains are developing, and what they can do about it; can go a long way toward helping them feel a sense of control.

whee4Preteens and teens often take risks as a way to overcome fear. They are looking for a way to display courage and build self-confidence. The adults in their lives can channel that desire into activities that help them see themselves as capable.

They want to learn how to navigate our social world, to find acceptance and status. Doing something well, teaching others, and being authentically recognized for a skill, are ways that meet this need.

Preteens want to try on adult roles and find a good fit for their own abilities and interests. Mentoring is critical for preteen development. They should be exposed to many ideas and activities and work with people who can help them find their vocation.

Emotional development is foremost in preteens and they need to make real and deep connections to the people they love. Listening, with undivided attention, lets them know that they are important to you and worthy of your attention.

whee5This is a time of high motivation. They feel things deeply and it can be very satisfying to connect to a meaningful endeavor. Help them do something good in the world.

Preteens are very adaptable and can rapidly reshape goals and desires. This can work in your favor if you can find an engaging alternative to that less-than-desirable fascination or behavior. Setting good boundaries and sticking to them also helps. They are wired to do the thing that gets the biggest results, so make it less rewarding to do unwanted behaviors.

whee6Finally, let them know that it will get better. Puberty doesn’t last forever. Help them see that this sharp learning curve is an important step toward independent adult life. Even though it is a confusing and difficult time, the end result will be worth the journey.