Tween Child Development: Get the Facts

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In 1954, when J.R.R. Tolkien penned the Lord of the Rings, he christened the mid 20-year-old irresponsible Hobbits as “tweens — between childhood and adulthood,” which was arbitrarily achieved at 33 years of age in Middle Earth. This moniker has been recently resurrected to describe children between 9 to 11 years of age who are in their own transition from the relative tranquility of late childhood to the chaos that is endemic during the teenage years.

What are milestones in cognitive and academic development for tweens (children 9-11 years of age)?

In Piaget’s stages of cognitive development, the 9- to 11-year-old child has entered the period of “concrete operations.” This time span is characterized by the developing capability of organizing thought processes and use of deductive reasoning to successfully anticipate consequences. In addition, the ability to sort items by recognizing the abstract and more complex similarities is developing (for example, car, airplane, boat = all modes of transportation vs. a more immature lumping together based upon color similarities). Mathematical reciprocal relationships also become comprehensible (for example, 5 + 3 = 8, therefore 8 – 5 = 3). Generally, a longer attention span has set in (30-45 minutes), and the tween enjoys mental and physical challenges. Academically the 9- to 11-year-old student starts to develop the ability to form an opinion based upon presented evidence. He is also mastering the ability to present his own beliefs to his peers and parents. For example, the ability to analyze a written story and categorize it as fiction or nonfiction, is noted. By the end of this period, the child should be able to write several paragraphs supporting his argument. Editing his composition for grammar, punctuation, and spelling is expected.

What are milestones in psychological and emotional development for tweens?

The tween age range can be filled with anxiety. The development of real fears (such as kidnappings, war, violence) replaces fantasy fears (such as witches, monsters, boogie man). The development of delayed gratification is a consequence of the realization that current events may impact the future. The 9- to 11-year-old starts down the path of self-identity, independence, and development of moral values that will mark the teen years. The importance of “group identity” is established. Marketing capitalizes on this behavior when it exploits brand-name appeal (clothes, music, etc.) as more important than appearance or product quality. Advertising companies are also well aware that such allegiance is short lived and fickle; hence the rapid product-line changes. A major emotional step for this age group is exemplified in the realization that self-interest may need to take a back seat to the needs of others. Finally, it is during this two-year time frame that “puppy love” may first be experienced. The tween’s experience of non-parental infatuation can be unnerving to both the child and his parents.

What are milestones in physical development for tweens?

The physical changes associated with puberty may start as early as 8 years of age in girls and 9 years of age in boys. While this early time frame is unusual, it is not uncommon to have the earlier pubertal milestones starting by 11 years of age. A moderate percentage of late tweens may develop body odor, an increase in sweat rate, and an increase in skin oils which may be associated with early acne.

Physical skills development in this age group underscores the neurologic ability to master complex integration of upper- and lower-extremity reciprocal actions. Competitive swimming and tennis require such a refined skill set. Likewise, the refinement of depth perception and visual anticipation becomes increasingly obvious when watching baseball, basketball, or soccer athletic matches. The ability to predict where the ball will be is paramount as skill level matures. For some children, however, it may become obvious that all athletes are not created equal and parental encouragement and exploring nontraditional sports (golf, martial arts, and distance running) are worthwhile.

What are tips for parents caring for a preteen?

The 9- to 11-year-old child is still emotionally dependent upon his parents. As such, parents maintain the status of a role-model figure. Healthy nutritional choices and an active lifestyle are very often reflected in children’s choices of food and activities. If the parent’s weekend is spent on the couch munching chips and dip, it is not surprising that children may withdraw from outdoor activities and spend an excessive amount of time watching TV or engaging in computer games. The tremendous increase in fast-food consumption and reduction in vigorous physical activity is linked to the obesity epidemic in both children and adults. A recent study indicates that if the obesity epidemic continues unabated, one in three children will develop type 2 diabetes during their lifetime. The individual and social/economic implications of such a development would be monumental.

Tweens are emotionally linked to their peers with a strong emphasis on “group think” – to be accepted implies being like your peers. The early understanding, “Soon I will be a teenager,” and all that it implies, will appear on the horizon between 10 and 11 years of age. Conversely, the teenager’s need to be independent of family has not yet developed. As such, children 9 to 11 years of age should be encouraged to participate in group events that benefit the common good. A social obligation for service to others should be discussed and practiced. Church groups, volunteer organizations, and scouting experiences all provide such an opportunity. Similarly, participation in family activities and individual responsibilities for the betterment of the family (such as chores) should also become part of a routine lifestyle. Children between 9 to 11 years of age are generally less egocentric than when they were younger and as such should find gratification and pleasure helping others.


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How can parents ensure the safety of their preteen?

Preventable injury is the leading cause of death in this age range. Auto accidents account for 21% of all tween deaths, while non-auto accidents (bike, falls, drowning) collectively account for another 16% of deaths in this age group. Most parents are astounded to learn that 6% of all deaths in this age range are the result of suicide. Thus, almost half (43%) of all deaths in this age group are preventable. While peer pressure (for example, not to wear bike helmets) is a certain force, parental pressure (“no helmet, no bike”) generally will prevail.

Any discussion regarding childhood safety must consider the pervasive and potentially corrupting effect of the Internet. Inappropriate web sites, social interactive sites (including Facebook and others), and general overuse must be addressed by parents. Limiting available content, hours of utilization, and time spent are all appropriate parental responsibilities.

Medically Reviewed on 3/18/2021


Medically reviewed by Margaret Walsh, MD; American Board of Pediatrics


American Speech-Language-Hearing Association

Child Development Institute


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