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Who Stole My Child?

Just the other day, my kindergarten son told everyone in his class that it was my birthday. He spent recess gathering signatures on a homemade card, and when I arrived at school that afternoon, he had organized a kindergarten “Happy Birthday To You” serenade.

As I stood listening to a gaggle of singing 5- and 6-year olds, I caught a glimpse of my almost 9-year-old daughter watching nearby, mortified. Just that morning she had jumped into my arms, showered me with kisses and crooned her own version of "Happy Birthday." But now she was desperate to hide. Why the 180-degree turn? It’s the beginning of tweendom.

Starting around the second or third grade, hormones will momentarily abduct your child’s sweetness (and often any vestiges of rationality, too).

Anyone who lives with—or has ever lived with—a full-fledged tween girl has at some point asked this question: Who replaced my child with the emotional equivalent of a swing set?

And for the sake of definition, tweenage starts at age 8 but peaks around 11 or 12. It’s not just girls, of course. They get the bad rap, but boys are swinging, too. The difference is that girls tend to do it in the form of moodiness, becoming whiny, snarky or downright snippy, and they do it so publicly and so quickly that you find yourself looking for the on/off switch. The average boy doesn’t wear his emotions on his sleeve nearly as much; agitation and deep-seated anger are easier to hide.

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But regardless of how they show it, parents will still wonder, "Who stole my kid?"

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Stuck in the middle. The answer isn’t who—but what. Hormones. Starting around the second or third grade, hormones will momentarily abduct your child’s sweetness (and often any vestiges of rationality, too), trading it for unpredictability. By 5th or 6th grade, almost no one in this age group emerges unscathed. Neither do their parents.

Since we live in a label-loving society, it’s no surprise that this notion transformed itself into a whole new age group: tweens. When I was growing up, the natural order of things was: baby, toddler, school kid, teenager (said with eyes rolled upwards and a slight grimace) and finally adult.

Somewhere between the emergence of Saved by the Bell and Hannah Montana, suddenly there were tweens. Short for in-betweens. They’re not kids, not teens, just grossly horribly stuck in the middle.

In my job as a pediatrician I talk to tweenage kids every day and they tell me they don't like how it feels to swing through the mood jungle.

Force of nature. Tweens established themselves as a force to be reckoned with because they have a stunning combination of attributes: they experience a sudden shift in interests, from movies to sports to social networking; they are suddenly faced with pharmaceutical needs in the form of cleansers, acne remedies, deodorants, and athlete’s foot powders; and they have purchasing power (who knew?) that they are not afraid to use, sometimes impulsively. What is the common thread that ties all of this together? Hormones.

Hormones are not enemies. In fact, they make many things in the world rosy—growth hormone helps kids, well, grow, while thyroid hormone keeps our metabolism chugging along so we feel energized. But faced with a surge of relatively new hormones like estrogen and testosterone, tweens are caught unprepared.

They need to learn to manage the chemicals coursing through their veins, much in the same way that my kids needed to learn how to train our puppy. Until they do, these hormones rule many of their physical and emotional experiences.

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Take a break. In my house, it is only just beginning. I know where this road goes, because in the course of my job as a pediatrician I talk to tweenage kids every day. They tell me that they do not like how it feels to swing through the mood jungle, and they don’t want to spiral into a meltdown over a comment at the dinner table. In fact, they tell me that what would help them most would be permission to take a break, not unlike what they had as toddlers when they were given a “time out." Some kids want to write in journals, others play music, and still others grab a pillow, hug it to their head and scream a muffled but cathartic scream.

You see, it’s not only that something emotionally abducted your kid. The tween zone is just as much about your child finding a way back home. They may have a funny way of showing it, but most tweens don’t want to grow up quite so fast. So help them not to. Say “No” when your instinct is to set a limit—limits and rules make kids feel safer.

Remember that these hormones are potent drugs, and, with them onboard, a child is not necessarily his or her most sane self. And finally, if occasionally your own hormones rear their ugly heads and you find yourself getting snarky right back, feel free to take your own time out.

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