It started out with a simple question. An anonymous mother of an 11-year-old boy asked for help on an online forum.
“How do I tell my wonderful 11-year-old son, (in a way that won’t tear him down), that the way he has started talking to me (disrespectfully) makes me not want to be around him (I’ve already told him the bad attitude is unacceptable)?”
In other words? Her tween son is going through the start of puberty and beginning to act like a real a-hole and she’s done with it. And, girl. #same.
My son is also 11 and also I’m totally feeling this. He’s been navigating the emotional ups and downs with extra sass, mood swings and eye roll. Basically, I’m just along for the ride. Sometimes it’s a great trip – he’s sweet, funny, cuddly even. I’m a cool mum and he’s actually appreciative and fun to be around.
Other times he’s a grumpy, ungrateful little turd. Oh, and I’m also literally the worst human being in the world and hanging out with me is (in his words) “actual dog water”. Yes, ladies and gents. Actual dog water.
So, clearly, I am NO help to this poor woman and her question about her son. But luckily Aussie mum and writer, Jo Eberhardt came to the rescue. She penned a reply that is so spot on that it puts our tweens’ behaviour into a whole new light.
When you nail it, you nail it—and Jo, well she nails it.
The tween brain explained
My first son is eleven and a half right now. (I’ve been informed that the half is important.) I don’t claim to know the best way to talk to your son about this — I’m only an expert on my own children — but I can tell you what I said to my son, and you can take from it anything that you feel is helpful.”
Jo explains how she opted to talk to her son while in the car, just him and her. It meant they would have half an hour, they’d be in a confined space (he couldn’t escape) and that they wouldn’t have to look directly at each other, making it easier to avoid accidental confrontation and to encourage vulnerability.
The conversation went like this:
We’ve talked a lot about puberty over the last couple of years, haven’t we? I just wanted to check in and find out if you’ve got any new questions.”
“No,” he said.
Okay. Well, let me know if you do. But I was thinking about things over the last few days, and I know I’ve been pulling you up a lot more on your tone of voice and the way you’ve been speaking to people. Yeah?”
“Well, it occurred to me that I really messed up.”
“What do you mean?”
The instructions are for a child’s brain
Well, I’ve spent all this time talking to you about the way puberty changes your body, and what to expect as you go through the changes, but I completely forgot to talk to you about what’s going on in your brain right now.
Puberty is the time when your brain grows and changes more than at any other time in your life — well, except for when you’re a baby, perhaps. Your brain grew and developed so quickly when you were little that by the time you were about five or six, your brain was almost as big and powerful as an adult’s brain.
But here’s the thing. Even though your brain was super powerful, the instructions were for a child’s brain. And all the information about building an adult’s brain was a bit … let’s say fuzzy.
So your brain did the best it could, but it didn’t really know what kind of person you were going to be back then, or what shape brain you were going to need.
Now we come to puberty. Not only is your body being transformed from a child’s body to an adult’s body, your brain has to be completely rewritten from a child’s brain to an adult’s brain.”
It takes a lot of energy to completely rewrite a brain. That’s one of the reasons you get tired quicker at the moment — and that, of course, manifests in you being crankier and less patient than normal.”
Adult amygdala, child frontal cortex
The other thing is that one of the first parts of your brain that gets super-sized to be like an adult is the amygdala. That’s the part that controls your emotions and your survival instincts. You know how we’ve talked about fight/flight/freeze before, and how sometimes our brains think that being asked to speak in public is the same level of threat as being attacked by a sabre tooth tiger?”
So, the thing with puberty is that all of a sudden you’ve got an adult-sized amygdala hitting all your emotion buttons and your sabre-tooth tiger buttons.
See, the last part of your brain that gets rewritten is right at the front of your head. It’s called the frontal cortex. And that’s the part of your brain that’s good at decision making and understanding consequences.
So you’ve got this powerful adult amygdala hitting you with massive emotions, but you’ve still got a fuzzy child frontal cortex that can’t make decisions or understand consequences as quickly as the amygdala wants you to. It pretty much sucks.”
“So it’s not my fault?”
Tweens and puberty
It’s puberty’s fault your brain works the way it does. But that doesn’t mean it’s not your responsibility to recognise what’s going on and change your actions. It’s not easy, but it’s not impossible, either.
Your feelings are your feelings, and they’re always okay. But you get to choose your actions. You get to choose what you do with your feelings. And, when you make a mistake, you get to choose to apologise for that mistake and make amends.”
Jo then goes on to explain to her son that, while puberty sucks for him, it’s also confusing for those around him.
If it’s confusing for you living inside there, imagine how confusing it is for me, when I only see your actions.
Sometimes I’m going to get upset at things you do because I don’t understand what’s going on in your head. Sometimes I’m going to forget that you’re halfway to being a man, and accidentally treat you like a child.
Sometimes I’m going to expect more from you than you’re able to give. This is my first time parenting someone through puberty, and I’m going to make mistakes.
So can I ask you a favour?
Can you just keep telling me what’s going on in your head? The more we talk, the easier it will be for both of us to get through this puberty thing unscathed. Yeah?”
“Yeah,” he said.
So, did the conversation work?
It didn’t completely stop him speaking disrespectfully to me. It didn’t completely stop me forgetting that he’s not my little boy anymore. But it opened the lines of communication.
It gave us a language to use.
And, together, we’re muddling through this crazy puberty thing, and I’m completely confident that he’ll come out the other end a sweet, wonderful young man.”
If you’ve got a tween who is starting to give you attitude, we recommend having this conversation and seeing if it helps. Fingers crossed it does!