Early Adolescence (ages 9 Ė 13)

Early adolescence. In the vernacular of the age: "Get used to it!" First comes the negative attitude, with its litany of criticisms and complaints; then comes rebellion, with its active and passive resistance; and then comes early experimentation, with its testing of limits.

Parents must not take any of these unwelcome changes personally.

These behavior changes do not represent actions the child is taking to purposely upset the parents. They are actions the child is doing for himself or herself to separate from childhood and to begin the journey toward more freedom and independence. Put other parents in your place, and, to varying degrees, your child would still be going through the same transformation.


The opening salvo of early adolescence is the negative attitude, the birth of the "bad attitude," as parents often call it. What happened to the child who was full of positive energy all the time and a pleasure to live with? Now a turn for the worse seems to have taken place. Itís like someone has pulled the plug on the young person and all his or her positive energy to do anything has been drained away.

He has entered a phase of what one parent poetically described as "developmental lumphood." All the early adolescent seems to want to do is lay around and complain about having nothing to do. But when parents suggest some work around the place that needs doing, the adolescent just gets angry: "Oh, leave me alone, you donít understand, Iím too tired!" Tired of what? Of doing nothing, of being bored, of being frustrated, of not knowing what to do with himself. He knows what he doesnít want to do, but he has no clear vision of what he does want to do. When it comes to motivation and direction, heís riding on empty, and he doesnít like it.

Then, as positive energy drains away, negative energy begins to build. All of a sudden, itís like having a critic in the family. Heís critical of positive suggestions, of family activities, of other members of the family, and of what parents often donít seeócritical of himself: "I hate being just a child!"

He seems to be in a mood to reject everything and everyone. Why? Because he is rejecting the child he was, rejecting himself, and angry at that rejection, he turns anger at self-rejection into criticism of those around him. What particularly attracts his anger are parental demands and limits, rules and restraints, which now stand in the way of the increased freedom he wants. So a sense of grievance, a chip on the shoulder, develops: "What gives you the right to tell me what I can and cannot do? Youíre not the boss of the world!"

But parents are the boss of his world, and now he doesnít like it. As a child, he didnít mind their authority that much, but as an early adolescent wanting more freedom to grow and room to become different, but not yet knowing how to achieve these objectives, he resents their direction and opposition.

The birth of the "bad attitude" begins early adolescence because people do not change unless they are dissatisfied with who and how they are. And the early adolescent is developmentally dissatisfied. He doesnít want to be defined and treated as a child anymore. This attitude change that provides the motivation for adolescence to begin can coincide with puberty, but it doesnít have to. When it does, the release of growth hormones only makes the process more emotionally intense and urgent to live with.

Phase two: REBELLION.

People do not rebel without just cause, and now the negative attitude has given the adolescent adequate grievance. Now resentment at "over protective" restriction and "unfair" treatment by parents is used to justify objecting to their demands.

Rebellion is not primarily against parents. It is actually directed against the old compliant and dependent definition of being a child. To outgrow this definition, the adolescent rebels out of childhood. Early adolescent rebellion is opposition against old self-definition acted out against parents for transformationís sake.

Rebellion takes two forms in early adolescence: passive and active resistance. Active resistance has to do with debate and disobedience. Passive resistance has to do with procrastination and delay. The more strong-willed your child, the more of each type of resistance you will likely receive. Ultimately, both kinds of resistance serve the same growth need: to help the adolescent gather the power to change.

And resistance works. To some degree, on some occasions, parents will be too distracted or too tired to follow up on a demand. They will allow the adolescentís resistance to back them off for some period of time, or entirely. "More freedom" then becomes the name of adolescent power gained.

By actively resisting, the early adolescent expresses more disagreement and complaints about parental demands, questions the rightness of rules and the parental right to make rules, and endlessly argues about most anything for argumentís sake. "Itís like weíre training a trial attorney," parents will complain, weary of the unremitting verbal challenge to their authority.

By passively resisting, the early adolescent will put off obligations and requests until it takes repeated reminders for the young person to do what she was supposed or told to do. "I will, in a minute!" she promises. But by now, parents know that a teenage minute can drag on for over an hour. "Now!" they command in irritation. "Well, you donít have to get upset about it!" retorts the teenager, and finally does as asked, but not completely. And the parent feels back to square one.

Whatís going on? Itís a compromise called delay. Itís like the adolescent is saying, "You can tell me what and Iíll tell you when. When I get enough when, Iíll do what you wantópartly." It takes power of parental insistence (supervision) to wear this resistance down: "I will keep after you and after you and after you until what I asked is done."


With new freedom gained from rebellion, the early adolescent now has room to experiment with more risk taking, to learn about the forbidden, and to test limits to see what he can get away with. Where the negative attitude had to do with gathering the motivation to change, and rebellion had to do with gathering the power to change, early experimentation has to do with gathering the experience to change, experience that lies outside the prohibitions that parents and other social authorities have prescribed.

"Which rules are firm and which are not?" That is the question the early adolescent wants to answer. The only way to find out is to do some limit testing to see what he can get away with. Where no adverse consequence occurs, that is a place where more social freedom is apparently allowed. The more illicit freedom an early adolescent is permitted to get away with, the more unmindful of social rules he becomes.

This is the age when experimentation with trying substances can begin, particularly inhalants, tobacco, and alcohol. This is the age when experimenting with not doing homework can beginó"I forgot it," "I did it at school," "Iíll do it in the morning," "There wasnít any." And this is the age when three common kinds of social violations can occur: pranking, vandalizing, and shoplifting.

Some parents write this early experimentation off as innocent mischief and leave it at that, but such permissiveness is not a good idea. Better for parents to close the loop of responsibility by causing their early adolescent to face the consequences of what he did -- to encounter the victim and confess, hear the victimís emotional response to what was done, clean up any damages done, and make some kind of restitution. Let violations go, and worse limit testing and rule breaking are likely to follow.

Donít lose faith in the foundation of family values you have laid in childhood just because your early adolescent seems to be rejecting them now through criticism, rebellion, and experimentation, believing and behaving differently than you have taught. These differences are more trial in nature than terminal, temporarily adopted for experimental and developmental use. Hold to your rules and values. Come adulthood, your son or daughter will reclaim that early instruction and end up more similar to you than different.

© Carl Pickhardt Ph.D. For permission to use this article, contact the author.