On Jillian Johnson’s 11th birthday, her mom made a big deal of the occasion, just as she had done for “Jilly’s” whole life. During an outdoor concert at Jilly’s school, Lisa Johnson proudly displayed a huge sign that said “Happy Birthday Jilly” and stood with the sign front and center for all to see.
“I thought she would be thrilled to see me, but this year, she was really embarrassed,” Lisa Johnson says.
While Jilly’s reaction saddened her mom, it represents a normal reaction of a tween who is turning the corner from childhood to the teenage years, requesting more independence. Some chalk it up to girls being “drama queens” while others blame this type of behavior on hormones.
So why are tweens so dramatic? We asked the experts.
“There are challenges for every age group, but what brings moms to their knees is the period between 9 and 12, which is defined by drama and heightened emotions,” says Colleen O’Grady, family therapist and author of Dial Down the Drama: Reducing Conflict and Reconnecting with Your Teenage Daughter — A Guide for Mothers Everywhere and host of Power Your Parenting — Moms with Teens Podcast.
O’Grady cites an undeveloped prefrontal cortex — or the “master control center for the brain” for the way tweens often act and behave. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for things like planning ahead, managing emotions, empathy, self-awareness, morality and big picture cause and effect.
“An undeveloped prefrontal cortex can significantly impact your daughter’s choices and behaviors,” she says.
O’Grady compares tween brain development to remodeling a house, where most of the construction phase happens between ages 9 to 12.
“At this age, the walls have been knocked down and it tends to be really messy,” she says. “But you tolerate the stress of remodeling because you know in the end, there will be a positive result.”
We often talk to daughters about the physical changes that happen to them during puberty (which typically occurs between ages 8 and 12), but there’s plenty of chemical changes also happening, such as the ramp up of estrogen and progesterone, which can lead to mood swings.
Experts warn that while we shouldn’t “blame it all on hormones,” we should also understand and sympathize with our daughters, who are experiencing hormone surges for the first time.
“At this age, the hormones are not flowing smoothly, which is why we see so many emotional outbursts,” O’Grady says.
Dr. Lisa Damour, psychotherapist and author of Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood, says the tween period is defined by strengthening ties to peers as ties to parents are loosened — signs that development is unfolding as it should.
“The need to belong is very important at this age,” she says. “Friendship takes on a whole new importance as young people become more private at home and depend on their peer relationships more for support.”
Damour says during this stage, tweens often want more privacy, may reject babyish nicknames and don’t want their parents to display public affection.
How to cope
Experts agree that self-regulation is the key to calming tween girls down during a period of an emotional outburst.
“Yelling makes everything worse,” says Suzanna Guzman, who finds that sitting down with her 9-year-old daughter, Mia, often helps. “We will have a cup of tea, or just take a walk. It regulates her emotions and calms her down.”
O’Grady acknowledges that every girl is different, and they need to find methods that work for them. But generally speaking, coping mechanisms can include listening to music, dancing in their room and running in the backyard.
Damour also advises parents to not take this “normal distancing” personally.
“Parents should expect and accept that they will have a shift in their relationship with their tweens at this age, and this is a good sign of healthy development,” says Damour, who also cautions parents not to minimize their child’s feelings. “Just because we allow children more autonomy as they age does not mean we lose our connection to them.”