Focus Area 2: Youth Development
3. The Pre-teen Years: Ages 10 to 12

The pre-teen years are when youth start to move from childhood to having a more adult view of the world. It’s a world they will clearly want to - or will be forced to - join in the near future. The state of the world, as well as the state of adult relationships and adult life surrounding them will be of great interest to them and influence them in making up their mind as to whether or not adulthood is desired.

Eleven-year-olds can frequently be the most vulnerable of this group, while ten and twelve-year-olds tend to be less worried and more confident. However, all three ages share a view of achieving adulthood from this particular "developmental hill."


In addition to the three developmental channels you just learned about for the middle childhood years, a very important new channel comes into play in the pre-teen years. As puberty begins, the Physical and Sexual Development channel will present new challenges for the young person dealing with rapid changes in their body. 

Social/Emotional Development

The world is becoming a more complex place for the pre-teen, which is influenced by the onset of puberty. Common facets of social and emotional development include:

  • Ten and eleven-year-olds may well have a ‘best’ friend with whom they share activities, but at the same time relationships at school will become more complicated, competitive, and changeable. This can be particularly true for girls whose group relationships tend to be more up and down compared to boys. Boys at this age tend to be more focused on the details of what they are doing rather than with whom they are doing it.
  • By eleven years of age, the pre-teen is much more interested in and affected by the norms of their friends. They may begin to worry that their clothes aren’t ‘cool’ enough and at the same time lose interest in family activities that they adored and needed at nine (e.g. picnics, outings, holidays)
  • Although eleven and twelve-year-olds may want to begin doing things more independently, and they do need to stretch their wings a little bit, they are certainly not as capable of dealing with the world as some of them would have you believe or as they sometimes think themselves.

This can be a difficult time for some parents and caregivers, as their pre-teen children become more independent and less welcoming of the love and care they had been pleased to receive over the past ten years.

Physical and Sexual Development

During the pre-teen years, a youth’s body will begin to change shape. This can be an awkward time for them and they will benefit from having positive support from the caring adults in their life who can help them understand and navigate these big changes more easily.

  • The physical and sexual development of girls:

Girls will begin developing breasts and hips will begin to take shape at age ten or eleven. Some girls also begin to menstruate at eleven or twelve years of age, although eleven years of age is an early start for a first period.

While their bodies may be changing, some girls are not always emotionally prepared or willing to welcome these signs of physical maturity. Her biology demands that she be a woman soon - whether she likes it or not! When her periods begin, a girl may be proud and excited to be growing up or she may, in the back of her mind, be anxious about approaching adolescence and the complications that this introduces into her life.

How a girl feels about these physical changes can be strongly affected by her impression of how well adult life has treated her mother and the women close to her. Womanhood may seem rich and pleasurable or it may appear to be scary and hard. 

  • The physical and sexual development of boys:

Boys tend to mature physically a little later than girls, so the physical changes and emotional challenges at this age are not so dramatic for boys. However around twelve years of age, some boys may begin masturbating and experience nocturnal emissions.

Associated with physical and sexual development is the desire of boys to compete. Boys of this age are often very competitive. Success at sports or his social position on the playground may be close to a boy's heart and a source of concern for him. 

Cognitive Development

With the cognitive gains they are making, pre-teens can be interesting and funny to be with. For example:

  • Around eleven years of age, pre-teens not only start to take account of the bigger picture but they also develop a capacity to reason and work things out that they didn't have before.
  • Many will be preparing to go to high school and school work will take on a new seriousness. This will challenge them to think for themselves.
  • The pre-teen years can include some cheeky 'smart talk' that they didn't do at age ten.

Relationships with Parents

Because eleven or twelve-year olds may be making their first efforts at independence, this can change their relationships with parents. Boys may move away from a close relationship with their mother. Girls who have had a good relationship with their father may become a little emotionally distant with them.

In a “traditional” two-parent family, the other parent may take up the slack. For example, some mothers and daughters begin to enjoy a new period of closeness and the same for fathers and sons.

It may be different however for a single parent and can be a challenging time. Additionally, parents who do not have an emotional relationship with a partner and have put all their emotional energy into raising their child may encounter some difficulties.

Promoting Achievement of Milestones in Pre-Teen Years

As a youth worker, you can play a role in helping pre-teen youth through this time of rapid change in their physical being and in their social/emotional needs. For example, you can provide youth in this age range with:

  • A willing listener they can trust with their questions about puberty and what they are experiencing as their body changes.
  • Opportunities to safely stretch their comfort zone as they test their increasing desire for independence.
  • Activities that give them opportunities to help others in need will help them learn respect for others.
  • Involvement in tasks like setting up for group activity or cleaning up at the end of the day’s program, to help them develop a sense of responsibility.
  • Opportunities to read every day.

Summary for the Pre-Teen Years

  • Between ten and twelve years old is generally a time when children get a view of approaching adulthood.
  • There are important physical and sexual changes during the pre-teen years, especially for girls.
  • Social relationships can be unsettled for girls and very competitive for boys.
  • Activities, sports, and clubs can help pre-teens to feel good about themselves and form safe relationships outside the family.
  • Pre-teens still need guidance and safe limits set by adults, but they also need to be a little more independent. 


Pre-teens may or may not be good company at this stage, but they need adults as much as they ever did in their younger years! Additionally, with their interest in trying out their independence, it is good for adults to check out situations to make sure they are safe before the young person goes off on their own.

As a youth worker, what you can do is:

  • Encourage them to engage in some physical activity that will help them to keep a good relationship with their body.
  • Remember that not all kids like team sports. Offer other options such as walking in the outdoors, swimming, and skate boarding, etc.
  • Notice how they are responding to the changes in themselves and their friends.
  • Look after yourself and do what you can to make adulthood look attractive to the young person.
  • Don’t panic if an eleven or twelve-year-old wants some distance from you.
  • Continue setting limits for safety reasons and take an interest in where they are going and what they are doing.
  • Encourage their relationships with immediate and extended family and other families.
  • When you praise them, help them think about their own accomplishments, for example, saying “you must be proud of yourself for _______” rather than simply “I’m proud of you.”
Reference Sources
1 Adapted from “Child Development 10-12 Years”, Women and Children’s Health Network (Government of South Australia)
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