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Your guide to age twelve

This guide is intended to provide some context into what you might expect for neuro-typical twelve-year-old development. Milestones and development are different for everyone.

You officially have an adolescent, whether you believe it or not. Adolescence is defined as the ages 12-18 years. During this year of rapid brain development and emerging self-identity, your 12-year-old can be particularly vulnerable, especially to peer pressure. Remember that, as the intensity of school work ramps up, your adolescent may be able to use logical operations in schoolwork long before they can use them for their personal problems.

As they become increasingly focused on their social world and who they are as adults, they need you, parents and caregivers, to help them find their way. Even though they might not admit it to you, many adolescents may have mixed feelings about growing up. Moodiness and hot-and-cold, “I love you,” no, “I hate you” behavior is the norm for 12-year-olds and their parents or caregivers. Resist the urge to get swept up in their emotional mood swings. Instead, try to be a steady, consistent presence — there when they need you.

The major developmental milestones for 12-year-olds

1. Age 12 language and communication milestones

You might think that your middle schooler has all of the language and communication skills they need by now – especially given how much they may text, talk on the phone, and communicate with their friends these days. In fact, brain imaging studies show that adolescent brains continue developing in ways that help with language acquisition and communication skills all the way into the early 20s. The building of more complex brain “wiring” during early adolescence allows your 12-year-old to:

  • Discuss, read, and write about abstract ideas.
  • Justify viewpoints and engage in negotiation and persuasion.
  • Develop cohesive, well-thought-out arguments in speech and writing.
  • Use complex and compound sentence structures.
  • Understand sarcasm through intonation and context cues.
  • Select and interpret appropriate non-verbal communication cues (body language), most often with their peers.
  • Use humor for communication with peers 

2. Age 12 social and emotional learning milestones

At this age, the pressure of wanting to fit in and the importance of friends can be all-consuming for your child. Remember that when emotional issues arise, it may be harder for your child to think clearly about some of the more challenging school work middle school serves up. You may observe your 12-year-old:

  • Questioning authority.
  • Testing limits and boundaries.
  • Engaging in risk-taking behaviors.
  • Becoming more introspective, seeking privacy (wanting to spend more time alone in their room with their door closed).
  • Focusing more on themselves — going back and forth between high expectations and a lack of confidence.
  • Having frequent ups and downs in mood, even experiencing anxiety, depression, or eating disorders.

3. Age 12 cognitive skills

Each child moves ahead at their own rate in their ability to think more complexly. Bad grades or school struggles may be a sign of a learning disability, attention disorder, or even depression. If you have concerns about your child’s cognitive development, talk with their healthcare provider and teachers. By age 12, your child may be:

  • Using more complex thinking processes (questioning and analyzing with “deep thoughts”).
  • Beginning to question authority and society’s standards.
  • Thinking about and beginning to form their own code of ethics (“What do I think is right?”)
  • Getting a sense of their own identity (“Who am I? “)
  • Thinking about possible future goals (“What do I want?”)
  • Thinking about and beginning to make their own plans.
  • Able to think long-term but still struggle to connect their actions with future consequences.

4. Age 12 physical development and motor skills

It might seem like your 12-year-old is shape-shifting, seemingly growing and changing right before your eyes. Remember the rapid change can be as confusing for them as it is for parents and caregivers. Changing bodies can be even more complicated for nonbinary or transgender adolescents. Check in with your gender-questioning tween and connect with them supportive doctors, nurses, counselors, and teachers with their permission. Your child at age 12:

  • Will be starting puberty or it will be well underway. Puberty can start as early as age 9, so it’s never too early to start talking about this experience. 
  • The first signs of puberty are larger testicles or breast buds.
  • First periods (called menarche) typically occur somewhere between 12 and 13, but again can happen years earlier for some children. 
  • Will experience growth spurts once puberty begins.
  • May need glasses, so make sure to have their vision checked at least once a year.
  • May look very different from their peers – kids go through puberty at different ages and rates, so there will be a broad range of sexual maturity and growth patterns among your 12-year-old’s classmates.

Vaccines for 12-year-olds

Vaccines protect your adolescent from serious illnesses, so it’s important that your child get them on time. Between ages 11 and 2, your child should receive vaccines to protect them from the following diseases:

  • Meningococcal disease (one dose of MenACWY vaccine)
  • Human Papilloma Virus, HPV (two doses of vaccine, prevents cancer and genital warts)
  • Tetanus, diphtheria, and whooping cough (pertussis) (one dose of Tdap vaccine)
  • Influenza (Flu) (one dose of vaccine every year)
  • COVID-19 (according to current CDC recommendations)

If your child has missed any vaccines or is off schedule, they can “catch up” to get back on track. You can discuss the recommended vaccine schedule with your healthcare provider.

Healthy eating and activity for 12-year-olds

Your 12-year-old may be eating more meals away from home than when they were younger, so eating on the go may become the new norm for your family. Their peers (and advertising via social media) also drive their food choices. Some guidelines for healthy eating and activities for 12-year-olds are:

  • Eat together as a family as much as possible to support positive eating behaviors and more face-to-face conversations with your tween.
  • Serve your tween a well-balanced diet with protein, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. Keep language around food neutral, labels like “good,” “bad,” “junk,” or even “super healthy” can put pressure on tweens to eat a certain way.
  • If your child’s BMI is outside a designated range, healthcare providers may use terms like overweight or obese. Here is how to find a provider who meets their needs or have conversations about how you’d like the discussion of weight handled. 
  • The rapid body changes during puberty can trigger feelings of insecurity or even disordered eating
  • Encourage your tween to drink water regularly during physical activity or sports, especially in hot or humid weather.
  • Try to offer your family 5 servings of fruits and vegetables daily.
  • Limit 100% juice to no more than 4–6 ounces (120–180 ml) a day.
  • Remind your tween to brush twice daily, floss once daily, and visit the dentist at least once a year for check-ups. Their dentist will refer them to an orthodontist if they need braces.
  • Help your teen find a sport or activity they love, encourage a variety of activities to expand their choices and social situations.
  • Your teen should get between 9-12 hours of sleep every night. 

Keeping your 12-year-old safe

Adolescents are often faced with situations for which they may not be prepared. The less prepared they are, the more likely it is they will take risks, such as trying alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs or engaging in unprotected sex. Talk with your pre-teens ahead of time about how to avoid risky situations and how to stay safe if they find themselves outside of their comfort zone.

  • Seatbelts save lives. Remind your teen that motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death among 12- to 14-year-olds.
  • Teach your teen to always wear a helmet and mouthguard when appropriate for the sport or activity. Talk with them about the dangers of a concussion and encourage them to report their concussion symptoms to you and their coach immediately.
  • Protect your child from secondhand smoke.
  • Teach them about the dangers of vaping nicotine or marijuana.
  • If you have a gun, keep it unloaded and locked away. Talk to your 12-year-old about never playing with any firearms and the danger of accidental injury.
  • Self-harm (or cutting) is on the rise in teens. If you suspect that your teen is self-harming, or if they tell you they are, seek help and support from a trained mental health provider and your pediatrician.
  • Watch for signs of depression or anxiety. Talk with your teen about how they are coping with difficult feelings or emotions. Try to get a sense of how overwhelmed or hopeless they might be feeling (see questions below).
  • Keep in close communication with teachers, other school employees, and parents of your child’s friends so you are aware of possible problems. Even if they say they don’t want your presence, be there!
  • Talk about sex and healthy sexual relationships. Social media and their peers may not be giving them accurate or helpful information about sexually transmitted infections (STIs), birth control, or dating.
  • Your child should apply sunscreen of SPF 30 or higher at least 15 minutes before going outside and reapply about every 2 hours.

Healthy screentime

Tweens spend about an average of an hour and a half on social media every day. They spend even more time watching online videos on platforms like YouTube or TikTok. Your tween’s overall health partially depends on you helping them spend an appropriate amount of time on screens. Too much media use can interfere with getting enough exercise, doing homework, being with friends, and spending time with family. It also can contribute to obesity, attention and learning problems, and sleep problems

Alternatively, for some tweens, social media can be a powerful place of community. So the “right” amount of screen time will vary.

  • Have ongoing communication about digital citizenship and safety. Set some basic rules of social media use for your middle schooler.
  • Parental controls can help you monitor and decide which content your 12-year-old watches.
  • Know your child’s friends, both online and off.
  • Common Sense Media has age-based reviews of the content appropriateness of video games and other media that can help you choose what to media your 12-year-old watches.
  • While it may be tough to keep all screens out of your teen’s bedroom, start by not putting a television in their room and creating a “media curfew” at mealtime and bedtime (all devices need to be out of sight with notifications turned off or put away).
  • Develop a family media plan with your 12-year-old to help them feel like they have a say in regulating their own screentime healthy behaviors.
  •  Try to model healthy electronics use yourself.
  • Talk to your teen about pornographyteens report feeling better about themselves and sex if they are able to talk with a trusted adult before being exposed to pornography.

Conversation starters and parenting hacks for your 12-year-old

There isn’t a right or wrong way to approach conversations with your 12 year old. The important thing is just that you try! Leading with curiosity and avoiding judgment are some starting points for any chat. Don’t know what to say to something they bring up? You can always say you need to find out more for them or just say “Wow!” and let them keep on going. Questions to ask your 12-year-old:

  • Do you ever feel uncomfortable, worried, sad, or anxious when you are online? If they answer yes, then ask: What makes you feel that way?
  • Have you ever had to experience bullies at school (or online)? What happened, and how did it make you feel? Did you talk to anyone about it?
  • Do you think any of your friends have ever carried a gun? How does practicing active shooter or school-lockdown drills at school make you feel?
  • How old do you think you have to be to learn to drink safely?
  • What do you think has been the hardest thing you have ever done?
  • If two people like each other romantically, do you think you still should ask for their consent before trying to kiss?
  • What kind of a parent do you think you will be?
  • What were the most memorable family trips we’ve taken so far? Which specific memories stand out from them?

Ways to help them grow and develop:

  • Encourage and support your 12-year-old’s interest in cooking, or nutrition so they can practice their skills and find joy in the kitchen.
  • Teach your child how to track their periods (and period-related symptoms) on a calendar, planner, or app. Tracking periods helps your teen learn what’s normal — and what’s not — for their period. Periods tend to be more irregular in terms of cycle length and flow for the first 1-2 years after starting menstruating. The Ovia Cycles app has an option for cycle tracking. 
  • Have fair and predictable consequences for rule-breaking. Having family meetings to brainstorm and agree upon a list of family norms and expectations can help keep everyone accountable and on the same page. 
  • Celebrate the times and situations when your 12-year-old makes good decisions or really tough ones.
  • Look for teachable moments in TV shows, ads, or videos as opportunities to talk about sexuality, drugs and alcohol, race, gender identity, or other sensitive subjects with your 12-year-old.
  • Be open to questions about gender identity and sexuality. Encourage your child to bring questions or concerns to you.
  • Give your 12-year-old a doable chore or job you know they can complete to build their self-esteem. For example, teaching them how to mow the lawn or bake cookies gives them a chance to succeed, feel more independent, and adult-like.
  • Building confidence may look different than you think. Confidence grows when tweens can trust their emotions and how they feel to make decisions. Supporting their feelings and decisions now goes a long way to being resilient to pressure later on. 
  • Make family traditions of celebrating milestones or holidays to reinforce family bonds.
  • Ask your teen what they know and think about drug use, drinking alcohol, smoking, and sexual behavior. Listen to what they say and answer their questions honestly and directly. Avoid judgements or punishments for worries or tough situations they bring to you. Remember, it is always ok to say, “I don’t know. Let’s learn more about that together. I’m on your team.”

Reviewed by the Ovia Health Clinical Team


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