The Emotional Years

Tweens' sudden bouts of intense emotion can make them seem unpredictable, and many parents insist that their tween is moodier than a teenager. Despite the widespread belief that hormones drive the drama, a relationship between testosterone and behavior has not been established for this age group.

When typically placid youngsters become emotional and chronically edgy ones explode, they are as likely to be reacting to an offense or injustice from long ago that flitted across their minds and has made them cranky as to something that is happening now. Parents may think that an issue must be of earth-shattering importance to have triggered such a dramatic reaction, and many lose sleep worrying about how to help.

Yet if they broach the subject an hour, a day, or a week later, they are likely to learn that their tween now considers it inconsequential and is actually put out that a parent wants to revisit territory that no longer concerns her.

The Testosterone Myth

Although toddler boys are more aggressive than toddler girls, the testosterone levels of the two groups are indistinguishable. At age eight, boys' testosterone levels are approximately five times that of boys entering puberty. Studies comparing extremely aggressive institutionalized boys with normal ones have failed to detect significant differences in their testosterone levels.

Actually, an increase in a boy's testosterone level is the result of certain intense emotions, not the cause. Boys' testosterone levels increase after they have a “successful dominance experience,” which can include winning a game or having the team they were rooting for emerge victorious. It can also include conquering something difficult, such as doing well on a task or bullying other children. Being dominated by someone else causes testosterone to decrease.

Rather than assuming your tween's anger will diminish and he will return to an even keel when he gets through puberty, you need to help him learn to manage his negative emotions productively. Your child must be taught how to control his temper and manage his anger to succeed at school, a job, and life.

The combination of immaturity and social pressures are probably more important than hormones in explaining why older tweens are so emotional. The age at which the roller coaster begins seems to parallel the age at which young people become seriously interested in members of the opposite sex — which, surprisingly, is driven by convention, not pubescence. The age for escalating mood swings and interest in dating has dropped farther over the last century than the average age for entering puberty. In cultures where love liaisons don't begin until late adolescence, tweens are far more staid than their American counterparts.


Some parents become jaded about their youngster's tendency to overdramatize, while others worry about the wellspring of unhappiness that gives rise to such emotional intensity and so many outbursts. Bouts of crying and abject despair do not necessarily signal that a tween is struggling under a lingering cloud of misery. Often by the time tweens can talk about a problem, they have processed it to the point that it is no longer an issue for them. You may not hear about the difficulties your tween is dealing with until they are basically resolved.

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