Age 12 Is Like a Second Toddlerhood

By

This week, WNYC launched a series called “Being 12,” and they sent Science of Us a video in which they asked 12-year-olds to describe their everyday experiences. (Sample quote: “I’m afraid to even go near girls because I’m afraid they’ll laugh at me. It’s just kind of scary.”)

It’s a nice way to spend seven minutes, if you’ve got seven minutes to spare:

It reminded me of something I’d heard recently about age 12: that one of the reasons early adolescence can be so confusing for both kids and their parents is that it functions as a kind of “second toddlerhood,” a period of massive cognitive growth, largely in communication and abstract thinking. Vassar College neuroscientist Abigal Baird has written about that idea, so I reached out to her to learn more. During both toddlerhood and early adolescence, she said in an email, “the brain is particularly attuned and able to learn a specific set of skills vital to survival, and once the sensitive period has passed, these skills are much more difficult to acquire.”

But in both cases, alongside all these exciting new abilities and skills come a fair amount of frustration and boundary-testing. Science of Us recently chatted with Baird to learn more about the Terrible Twelves.

Can you explain a little more about what you mean when you call early adolescence a “second toddlerhood”?
Adolescence is the socio-cultural package that accompanies puberty. During this time, the adolescent is exceptionally attuned to, and capable of learning about, stimuli that are critical to survival in the adult world. While the immediate goals of adolescent development are unique, a closer look reveals that the systems that are undergoing the greatest changes in the brain are the same that had periods of rapid growth during the toddler years.

At their core, both periods involve major changes to the cognitive processes that support abstract thinking. The most widely recognized expression of this is the massive improvements in the toddler’s ability to generate and comprehend meaningful language. A strikingly similar period of rapid improvement in communication takes place during adolescence, when the individual achieves fluency in social and emotional communication.

Both periods also see an increase in the number of conflicts with parents. This is due in large part to the fast-moving need for (albeit in different forms) independence. 

However, there is one huge difference between these two sensitive periods of development: In adolescence, sex hormones are thrown into the mix! Puberty changes the social context and biology of an adolescent immensely.

What do you expect a second toddlerhood might feel like to the adolescent? 
Both periods are clearly marked by a whole new set of “feelings”— the ability to form your own opinions (toddlerhood) and your own beliefs (adolescence). There’s also the feeling of mastering a new way to communicate: first language in toddlerhood, and slang/text/emoji and tons of nonverbal communication in adolescence. Together, these powers can make you feel newly powerful (and you are) — so this sets up a push for an increase in autonomy, and the desire for greater autonomy is often at odds with parents’ needs to keep their children safe.

I often tell people that this is where the stages diverge sharply, as I have yet to find a way to “teenproof” a house the way we can with toddlers. Parents are placed in the tough spot of being thrilled and proud at seeing these new milestones, but also appropriately frightened as with any new skill (like learning to ride a bike). It comes in fits and starts, and making mistakes and getting hurt is a critically important inevitability.

It’s also interesting to me that a lot of parents change their parenting style for adolescence, and some even try to become “the cool parent” so they can be “friends” with their teen. Just imagine if we tried to relate to toddlers in this way! As hard as it can be, parents have to remain the same people they have always been for their children, because their rapidly developing adolescent needs them — much like they did in their toddlerhood — as a touchstone to push against and test when the world feels like everything is changing.

Is there any reason age 12 might particularly be a year of “second toddlerhood”?
For most children, and especially girls, age 12 often marks the onset of puberty. However, independent of the individual child’s biology, 12 is also when they are about to become a teenager, and the culture around this among their peers is all about preparing for what’s to come.

Unlike the toddler, they have a sense of the fact that they are going to need to learn a lot and not have a lot of time to do it — but just like the toddler, they have no conscious awareness of just how much, and how rapidly, their thinking and behavior is changing. 

We’ve talked about this mostly from the kid’s perspective, but for parents, how are the real toddler years different from the “second” toddler years?
For one, there’s often a lack of peer support. It has always struck me as interesting that we have “Mommy and Me” groups and “coffee clutches” for moms of toddlers to de-stress and share strategies for the Terrible Twos — but once you have a teenager, any stress or difficulty is something stigmatizing that we do not share with other parents. It would be great if our culture were more openly appreciative of the parents of middle- and high-schoolers, who are doing the hard work of letting their teen grow up, every day.