Personality Development During the Tween Years

How Do Tweens Discover Their Personalities?

Children decoraging Easter eggs
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It can be bewildering to watch your tween go through the process of personality development. One day they’re obsessed with soccer and crushed about being criticized by their soccer coach. The next day they couldn’t care less if soccer existed and are instead preoccupied with learning to play the guitar. And the shifts go on and on. According to personality theorist Erik Erikson, this all happens with good reason.

Erikson Theory of Personality Development

Psychologist Erik Erikson believed that we go through specific personality conflicts at each stage in our lives. The way we resolve each crisis shapes our personality. If the crisis resolution goes well, we develop an “ego strength”; or a sense of competency we carry throughout life. If the crisis doesn’t get resolved well, we may carry a sense of failure with us into adulthood. Each time your pre-teenager tries to resolve one of these conflicts, she’ll be greatly influenced by social experiences related to that issue (e.g., comments from friends, feedback from a coach or even just doubting looks from a parent).

The First Personality Development Conflict of the Tween Years

The tween years touch two of Erikson’s stages of development. The first stage is industry versus inferiority, which stretches from about five to 11 years of age. This conflict appears as children enter school and begin to directly compare themselves to peers.
Up until this point, they believed it when relatives said they were “the best” or “the cutest.” Now young tweens see the evidence right before their eyes:  they aren’t the best at everything (or maybe, sadly, at anything). That’s why they get so upset when a coach corrects their form or a friend notices that they flunked a math test :  these comments strike at their most pressing personality issue.

Supporting During the First Personality Conflict

Simply being aware of the first personality conflicts is a great start to supporting your young tween’s personality development.
Avoid criticizing them about their struggles with academics, sports or making friends. Rather than simply pointing out areas of weakness, provide strategies and support for improvement. Meanwhile, encourage your tween to continue activities that he or she is good at and make it clear that you believe those activities are worthwhile.

The Second Personality Development Conflict of the Tween Years

At the end of the tween years, children begin to shift into Erikson’s identity vs. role confusion stage, which lasts from about 12 to 18 years of age. The goal of this conflict is to figure out who we each are. The way tweens and teens do this is by trying on different roles. This is why they’re may dress punk one week, surfer chic the next and emo the week after that:  they don’t know who they are yet and they want to see what fits.

Supporting During the Second Personality Conflict

You can support your tween’s personality development by refraining from teasing about his or her changing interests, desires and ways of dressing.
These changes are not only an acceptable part of tween life, they’re healthy! You could even encourage your child to try out various activities without fear of punishment if they decide to quit. This may feel uncomfortable if you want to teach your tween about commitment. Note, though, that overemphasizing commitment can disrupt the necessary process of role exploration. Use your intuition and your tween’s emotions as a guide and you’ll almost certainly find the right balance between commitment and exploration. Your tween won’t only feel better in the moment, but will have a stronger personality to boot!

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