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Growing Up Too Fast

Helping Your Preteen Transition from Child to Adult

While today's moms and dads are trying everything from tummy tucks to the newest skin creams to revive that youthful glow, their kids are piling on makeup, sliding into tight clothes, experimenting with drugs and hanging out with older teens – all to feel older.

The youthful desire to appear more mature has been going on for years. Our parents dealt with long hair on boys, miniskirts on girls and the relentless thump of music cranked to deafening decibels. Today's parents fight nymphet "singers," adult-themed "cartoons," the "athletes" of the WWF and others who, like it or not, are taking their place as role models for our young. So what's a parent to do? Well, put down the Oil of Olay and let's look at why our children are growing up too fast and what we can do to reclaim our youth.

Stuck in the Middle

Every child, at one time or another, feels he is ready to make some choices on his own. According to Barbara Jessing, director of family service of Greater Omaha in Omaha, Neb., this desire for independence has both physical and emotional roots. "The age of puberty has inched downward in recent years with some girls experiencing physical changes as early as 9 or 10 years of age," she says. "These changes can be confusing to a youth who is beginning to look like an adult on the outside, but still feels very much like a child on the inside."

Throughout history, a girl was considered a woman when she began to experience menstruation, but today we know that growth comes in spurts with the pace of development going up and down like a seesaw.

"You'll see a child begging to wear makeup and going to concerts one minute, then playing with Barbies or G.I. Joes the next," Jessing says. This is classic adolescent behavior – the feeling of being stuck between childhood and adulthood – and it affects both boys and girls in varying degrees.

Suzanne Maloney of Raleigh, N.C., has experienced this firsthand with her 11-year-old son. "It seems my son is often conflicted about what he is really comfortable with," she says. "I'll think he doesn't care a whole lot about how he looks, and then, when we're out in public, he appears to really care a lot. If we are going where there will be a lot of kids, particularly older kids, then his hair must be just right. I don't mind it – I just think he is too young to care so much. I believe this behavior stems from trying to find his place. Kids this age are not quite sure of their own style, so they look to those who appear sure and confident and try to emulate them."

The Dangers of Growing up Too Fast

With change comes challenge, so some problems are bound to pop up, but there are some very real dangers associated with a child's desire to test the waters of adulthood.

"A 12-year-old who looks, dresses and acts like a 15- or 16-year-old tends to draw the attention of 18- to 20-year-olds who often have adult activities in mind," Jessing says. "Such activities are acceptable between consenting adults, but they are not OK for children. These kids often look like they could handle a compromising situation, but in most cases, they can't."

A child can find himself in an unsafe environment, become exposed to chemicals that can alter his consciousness or fall prey to sexual predators. Experiences like these can rob a youth of his childhood and tear down his self-esteem.

What Parents Can Do

As in most child-rearing issues, the parents' response is key. Jessing says parents need to rein in their child's inappropriate impulses and help the child pace herself. "Acknowledge the changes your child is experiencing, but gently inform her that with growth and maturity comes more serious issues, choices and responsibilities," she says.

Jessing urges parents not to fall into the trap of being fooled by their child's grown-up appearance and actions. "Some parents unintentionally back off faster than they should," she says. "Many times the child is testing the parent, wondering, 'How far can I go before you reject me?' It is the parent's job to puzzle it out by communicating with the child. Ask him questions, 'How are you feeling? What is happening that makes you feel old enough to accept more responsibility?' Work through it together. Don't be afraid to say 'No,' but don't be afraid to give in sometimes, too."

Deciding when the time is right for adult fashions, hairstyles, makeup and dating depends on the family and the individual child. Jessing suggests parents look at the child's maturity level and their own comfort level and go from there. Maloney is working through her son's hairstyling problems with a cool head and a dash of humor. "It takes an interminably long time for this child to fix his hair in the morning," she says. "He started getting very unpleasant about the whole process, so I threatened to take away his hair gel. Problem solved!"

Using her own experience as a guide, Maloney offers the following advice to parents with children who are growing up too fast: "If it's within your bounds of decency, I'd let it go. This is a normal part of growing up. Biting our tongues is one of the best things a parent can do. Remember bell-bottoms and hot pants? Let them test the waters and enjoy watching their sense of self evolve – even if it involves more hair gel than you have used in your entire life!"

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