A note about child development: The purpose of this series is to help parents and caregivers recognize normal stages and to provide age-appropriate activities, nurturing, and guidance.  Each child is unique.  Rates of development can differ widely among normally developing children, and each child can have “fast” or “slow” rates of development in different areas and at different times.  These descriptions are merely based on typical behaviors for the age.  If your child is not exhibiting “normal” developmental behaviors, there is no cause for alarm.  However, discussion with a development specialist can help you to determine if any special interventions are necessary.

Remember Peter Pan?  He must have been about 12-years-old.  Old enough to manage pretty well without parents, confident enough to do battle with pirates, but still hedonistic enough to want the care-free life of childhood to be his forever.  Age 12 is at the precipice—without the fairy dust to keep him from plunging headlong toward the future.

One of the Gang

If your daughter has a handful of good friends, they can be a real asset at this juncture.  They help her get through school as well as the all-important social scene.  Friends give her timely bulletins between classes: The science teacher is in a good mood today, so don’t worry about your presentation.  Alert for math class—the quiz has a bonus question about square roots.

Friends keep you up-to-date on fashion, what to wear and where to get it.  The standards are set by the teenagers, with middle schoolers carefully copying the latest trends as much as they can get away with.  Stick to your limits on budget, skin exposure and safety (I’m sorry, those spiky heels are not acceptable) but recognize that a parent’s ideas of style are considered to be useless at this age.  Compromise a little.  Save yourself time and money and take her friend along when you shop for clothes.

Friends also advise her on her friendships and romance.  Over the next few years, friendships will come and go as she figures out who she is and who is good for her.  It’s a learning process.  Novice matchmakers get to work pairing up “ideal” mates (though most matches never actually catch fire).  Girls are generally more serious about their relationships, but boys are also getting more comfortable with social skills and may start arranging meet-ups with friends.  As plans are hatching, you may be brought into the arrangements for transportation.  Parents are still useful, as it turns out, for driving to and from the mall.

It’s a good idea to make the acquaintance of the parents of your 12-year-old’s friends, despite the embarrassment this can cause her.  You are setting a good model by looking out for relationships that are good for you as well as your child.  Parents may end up driving each other’s children to and from their meet-ups.  Some parents will host the gang at their homes.  Do the other parents share your safety standards regarding alcohol, firearms and  games and movies ratings?  A tight network among the grownups can continue to be an asset, not just for sharing transportation duties, but also for keeping tabs on protecting soon-to-be teens from all the dangers that are out there.

Rewiring

Brain science research continues to make sense of the complex changes that occur in adolescence, explaining some of the short-sightedness and risk-taking in the mid- to late-teen years.

Brain density is at its peak around age 12.  There are more neuronal connections now, just before the “pruning process” of adolescence begins.  Nerve fibers in less-used pathways will start to shrink away while neurons in the more-used pathways get thicker. Your child’s interests and talents are emerging and refining at this time, evidence of the strengthening nerve pathways, while childish ways and childhood memories are fading away.  The pruning and thickening process seems to bring about more and more brain efficiency until about age 25. 

Adolescence, we now know, is a critical period for brain development.  Drugs and alcohol, even poor diet and sleep habits, can negatively impact the process of taking on the thinking abilities necessary for adult competency.  During this changeover, the young person develops her abilities to plan, set priorities, organize her thoughts, suppress impulses and weigh the consequences of different actions. These realities and responsibilities are the difference between a child and an adult.

Continuing messages, modeling and support for healthy habits are an important function of parenting through this period.  There is bound to be experimentation, especially under the influence of peer pressure.  A can of beer or a pack of cigarettes in the hand of your current best friend can be hard to say no to.  The media, unfortunately, is often another powerful influence in the wrong direction. The adolescent is comparing the values and behaviors of her parents with the most opposite ones she can find.  The “edgier” the better.  The best antidote is to surround her as much as possible with people who care enough about her future to help her get there.

Adult in the Making

Most twelves are starting to see the connection to their future through school.  Project topics and course choices can help her on her path toward college and career.  The linguist, artist, city planner, musician or scientist of the future is coming into view.  A teacher may recognize a special aptitude and have some recommendations, including summer activities.  If she’s getting serious about a particular field, help her investigate it.  She’s more likely to stay focused with school work with a clear vision of where she wants to go and how she can get herself there.

School, family, and community experiences will also help your 12-year-old gain practical life skills beyond earning a living.  You and others can help her toward independence with cooking, laundering and mending and with finding pleasure in recreational pursuits, such as sports, the arts and reading.  When we were 12, a friend and I joined a recorder society over the summer—the only youngsters among a half dozen or so adults.  We were met with the same respect with which they treated one another.  Not surprisingly, in the company of adults (particularly other than our own parents), we behaved accordingly. 

Heart-to-Heart

A typical 12-year-old attitude is “I don’t need parents anymore.”  Of course this is far from the truth (especially if she’s counting on graduate school tuition!).  Just because she can dress herself, feed herself and usually put herself to bed on time, doesn’t mean she doesn’t need to be parented. Self-care should not be confused with the experience and wisdom needed to run one’s life.

Find quiet moments with your 12-year-old for deep conversation. This is an age when thoughts about ethics, justice, spirituality and long-term consequences are beginning to take shape.  Use the time in the car to and from a weekly activity, or on an evening walk with the dog (in the dark so her friends won’t see you together) or during a routine chore, such as cleaning up from dinner.  Explore the deeper questions.  Start with a news headline, or an event affecting someone you both know.  Exchange ideas on subjects that will impact her future.  Career planning.  The environment.  Medical advances.  Social injustices.  Global economics.  Marriage and family life. Drug abuse.  Religion.  Share some of your life experiences, difficult decisions and lessons learned.  Your values will influence her thinking as she works on developing her own values to take with her to adulthood.

After all, “All children, except one, grow up.” (J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan)


Deborah Wood is a child development specialist residing in Annapolis.