1. Pre-teens
  2. Development
  3. Understanding your pre-teen

Pre-teen development: what to expect

9-11 years

The pre-teen years see lots of big changes – physical, emotional, cognitive and social. During this time, children’s bodies, emotions and identities change in different ways at different times.

Physical changes in pre-teens

For girls, you might start to see early physical changes from about 10-11 years – but this can happen as young as 8, or as old as 13. Physical changes in puberty include:

  • breast development
  • changes in body shape and height
  • growth of pubic and body hair
  • the start of periods.

For boys, physical changes usually start around 11-12 years – but this can happen as young as 9, or as old as 14. Physical changes include:

  • growth of the penis and testes (testicles)
  • change in body shape and height
  • erections with ejaculation
  • growth of body and facial hair
  • changes to voice.

Emotional changes in pre-teens

You might notice that your child shows strong feelings and intense emotions at different times. His moods might seem unpredictable, and these emotional ups and downs can lead to increased conflict. This is partly because your child’s brain is still learning how to control and express emotions in a grown-up way.

At the same time, your child might be more sensitive to your emotions. But while she’s getting better at understanding other people’s emotions, she might sometimes misread facial expressions or body language. So she might react in unexpected ways.

Your child is likely to be more self-conscious, especially about his physical appearance and changes. Adolescent self-esteem is often affected by appearance, or by how children think they look. As your child develops, he might compare his body with those of his friends and peers.

And your child might go through a stage of acting without thinking. Your child’s decision-making skills are still developing, and she’s still learning that actions have consequences and even risks sometimes.

Your child’s body is maturing physically, but his brain development, thinking skills and emotional development are happening at their own speeds. What you see on the surface doesn’t always match what’s happening on the inside.

Social changes in pre-teens

Young people are busy working out who they are and where they fit into the world. So you might notice that your child is searching for identity. For example, she might be trying out new or different clothing styles, music, art, friendship groups and so on.

Seeking more independence is common. For example, your child might want to walk to the school bus stop by himself, or he might want to spend more time with friends. Your child might want more responsibility too, both at home and at school.

Your child might be more likely to look for new experiences, even risky ones. At the same time, your child is still developing control over her impulses. This has a lot to do with the way your child’s brain is changing in these years.

Your child is likely to be thinking more about ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. He’ll start developing his own values and morals, and he’ll question things more. But your words and actions shape your child’s sense of right and wrong.

You’ll probably find your child is influenced more by friends, especially when it comes to behaviour, sense of self and self-esteem.

And your child might be starting to develop and explore a sexual identity. This might include a new interest in romantic relationships and attractions to peers or celebrities.

The internet, mobile phones and social media can significantly influence how your child communicates with her peers and how she learns about the world.


Teenage independence


In this short video, parents and teenagers talk about what age is appropriate for teenagers to do different independent activities. These include activities like getting to a friend’s house on public transport, going on an outing with friends, and catching the bus to school.

Parents talk about their concerns with increasing independence and the importance of staying in touch with what their children are doing.

Staying connected with your teenage child can be an important part of supporting your child’s social and emotional development. You can check out our Talking to Teens interactive guide to see how different approaches to staying connected can get different results.

Changes in pre-teen relationships

Your child’s relationships with family and peers will undergo dramatic changes and shifts. But maintaining strong relationships with both family and friends is important for healthy social and emotional development.

You might notice that your child wants to spend less time with family and more time with his friends and peers. Your child’s friends are more likely to influence his short-term choices, like appearance and interests. Your influence is important on your child’s long-term decisions, like decisions about career choices, values and morals.

There might be more arguments with you. Some conflict during these years is normal, as children seek more independence. It actually shows that your child is maturing. Conflict tends to peak in early adolescence. Even if you feel like you’re arguing with your child all the time, it isn’t likely to affect your relationship with her in the longer term.

And it might seem like your child sees things differently from you now. This isn’t because he wants to upset you. It’s because he’s beginning to think more abstractly, and is questioning different points of view. At the same time, some children find it difficult to understand how their words and actions affect other people. This will probably change with time.

Through all of this, a strong relationship with you is an important foundation for building your child’s resilience.


Adolescence and autism spectrum disorder


This short video features mums and dads of teenagers with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). They talk about how their child’s special needs affect development through the adolescent years. They say they can see their child’s social, emotional and physical changes. But when it comes to some behaviour, as one mum says, ‘Is it Ellis being a teenager, or is it the ASD?’

These parents agree that interventions like speech therapy and social skills classes have made a big difference to their child’s development.

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Raising Children Network is supported by the Australian Government. Member organisations are the Parenting Research Centre and the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute with The Royal Children’s Hospital Centre for Community Child Health.

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