By Dr. Patrick Neustatter
When your bathroom is full of deodorants and shaving gear, the fridge is empty, girls are calling and you hardly see your son any more, you know he’s undergoing the typical changes of a tween boy.
“Caleb, age 11, used to take a shower once a week if we were lucky” his mother told me. “But since he figured out girls worry about cleanliness, and he’s noticed he’s getting B.O., our bathroom’s full of Speed Stick and Arid, and he’s in the shower all the time” she told me when I called to ask about parenting tween boys.
As a doctor, I have seen many tween boys in the office, and know about the biology. But being the farther of just girls myself, I had to ask fellow parents to fill me in on the colorful details of bringing up boys.
Sudden awareness of appearance – not to mention body odor – is a normal part of the male development. And just one part of an enormous hormonal/psycho-social transformation that takes place in tween boys as they go through puberty and transition into manhood.
The Testosterone Phase
There’s a lot of ribald humor about hormones, and testosterone in particular. But as puberty starts, around age 8 or 9 years, there is a massive upheaval in the endocrine system, with huge increases in testosterone production in particular, and all the strutting masculinity that this implies.
Testosterone is responsible for all those changes and growth, of muscle, bones, genitalia and hair, producing the secondary sex characteristics that make a man look like a man, and male physiognomy different from females – in contrast to our pre-pubertal bodies.
All this growth needs fueling of course, and the tween years are the beginning, if not the zenith, of the bottomless pit/hollow leg syndrome – where the boy just can’t get enough to eat. “He can eat a huge meal, and half an hour later be back in the kitchen making a sandwich” one parent told me.
One point worth making is that there’s great variability in when boys go through their growth spurt – and this leads to a lot of anguish amongst the “late bloomers”, who can continue to be dwarfed by the girls even into the 8th grade. But true growth problems are very rare.
Together with physical changes, come some profound changes in brain development and mentality.
“He’s more likely to talk back, or at least negotiate things like bed time and X-Box use”, I was told by the mother of twelve-year-old Sean. And she notes his increasing independence. “He’s hardly ever home. He’s over at his friends house, out riding his four wheelers, doing Tai Kwando . . . . .who knows what” she noted, in a slightly desperate tone.
Sean has also developed that typical self-awareness, like Caleb. Tweens have the feeling of having an audience watching at all times, which makes them so conscious of their appearance – and also so acutely aware of, and so often embarrassed by, their parents.
The belief used to be that all the brain development that was going to happen had occurred by age five, notes Sarah Blakemore, a neuroscientist at University College London, writing about brain development. But “the brain continues to undergo a massive wave of development at the onset of puberty and continues right through adolescence and into the early twenties and even thirties in some brain areas,” she notes.
Our pre-frontal cortex is the most “adult” part of our brain. This part controls logic and allows us to make reasoned judgements. Tweens are beginning to use their frontal lobes. They are starting to develop improved sophistication in reasoning, and appreciation of consequences – though when they act like they are invulnerable, you might be forgiven for not believing this.
In psychological terms, this is known as the “Personal Fable” in which tweens think they are invulnerable as well as special. They overestimate the rewards and underestimate the consequences of their actions and have this “I’m so special” attitude – which may be a little hard to take, but is at least a sign of normal development.
The part of the brain that is undergoing the most development in tweens is the limbic system – which controlls emotion. Studies using brain scans have shown that rather than making rational decisions with their frontal lobes, tweens decision making is highly influenced by emotion and the limbic system.
Helping Your Tween through it All
As noted, there are lots of changes as your son goes from little boy to hulking teenager. Anything you can do to promote the health of body and mind will help.
This usually means just attending to the basics that we health care professionals are forever carping about – diet, exercise, sleep, rest and social support.
Tween boys are usually pretty active, and many are into formal sport, so exercise is usually not such an issue – though a lot of screen time can seriously cut into this.
Diet is usually pizza, pizza and pizza – and not a lot of vegetables. But it should contain plenty of protein for all that growth. Fruit, veggies and fiber are good for tweens like anyone else – and don’t let them get in the habit of sugar/sodas/candy/cakes etc which will make them fat later on when their metabolism slows down.
Probably one of the most important things is enough sleep. Left to their own devices, many tweens boys – like girls – will defer sleeping to watch TV, play computer games and be on their cell phones. They need 9 to 10 hours sleep a night – whatever they think.
Relaxation is also important. In this day and age, kids of all ages tend to be overscheduled. But some down time, with no specific activity is good for mental health.
So also is talking to your tween. Discussing hot button issues, like sex, relationships, bullying, discipline. It is constructive to their self esteem for their parents to take time to listen, and let them voice their opinion.
In the literature, tween boys – in contrast to tween girls – almost seem to be overlooked. The lost generation. But, as noted, it is a time of enormous and profound change, and worthy of parent’s attention and understanding.
Dr. Patrick Neustatter, a retired Fredericksburg physician, directs the Moss Free Clinic.