Ten-year-olds and their changing brains.

July 31, 2009

It might be at nine-years old, it might be at eleven, but somewhere around ten years of age children’s brains change in a significant, but often overlooked way.  It’s at this stage that the brain’s cells begin to develop a sheathing along their bodies, a bit like bark developing on a tree trunk; this new development makes the brain a little less open to new connections and much faster along the connections it has built.  This change has important implications for learning, but also for feeling.

One result of this change is that the brain is now able to begin to engage more effectively in abstract thinking (i.e. symbolic representation).  This neurological step, sort of like an invisible foreshadowing of the more obvious changes that happen in puberty, helps explain why children who learn a language earlier than nine or ten can speak like a native, while those who learn a new language after this period will always have some give-away trace of an accent.  You could also think of this enhanced brain speed a bit like a faster level computer; the child who could manage multiplication and division, can now begin to work at algebra (although just begin) since it depends on symbolic representation (i.e. x=?) which requires this faster sort of brain to grasp fully.  Of course the brain develops these changes slowly, and children have an uncanny way of understanding algebra on Tuesday and then not getting it on Wednesday… and grasping it after-all on Thursday.

This sheathing of neurons (called myelination) also changes a child’s ability to use good judgement, but the patchy quality of this process means that one minute things are working at a sophisticated level, and the next moment they are working at an eight-year-old level (which helps explain why teens seem like they are solid, and then do seemingly foolish/dangerous things).  The long and patchy time it takes for this sheathing process to become complete (i.e. in the early to mid twenties) helps account for how challenging it is too parent teenagers.

On the emotional front, as far as ten-year-olds go, one key thing to keep in mind is that around this age I’ve seen many kids develop a deepening sense of angst, alienation and despair (from mild to severe).  As a child who is “different” develops the mental capacity to understand their relationship to the group, and the ways in which they may not “fit in,” the capacity for deeper suffering emerges along with the ability to do higher math.  And while we expect these feelings to emerge along with body-hair, they are often subtle but overlooked in the years preceding puberty.  

Given that all kids feel “different” to some extent, and now that their self-concept is paired with a more powerful imagination (with which they can conjure awful scenarios of misery all the more vividly), they can suddenly seem very moody, disturbed and more remote around this age.  They may also, due to the very patchy nature of things, only intermittently be able to explain anything about their own process.  When this stage coincides with outer disruptions, like moving or parents’ splitting up, they may experience these things more trenchantly.

And since one of the hallmarks of angst and alienation is feeling alone and like no one truly understands us (most of us grown-ups are well acquainted with this feeling, which is ironic because we tend to think that it’s just us), we serve our ten-year-olds by deepening our compassion for how truly and deeply they may feel their human condition.

So, let’s dedicate today to giving another, softer and more insightful look to the nine, ten and eleven year olds in our lives, and in our collective world (and to sending love back to the kids we were, however misunderstood, when we were this age).

Namaste, Bruce

{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

Laurie July 31, 2009 at 12:55 pm

We just moved and my 10 year old is happy go-lucky one minute and then I say one wrong thing and he’s glaring at me. Thank you for reminding me how difficult this is for their beings. It’s hard on my being and I’ve got 40 years on him: )

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privilegeofparenting July 31, 2009 at 1:15 pm

Here’s to you, and your ten-year-old.

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Larry Gold August 2, 2009 at 11:19 am

I sense in my 12 year old daughter that movement back and forth between understanding abstract concepts at times and then not at others. I also see this in her ability and willingness to talk about her feelings, especially when they are uncomfortable for her. Thanks for the compassion reminder for her and myself. I do remember how tough it was at that age.

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privilegeofparenting August 3, 2009 at 1:13 am

namaste.

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Anonymous May 6, 2012 at 12:51 am

Dear Bruce

Thank you so much for your beautiful words of such profound wisdom. I am the mother of an exquisitely sensitive 11 yr-old boy. I love him dearly, but find it so difficult to parent him when he is reactive, defiant and moody. I find myself and my issues so often getting in the way causing lots of conflict. Ironically, I am a psychologist and so I’m acutely aware of my failings and the damage it does. It has been so soothing to read some of your blogs. I have Added your website to my home screen and I intend to read all you have written, savoring every word. Discovering your site and reading a few of the blogs has been such a comforting reminder how important it is to maintain a connection with the spiritual. Thank you.

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Bruce May 6, 2012 at 8:23 am

Hi A., What lovely words to receive—and please know that I resonate with them as a psychologist also “acutely aware of my failings.” What excites and inspires me most is what I see as the rising possibility of love as we organically reorganize our human ego-selves in a village direction to facilitate safety (i.e. secure and not disorganized attachment), love (i.e. feeling understood even in our loneliness and despair) and empowerment (i.e. realizing that we all, and ALL of our kids, matter and are precious—but no more or less so than our fellows, including non-humans). While the picture is certainly too big for any of us to hold, the effects of connection, love and community truly feel like what we are most deeply after. And by the way, those sensitive kids, our lovely orchids, have so much to teach us about things we do not yet see or quite feel—but first they have to feel safe, loved and empowered to speak up.

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Nicole July 20, 2012 at 9:09 am

Hi Bruce,

Just happened upon your site while searching for something and wow! Words of wisdom everywhere.

This one though hit home – household with 3 boys – having both a 10 & 11 yr old (soon to be 12) I can relate to each and every word. I always equated high drama, emotional outbursts and sullen moodiness more to the female beings…and the high volume, high activity levels etc with the male species. BOY, was I mistaken. While it may not be to the same level of some of their female counterparts – they certainly have delved into all of the above categories…as well as the high volume and activity levels.

This was a great read. Thanks for it and for helping us understand the connections with our children – how we can better ourselves, through them and with them.

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Bruce July 20, 2012 at 6:13 pm

Hi Nicole,

Thanks so much for taking the time to share such kind words back with me. Here’s to love, compassion and understanding for all or our kids, and for all us parents too :)

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Vedha February 16, 2013 at 8:58 am

Hi Bruce.
Am Vedha from India. I shell shocked to read your article because you have exactly answered to my query even before asking. I typed “handling the 10 – 12 years ” because I am a math teacher of a renowned school and I really found it difficult to make algebra enter their head and they simply have an aversion towards it , however interestingly i try to teach. I wanted to know why and I got the answer. Now, may i ask for more please can you let me know how do we find a solution or how do we counsell such students.
Thanks and regards
vedha

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Bruce February 16, 2013 at 9:27 am

Hi Vedha,

I am so pleased to hear from you, especially in this time of rising consciousness about women, violence and our global need for connection and compassion.

I fear that your dilemma is that the west has exported the mistaken idea about faster is better, which in education is not at all true. In math we want students who learn to work hard, who learn that if they try and try again (and are not only willing to learn from their mistakes, but taught that actually trying things and learning FROM mistakes is the true essence of learning).

This is how nature constructed the human brain—it is a natural statistician, it does countless trials and learns from success and errors.

In our times a “mistake” is not seen as a teachable feedback, but an emblem of shame. Children “learn” that they must simply “be smart” and this means to already know the answer. If we already know the answer to our question we are just showing off; it’s when we truly don’t know that we are in the realm of discovery and learning.

Also, kids don’t understand why they “need math” it doesn’t seem vital, especially in our age of technology.

So… as an educator you too must employ trial and error, learning from your students where they are at, both in terms of emotional security to try and fail (which shows confidence and self-esteem) and in neurological development (for if a late bloomer’s brain has not myelinated sufficiently then it’s best to drop the complexity back so they build confidence and venture forth from there into the waters of abstraction and symbol).

Finally, since you are teaching at a “renowned school” you must meet the demands of powerful parents who want their children to be groomed for success. In America, at least in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, almost all the children at the renowned private schools have tutoring privately to keep up. The irony is that everyone is getting ready for a world that no longer exists.

I say, be a wonderful teacher by having high expectations of your students, and by deeply believing that they are smart and that they will develop into terrific speakers of the language of math. You must find that middle path between being too easy and too hard.

Maybe, in playful terms, you need to think about Ganesha, remover of all obstacles. What is the obstacle here?

If the obstacle is myelin, confidence or interest on the part of the students, you can be like the mother who literally lends her prefrontal cortex and analytic brain to the infant to make one mental circuit. In this loving relationship the baby grows safe, and from there she explores her world.

Oddly enough, even in math class, it is all about love. You must lend your more developed brain and heart the the noble endeavor of teaching. When the children feel that you are not angry or disappointed, that instead you love them (by which we mean you truly SEE and understand them), they will love math, and you and they will progress.

Please let me know how it goes, for as a teacher you are a culture hero, and you are every bit the parent to these children and your message to me lets me know that.

I send All Best Wishes (for I was a terrible math student all through elementary and high school, and then got top marks in calculus in college, so I know what it is to feel dumb when in truth you are just a late bloomer… and all kids will bloom eventually given enough patience, love and compassion).

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srijana May 30, 2013 at 7:12 pm

hi Bruce, have been reading yr parenting advice?
my 10 yrs old son refused to go for swimming and he is dependent on tuition teacher who come to house for an hour.How can i make him go for swimming and do independent study

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Bruce May 30, 2013 at 9:50 pm

Hi Srijana,

Perhaps a different understanding would help? Instead of “make” him go for swimming, etc. we can try to understand his reluctance. Is it fear? Lack of confidence? Maybe it has to do with his brain needing more time for development in order to feel more capable?

Work with his swim teacher to help develop his self-esteem and reward him/praise him for his efforts. Perhaps his teacher can help make the steps toward independence and mastery of swimming. Maybe self-directed study will take a bit longer, but encouraging more than “making” and exploring his feelings and truly listening to what he says might help you figure out how to best support him.

Good Luck!

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Rebecca March 27, 2014 at 5:38 pm

I read this article to my 10 year old son and it has made a world of difference. He, too, was frustrated at his new impulsive behaviors. Just understanding that his brain is undergoing significant changes has help him to relax and not be so frustrated and in turn, his impulsivity has improved. His frustration was driving some of the impulsiveness.

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Bruce March 27, 2014 at 9:55 pm

Hi Rebecca, Thank you so much for taking the time to leave this comment—I’m really glad your son is feeling a little better :)

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mahezabin October 15, 2014 at 11:04 pm

hi…

My 10 year old son have problem in studies. hes in 5th grade cbse board. problem is he forget things which he has learnt today next day hes blank. Please help me what should i do? should i show him to good nerologist.? i m worried

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Bruce October 16, 2014 at 5:23 pm

Hi Mahezabin,

It would be hard for me to advise you specifically, but it seems that the main question at the moment is: why is your son failing to learn? Is he not able to take the information in? Is he able to take it in but not recall it the next day?

Is he anxious and that is impairing his functioning? Does he have a learning difference related to reading, to math, to cognitive processing?

Is he depressed? Has he encountered any trauma? Has this learning issue come on suddenly or has it been building. Is he simply later in his developing and his not-yet-maturing brain is not yet up to the demands of abstract thinking?

Maybe a conference with his teacher to get more information is a start. Then perhaps an evaluation by a psychologist to evaluate his cognitive functioning would yield a better picture of what’s the matter. This better picture would guide you to get the right resources and support for your kid.

Hope these ideas help. All Best Wishes

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Kris February 8, 2017 at 2:19 pm

Hi Bruce, just a quick note to say thanks for this post (among many)! As a parent of a ten-year old who occasionally makes astoundingly frustrating decisions, this serves as a reminder that I need to be far more vigilant and understanding of what’s going on in a neurological sense.

Your reminder that the enhanced ability to ‘suffer’ (along with trickier mathematics) is a profound point, and such a great reminder to be more generous in my parenting.

Thanks again!

Kris

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Bruce February 8, 2017 at 10:05 pm

Hi Kris,

Thanks for taking the time to leave these kind words. Mostly just sending you and your 10 year old all best wishes :)

Bruce

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Bree February 9, 2017 at 12:08 am

Bruce, I am a single mother with 8yr old and 11yr old, the challenges of managing both when their worlds collide while working through my own inner child at the same time has been the best and worst times of my life. Worst meaning, most painful, challenging and mirror imaging. I have been looking for support in the web world from other parents experiencing similar challenges and this site is the first “real” conversation I have come upon. In that, I thank you and all those responding. I look forward to reading the article above with my son 11 yr, and setting some measurable goals for us to gain confidence and trust once again in one another.

Peace and Carrots
Bree

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Bruce February 9, 2017 at 8:05 pm

Hi Bree,

Thanks you so much for taking the time to leave these kind words. Wishing you and your children all the best :)

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Sharon December 5, 2017 at 7:10 pm

Hi Bruce
I am concerned about my 10 year old’s behaviour at the moment and googled “impulsivity in 10 year old boys” and voila! I found this post. I have retyped this message as I’m not sure what is pertinent and what is not in terms of information about my son versus the problems we are experiencing. In a nutshell he is going through a phase of getting into continual trouble at school for a variety of reasons… mostly his mouth. He is a highly verbal, engaging, funny, confident kid who is making very poor choices when it comes to ‘overly confident’ interactions with his teachers and other children (he has a 16yr old sister whom we have always had frank and open discussions with in front of him…. due to his mature reasoning ability we thought this was okay….but obviously not???). Long story short, he was suspended yesterday from school for playing a game of truth, dare and promise on the bus with a fellow female 5th grade classmate. He somehow thought it perfectly reasonable to ask her as a ‘truth’ if she still had her virginity. She of course, didn’t even know what that was. Sigh. Thankfully he didn’t explain it to her but she went home to her highly conservative church going mother and relayed the conversation. And now I’m sitting at home with my son googling how to help him with impulsivity.
I am terribly concerned that the school now have him labelled as a troublemaker and will be highly sensitive to any other situations that may occur…which I’m sure they will… so I need to understand what is happening inside my boy’s head in order to help him put his better foot forward. Oh did I mention that both my husband and I teach at his school. Sigh. My other huge concern is whether we are getting our response to his poor judgements right. We are sooo disappointed in him. And angry. And embarrassed. And then I read your words that they ‘feel’ so much more deeply these emotions at his age so now I’m worried that he will take our disappointment to heart and it will affect his self-worth. Arggghh. Any suggestions very gratefully received.

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Bruce December 5, 2017 at 8:49 pm

Hi Sharon,

While it would be difficult to offer effective advice, I did want to express support and compassion for your parenting. You sound like loving, engaged and supportive parents and it is hard to tell from the outside looking in whether your son is simply coming into some sexual feelings and not yet knowing how to handle these new emotions, or if he has gotten himself exposed to mature content and is acting out to find out how to deal with both emotions and sexuality in the context of a very confusing culture.

It it further complicated by the fact that you are staff at the very school where he is having some struggles… thus a few ideas:

you and your husband could seek some counseling with the target of parenting your 10 year old, who is different from your daughter, as effectively as possible. This could partly be family therapy (to avoid pathologizing your son).

You could, if it felt safe and if behavior continues to escalate, ask for an IEP to have your son evaluated to rule out depression (as depressed boys tend to show oppositionality) or perhaps some learning differences emerging as the work shifts toward greater abstraction.

If you found my blog post helpful, you might find benefit from my parenting book which is much more comprehensive and organized systemically, and which has chapters on anxiety, self and self-esteem, depression, oppositional behavior and a host of other topics.

https://www.amazon.com/Privilege-Parenting-Bruce-Dolin-ebook/dp/B006VOMQKQ/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1512535660&sr=8-1&keywords=bruce+dolin+privilege+of+parenting

In any event, certainly wishing you and your family all the best :)

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