My son has just turned 10 years old, and he has become so selfish in the past six months. We have always taught our children to think of others and not just themselves. He's a good boy, but this is breaking my heart. Any suggestions?
-- K. Hensley, Phoenix, Ariz.
Prepare for puberty. Behavior you probably thought was a couple of years away has already started, and parents and experts say it's all part of growing up.
Researchers find that the average age when girls begin menstruation has been dropping steadily at a rate of 3 1/2 months per decade. Today, the average age for a girl's first period is 12.
"That means for most children, puberty begins two years earlier, at age 10," says Gail A. Caissy of Clarence, N.Y., author of "Early Adolescence: Understanding the 10 to 15 Year Old" (Insight Books, $26.95).
"The change in children's behavior catches a lot of parents off guard because there are no glaring outward physical traits of puberty at this early point," says Ms. Caissy, an educational consultant who leads workshops on adolescence.
The onset of puberty is earlier for today's boys, too, but researchers study girls because there's an obvious event to measure. For boys, physical signs include rapid gains in weight and height, the development of facial and pubic hair and the enlargement of reproductive organs.
For parents, the first thing to do is get an understanding of what early adolescence is all about. You'll probably also have to make some adjustments of your own.
"Cut the kid some slack," says Barb Kreuze, a parent from Minneapolis. "Boys who are 10 to 13 can be really gross creatures, and the more you push at them, the worse they get."
That's because from about age 10 to the end of year 14, Ms. Caissy says, adolescents are going through a difficult period when their entire view of the world -- and their concept of themselves -- changes.
"The main task of this four-year period is for them to develop an identity of their own that is separate from their parents and other adults," Ms. Caissy says. "They begin to look inward to see who they are and what is their role in the world."
Along with this inward focus comes experimenting with different hair and clothing styles, and a tendency to monopolize the bathroom and telephone with little regard for the needs of others.
"At this stage, they have an intense preoccupation with themselves," Ms. Caissy says. "They also assume other people are as preoccupied with them as they are."
Knowing that the behavior is normal should take some of the pressure off parents.
"Parents continue to be an important source of values, and most children will eventually revert back to what you taught them," Ms. Caissy says. "So you need to continue to remind your children of your values, but don't nag."
This middle ground is what to strive for.