What are ‘normal behaviours’ for pre-teens?

When children turn to the pre-teen years, parents generally feel less hassled about day-to-day behaviours, since most of their son or daughter’s time is spent at school. After school, there’s homework, play and bed… though not always in that order!

So it wouldn’t come as a surprise then, that the first persons to notice a deviation from the normal are most often teachers rather than the parents themselves. There’s nothing to feel guilty or upset about in this – it just happens that the maximum number of waking hours are spent in school, and the teacher is in a far better position to pick up departures from the normal, even in a class of thirty to forty students, than you are in the brief time left after school and on holidays.

Certain behaviours may be noticeable only at home, such as:

  • being more argumentative or picking fights with parents and siblings;
  • being unusually quiet, even while not studying;
  • spending more time ‘daydreaming’ or doing nothing constructive;
  • hiding things or lying about things; and
  • disappearance of money or other valuable objects.

However, most often the teachers’ feedback during a PTA meeting is an eye-opener about the child. Your quiet mouse could be a classroom bully or the class clown, disobeying the teacher for a few laughs. Or your normally confident child turns into the pet tease of some seniors in school, and ends up miserable. Any or all of these behaviours are a sure sign of some emotional disturbance in your child. Most often, they have a clear cause, either changes in the school or in the home environment being the foremost of these. As mentioned, these may or may not have been noticed at home, but you can definitely take a report from the teacher as a sufficient cause for concern.

Very often, these disturbances are temporary and tend to resolve within 2-6 months, with or without intervention. This is usually the case when a clear-cut stress is present, like a change of school, the absence of a favourite teacher, or a parent’s serious illness. But sometimes, the child may go from bad to worse in terms of his behaviour. Often, the teachers too become reluctant to intervene if the boy/girl gains a reputation for being a troublemaker or a cry-baby. Worst of all is when your son or daughter believes that this is the only way to behave in order to be liked/feared/accepted, and turns into a person who is miserable and makes others so.

Another complaint that would more naturally come from the school’s side is to do with academic performance. Your daughter’s teacher may be unhappy about her grasping power or the way she answers her tests. She may complain that the same thing is written over and over again, or that simple words are misspelled. Addition sums are solved through subtraction, or numbers are reversed. While there is again great latitude of ability in a child of 5-11 years, such complaints should be a cause for concern when:

  • The child is able to answer the same questions that s/he got wrong in writing when asked to do so orally
  • There is a frequent mix-up or confusion with similar letters (like b and d) or numbers (like 3 and 8)
  • There is inconsistency in the way words are spelled – thus s/he may write “white” correctly and then “wite” just a few lines later
  • S/he may recall facts soon after revision, but would be unable to remember even a tenth of it the next day
  • Difficulties in reading or difficulty in explaining what s/he just read

The signs described above are some of the most characteristic of what is called learning disability – or more commonly known as being a slow learner or dyslexic. Accurate and early diagnosis of this condition can go a long way in helping the child cope with academics, especially in cases where the general intelligence is average or higher. There are techniques of learning and comprehending information that greatly reduce the child’s confusion (and consequent frustration) with studies. There are also provisions in the Indian academic system for such learners, so that they are not at a disadvantage due to this disability. There is no reason why a child with learning disabilities should not go on to have as complete and extensive an education as any other child. What it requires though is a great deal of patience and time from you, the parents.
A third disorder most often diagnosed in mid-childhood is Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) or Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). How does one look for the signs of this in a child? Most children have (seemingly) inexhaustible energy… they appear to run on love and sunshine, sometimes. Think of all those vacation times when food and rest seemed so unnecessary to them and you’ll definitely agree. But some children are more restless and less attentive than even the most ‘hyper’ of such kids. The chief characteristics to look out for would be:

  • An inability to stay still for 10-15 minutes at a time, even when doing a pleasurable activity. So for example while watching his favourite cartoons also, your 8-year-old tends to bounce up and down, fidget with the remote or get up and wander around while looking at the TV.
  • Difficulty in staying focused on a task till it is completed. Your daughter leaves her bag mid-way of it being packed to go and look for a dress or book that is not needed for school.
  • A tendency to act without thinking. E.g. the child sees a pen and immediately begins to scribble with it, not checking whether there is a suitable writing surface.
  • The child may answer questions before you’ve finished asking them or do things in a hasty manner even when there is no need to hurry.

Therapy at the right time is an important way to help your child over these obstacles. Generally at this age, a model of behaviour therapy would be required, wherein specific behaviours and consequences of such behaviours are targeted. At times, especially for children with attention deficits, medication may be necessary. Parents’ concern over medication and their side effects at this tender age is perfectly understandable. However, it is not necessary that every such case would end up needing medication. Even for the small percentage that does, medication from a sensitive and aware psychiatrist would tend to be at a minimum and only for as long as absolutely necessary.

If you’ve seen any of the above signs in your son or daughter, combined with reports of similar behaviours at school/ with friends, you need to consult a clinical psychologist or a child psychologist at the earliest. Also, in order to be able to care for the child in the best possible way, you may need some support and a space to share your feelings and thoughts. TalkItOver can help you with the assessment of these disorders and with their interventions.

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About Gayatri Swaminathan

Gayatri Swaminathan is a clinical psychologist with 7 years of practical experience in the field. She has worked as a trauma counsellor, a qualitative market researcher, lecturer and private practioner. She has an M. Phil in Clinical Psychology and M.A. in Applied Psychology from Delhi University and B.A. (Psychology, Sociology, English Literature) from Bangalore University. She is trained primarily in the cognitive-behavioural approach, but also incorporates other schools of therapy and techniques as and when needed. She works with individual adults, couples, children and adolescents and their families.