Sunday, January 10, 2010


'Tweenager' is a deliberately created word.  Marketing professionals recognized something important about the psychology of children (girls, in particular)  in the stage between youth and teenager.  They understood that these children, although a unique group, had a striving to be like their older counterparts, but also had a certain naivete that could be exploited.  Thus, the creation of the word 'tweenager' provided for the pre-teen an identity that acknowledged their relative youth status, but connected them to the older girls/guys they were aspiring to be.  The 'tweenage' stage, between the age of 10 years and 14 years, is an important period of cognitive, social, moral and sexual development that can present some challenges for both the child and the parents.

In terms of cognitive development, during the tweenage period, the child moves from the Concrete Operations stage to the Formal Operations stage, as described by renown developmental psychologist, Jean Piaget.  During the Concrete Operations stage which occurs between the ages of 7 and 12 years, the tweenager begins thinking logically about concrete events, but may still have difficulty understanding abstract or hypothetical concepts.  As she/he moves into later tweenagehood and into Formal Operations, skills such as logical thought, deductive reasoning, and systematic planning begin to emerge.  Therefore, even though the tweenager may have the appearance, at times, of being an emerging adolescent, he/she may not have the cognitive sophistication to take on the complex decisions of adolescence.

Changes in social development are also evident as the child moves through tweenagehood.  Renown developmental psychologist Erik Erikson described the social developmental process in eight stages.  Each stage is regarded by Erikson as a "psychosocial crisis," which arises and demands resolution before the next stage can be satisfactorily negotiated.  Erikson believed that the fourth psychosocial crisis was handled during what can now effectively be called the 'tweenage' period.  During this fourth stage, the issue of competence is central.  The tweenager, therefore,  is learning to master the more formal skills of life such as relating with peers according to rules, progressing from free play to play that may be elaborately structured by rules and may demand formal teamwork, and mastering important academics and increasing self-discipline in homework.  If all has gone relatively well for the child to this point, she/he will emerge feeling  competent and will be trusting, autonomous, and full of initiative and will learn easily enough to be industrious. However, this is also the period during which self-doubt, and feelings of shame, guilt and inferiority may be expressed when the child does not achieve this feeling of competence.

The tweenager period ends when the child emerges out of this psychosocial crisis where struggles around competence is central and enters into the fifth psychosocial crisis (adolescence, from about 13 or 14 to about 20). Now an emerging adolescent, the tweenager begins to learn how to answer the question  "Who am I?"  During this period,  some role identity diffusion occurs and many may experiment with minor delinquency and rebellion.  However, it is also a critical period when this late tweenager may experiment with different - usually constructive - roles rather than adopting a "negative identity" (such as delinquency).  However, tweens sometime consolidate their identities through the formation of cliques.  Tween girls, in particular, as seen to be highly susceptible to forming cliques which, although can be a source of support and identity, can sometimes result in the phenomenon where tween girls may cruelly exclude their peers.  Both tween boys and girls also sometimes engaging in problematic bullying.

Changes in moral development are also evident in the tweenager.  According to psychologist Kohlberg's theory of moral development, a change from a pre-conventional morality to a conventional morality typically begins during the tweenager stage.  The pre-conventional level consists of the first and second stages of moral development, and is solely concerned with the self in an egocentric manner. A child with pre-conventional morality has not yet adopted or internalized society's conventions regarding what is right or wrong, but instead focuses largely on external consequences that certain actions may bring.  As a result, if there are no negative consequences to their behavior, or if some positive comes of it, the tweenager may struggle to fully appreciate the inappropriate of his or her behavior. 

As the tweenager develops, a shift towards a conventional level of moral reasoning is seen in the later tweenager stage.  This level of moral reasoning is typical of adolescents and adults. Those who reason in a conventional way judge the morality of actions by comparing them to society's views and expectations. The conventional level consists of the third and fourth stages of moral development. Conventional morality is characterized by an acceptance of society's conventions concerning right and wrong. At this level an individual obeys rules and follows society's norms even when there are no consequences for obedience or disobedience. Adherence to rules and conventions is somewhat rigid, however, and a rule's appropriateness or fairness is seldom questioned.

For more and more, tweenagehood marks the onset of puberty and sexual development.  Girls usually experience the changes associated with puberty between the ages of 10-12 and it tends to happen a bit later for boys (between 12-15 years of age). Like any developmental milestone, there is a wide range of "normal."  Typically, however, these changes in sexual development are likely occurring in the context of changes in concrete cognitive operations, struggles around competence and pre-conventional morality, all of which may not optimally be in sync.

Parents may notice changes in their tweenager as the changes in their cognitive, social, moral and sexual development converge.  For example, tweenagers may demonstrate new concerns or fears.  They may increasingly have a fear of kidnappings, rapes, and scary media events, as opposed to fantasy things such as witches, monsters, ghosts.  They may also have a more developed sense of looking into the future and seeing effects of their actions (as opposed to early childhood where children often do not worry about their future).  Parents may also notice that their tweenagers may begin to view human relationships differently.  They may notice the flawed, human side of authority figures, including their parents, whom they previously may have wholly embraced without question.  They may start caring about what they look like and what they are wearing.  In fact, alarmed parents may see their tween dressing like a teenager but still be unable to make the more sophisticated cognitive, social and moral decisions, which could leave the tweenager very vulnerable.  While they are trying out at being teenager by engaging in teenager behaviors, they may not have the emotional capacity to deal with the consequences of these choices.  Sometimes this includes the beginning of sexual experimentation.

Parents must be prepared for the major shifts that are occurring in their children and be prepared to help them navigate through the changes in their cognitive, social, moral and sexual development.  Ultimately, like all periods of development, there is an eventual movement on to the next stage.  If sufficient support and understanding exists for the tweenage period, successful navigation into teenagehood will bring new and exciting challenges for all.

1 comment:

  1. What a fabulous post! I'd love to use this on in our Parent Circle!

    What do you think? What I appreciate most, is how you explain and emphasize the changes that are occuring so rapidly in tweenagers. So many brands, writers, groups and entertainers want to give a label to kids who act like such n such or who look like so n so, and the fact is, within less than 12 weeks, these attributes will change and may bring just the opposite or dramatically different attributes in their place.

    So why the labeling?

    Why not encourage kids to embrace this fluid time of life?

    Why not help kids open their minds instead of trying to label and close them?

    Thank you for your incredible post.