Early Adolescence (11-13 years old)
Youth ages 11 to 13 often experience rapid changes in height, weight, and physical appearance.
In this stage, youth typically experience a heightened awareness of their body and how it is changing. Girls often experience physical changes earlier than boys, but both boys and girls tend to be curious about how their bodies are changing. These physical changes can create awkwardness and insecurity, especially when youth compare themselves to their peers as they begin to socialize more with the opposite sex. Girls and boys tend to be sensitive to media messages about bodies and many experience anxiety about their appearance. The popular media provides girls with unrealistic images of body size and shape, and boys with idealized representations of muscular male body types. When young people try to achieve these body types, it can lead to problematic behaviors.
Provide support to your mentee if he is having difficulty with the physical changes of early adolescence. Remind him that everyone develops differently and at his own pace. Changes in hormones can also contribute to mood swings and make youth vulnerable to bouts of low self-esteem. While children at this stage desire independence, they still need their parents’ help, and can benefit from the support and encouragement of a mentor.
Young adolescents begin to explore their sexual interests.
During this stage, youth become curious about sexuality and may begin exploring their sexual interests, which can stir up many emotions. According to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, 46 percent of students entering high school are sexually active. Most youth are uncomfortable discussing issues of sexuality with an adult.
If you are mentoring a child in this age group, it may be helpful to talk with your case manager so that you can understand your mentee’s family’s values related to sexuality issues. It is important to be understanding and respectful of these values, even if they are not in harmony with yours. For example, while you may believe that parents should discuss sexuality with their adolescents, some parents choose not to do so. Your goal is to seek to understand your mentee and avoid judgment. However, if your mentee raises questions about sexuality with you, or if you have concerns about her safety or well-being, be sure to speak with staff of your mentoring program.
It is helpful for mentors to know if their mentee has been sexually abused. Youth who have been sexually abused may respond to puberty in a variety of ways. Some girls become overly promiscuous and exhibit sexualized behavior, making them vulnerable to further abuse. Others with sexual abuse histories may respond by exhibiting poor hygiene or gaining a great deal of weight—two strategies for keeping others at bay. It’s not unusual for teens to believe that others can “see” that they have been abused and are judging them. Children often blame themselves for the abuse and, as a result, may have low self-esteem and negative feelings about their body.
This stage comes with a greater level of intellectual independence.
Young adolescents take greater responsibility for planning and evaluating their own work and may start to reject solutions from adults (including you) in favor of their own ideas. As they begin to think more abstractly and hypothetically, youth become more able to use logic and can better understand how cause and effect works. They are also more adventurous and interested in trying new things. Use this opportunity to encourage your mentee to get involved with clubs or groups at school or in the community that will engage her abilities and interests. Running for school office or joining an after-school club can be a great chance for her to develop her strengths.
Youth who have experienced trauma may be too anxious or depressed to muster the interest or energy to explore new activities. Gently encourage these youth to get involved—participating in extracurricular activities can provide a big boost to a young person’s self-confidence.
Early adolescents are typically concerned with how others perceive them.
Looking the right way and saying the right things in order to be accepted suddenly become much more important, as youth move away from depending on adults and become more concerned with the opinions of their peers. Status within one’s social circle becomes increasingly important. Many youth ages 11 to 13 spend more time away from home, hanging out with friends. Some begin to test authority as they strive for independence. This is a great time to allow your mentee to assume more of a decision-making role in your relationship.
Youth in unstable environments may have difficulty forming peer relationships.
Early adolescence can be a difficult time for youth in vulnerable situations, such as those who have an incarcerated parent, live in a foster home, or are involved with the juvenile justice system. They are likely to have caregivers who are ill-equipped to provide care that will facilitate positive youth development. Without secure family relationships, these youth turn to their peers for support, but they may have a hard time forming healthy relationships with peers, or may gravitate to peers who are involved in violence or alcohol and other drug use. Consistent adult recognition and support are essential for these young people.