12-Year-Old Child Development Milestones

Your child's growth and development at age 12

During the tween years, your child inches closer every day to being a full-fledged teenager. Fortunately, all of the changes that go along with the teen years happen slowly, giving you time to prepare.

Typically, 12-year-olds have moments of both acting like the child you have always known and suddenly turning into a little adult right in front of you. Discover how to be prepared for the physical, emotional, social, and cognitive development that happens at this time.

12 year old child development milestones
Verywell / Emily Roberts

12-Year-Old Language and Cognitive Milestones

A 12-year-old’s brain may have stopped growing in size, but it’s nowhere near done developing. Abstract thinking, problem-solving, and logic are all becoming easier. “They show improvement in reasoning and information processing as they continue to mature,” says Chris Cardona-Correa, MD, an adolescent medicine fellow at the University of Minnesota. “The young adolescent may demonstrate the capacity for long-range planning, and the ability to consider other points of view and feelings, and this capacity continues to develop as they grow older."

However, the prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that plays a role in impulse control and organizational skills, is still maturing. So don’t be surprised if your 12-year-old engages in some potentially impulsive behavior.

By 12, most children have a strong command of language and communication skills. They are able to think beyond literal interpretations, and proverbs and idioms won’t fly over their heads anymore. You will probably get your first taste of sarcasm and slang, and they will understand tone, as well as the actual language, in a conversation, says Jen Trachtenberg, MD, a board-certified pediatrician and parenting expert from New York.

Language and Cognitive Checklist

  • Begins a shift from concrete thinking to abstract 
  • Understands and applies logic to situations and problems
  • Becomes aware of the concepts of justice and equality
  • Starts to understand cause-and-effect sequences

12-Year-Old Physical Development

Age 12 is the middle year for when girls typically begin puberty. It's also right at the beginning of the typical age that boys start going through the process as well. However, exactly when puberty begins depends on genetics, sex, and a range of environmental factors.

“Early adolescence is a time of many physical changes,” explains Dr. Cardona-Correa. “At age 12, many adolescents are beginning to show signs of puberty—new smells, hair growth in new places, acne, growth spurts.”

In girls, you will notice breast development, hair growth, and finally the start of menstruation. In boys, puberty begins with the penis and testicles getting bigger, then hair growth in the pubic area and underarms, and then facial hair growth, muscle growth, and then voice deepening.

While these changes are physical, they can have psychological impacts on your 12-year-old, too. “For many adolescents, these changes can be stressful or uncomfortable,” explains Dr. Cardona-Correa. “The physical changes the early adolescent experiences often create a stage of self-focus that itself may lead to concerns and psychological distress.” 

You can support your child through their transition into adolescence by helping them know what to expect and reassuring them about the process. If you haven’t already, now is the time to initiate open conversations surrounding the normal physical changes they will encounter.

Physical Milestones Checklist

  • Begins to show signs of puberty, including menstruation in girls and muscular development in boys
  • Becomes increasingly skilled in sports
  • Goes through a growth spurt

12-Year-Old Emotional and Social Milestones

Teenage emotions are no joke, and you will probably get a taste of the wild ride over the next year. Twelve-year-olds love their parents but want nothing to do with them, and friends become more important than ever. 

“As early adolescents are beginning to separate from family, the adolescent will be more dependent on peer groups for support,” says Dr. Cardona-Correa. “Peer groups are usually associated with strong solitary friendships with the same sex that at times can seem intense.” While same-sex friendships are important, your 12-year-old may also be interested in developing contact with the opposite sex, too.

Around now, your child will begin to explore their sense of personal identity. “[They will begin] exploring topics of interest more in-depth [and have] a more heightened level of self-consciousness, becoming more independent and seeking their own solutions rather than asking adult assistance,” says Dr. Trachtenberg. However, it is still important for them to feel like they belong. This often means finding independence from parents and other family members, but with that comes the risk of peer pressure.

Your child will also start to find their leadership skills and begin to understand the idea of giving back to the community. Encourage these skills by letting them take part in decision-making processes in the home and supporting involvement in community or school activities.

Emotional and Social Checklist

  • Starts to show a rebellious streak
  • Emotions frequently ricochet between happiness and sadness
  • Begins to question family values and develop personal morals
  • Shows concerns about being liked and accepted
  • Fluctuating self-esteem

Other Milestones for Your 12-Year-Old

Many 12-year-olds begin exploring the morals of their peer group. Don't be surprised if your 12-year-old announces they want to adopt a new lifestyle so they can live like their friend's family or that they want to explore a new religion.

Exploring morality is a normal part of the development process. While it's important to explain your morals and establish rules that promote morality in your household, don't worry too much when your child says they don't agree with your beliefs. It's all a part of them developing their own identity.

How to Help Your 12-Year-Old Learn and Grow

It's natural to feel as though your preteen is pulling away from you. However, showing an interest in their friendships, hobbies, and opinions will help you stay connected throughout their transition into adolescence and beyond. "Be present," advises Dr. Trachtenberg. "Have them invite friends to your house, and let them express their individuality without comment or shaming [and] be supportive."

A close connection with your tween will make it easier to tackle any difficult conversations that may come up, such as their growing sexuality. This isn't the time to turn a blind eye, so talk to your child's healthcare provider if you need advice on how to broach the subject of sexuality with your child. "Talk about difficult and often tough topics [frequently]" adds Dr. Cardona-Correa.

Additionally, school may become increasingly challenging for your 12-year-old. Stay in contact with your child’s teachers—without becoming a nuisance—and remain active in their academic life. Don’t wait until the report card comes home with a bad grade to ensure that your pre-teen is performing well academically. If there are academic issues, find the root cause rather than get upset, as it could be anything from an eye problem to a learning disability.

Not only do you want to support your child academically, but also by providing a safe and loving family environment. "Home family routines and family time [are] important," says Dr. Trachtenberg. Create a supportive environment at home while maintaining house rules and responsibilities. Your 12-year-old will likely resent any boundaries you attempt to lay down, so be prepared for push-back. "Be a parent and not a pal," advises Dr. Cardona-Correa. "But choose your battles carefully."

Healthy lifestyle habits continue to be important to your children, such as nutrition, exercise, and sleep. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends eight to 10 hours of sleep for a 12-year-old, so now isn't the time to ditch their bedtime routine. Set clear boundaries for any electronic devices they use and encourage your tween to stay active, even if they’re not into organized sports. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends 60 minutes or more of physical activity per day for tweens.

How to Keep Your 12-Year-Old Safe

Safety goes beyond just the physical at this age. Keep the communication channels open and available to your 12-year-old. Your child is establishing their independence, but that could result in them experiencing situations that they're not ready for or don't know how to deal with. That includes all that goes along with peer pressure and growing up. Let them know that they can always talk to you.

"Communication is key," says Dr. Trachtenberg. "Ask open-ended questions [and] listen, don't just offer advice." Even though your tween is establishing their independence, they still need to know that their parents are available for support. Talk frequently about the things your 12-year-old would like to be able to do on their own and continually make compromises when it feels appropriate.

At 12-years-old, your child may feel uncomfortable or self-conscious about their changing body. While this is common, keep a close eye on any changes in their eating patterns or any signs that they feel negative about their appearance. Eating disorders are common among this age group, so it's important to check in with how your child is feeling.

Of course, screen time continues to be something to monitor during the tween years. Stay in the loop on how much time your 12-year-old is spending on their electronic devices, as well as install parental controls to ensure they only have access to age-appropriate material.

While most tech companies require a minimum age of 13 for users, your child will likely have already broached the topic of social media with you. As well as adhering to company guidelines, other ways to help keep your child safe on social media include setting clear limitations and helping them navigate it in a positive way. But proceed with caution: Once your child has their own social media account, they are then at risk of cyberbullying.

When to Be Concerned

Physical and emotional development don’t always go hand-in-hand when a child is becoming a teenager. Don’t be concerned if your child doesn’t seem emotionally ready for activities that others their age are doing, or vice versa.

"The developmental milestones of adolescence can vary somewhat from person to person," says Dr. Cardona-Correa. "I recommend to parents, whenever there seems to be a concern about behavior or development, to always remember to keep the lines of communication open between you and your adolescent."

That includes staying closely aligned with your tween’s emotional state of mind. Mental health issues, such as depression, can pop up at this time, so it's important to keep an eye out for any warning signs.

"Moodiness is normal, but look out for anxiety, depression, a change in eating [patterns], any sleep issues or isolation from friends," advises Dr. Trachtenberg. Other potentially concerning behavior includes no longer enjoying or refusing to participate in activities they previously enjoyed, sudden rage, or angry outbursts. Any concerns about your 12-year-old’s health or mental well-being should be discussed with a pediatrician or mental health provider.

If you have concerns about a tween’s academic life, such as their inability to keep up in class, schedule an appointment with their teacher. They often have resources to help you and may be able to offer insight that you might not have considered.

A Word From Verywell

Twelve years old is the time to make sure your child has the skills they need to thrive during their teenage years. If they lack social skills, their struggles may become especially problematic when they enter high school.

Proactively look for areas where your child may need some help sharpening their skills. Provide extra support by teaching, guiding, and practicing together. If your support isn’t having an impact, consider seeking professional help.

Originally written by
Amy Morin, LCSW
Amy Morin

Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a psychotherapist, international bestselling author and host of the The Verywell Mind Podcast.

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