A mother recently told me that her eleven-year-old daughter is starting middle school in the fall. There was an open house for the school in the spring, and they decided to make it a family affair and take a warm evening walk there together.
As they walked onto the school grounds, they heard the hum of an open house and saw teachers, administrators, students, and families heading into classrooms. With her head up high and her tall, lanky body in command, the daughter marched across the yard toward the sixth grade wing, her family in tow. She had been there before and she knew where she was going.
As they walked across the yard, the mom noticed two older girls—maybe eighth graders—standing together talking. Like her daughter, the girls had dressed for the occasion. As her daughter passed them, the mom noticed that one of the girls glared at her daughter and rolled her eyes with a sneer. The daughter didn’t notice; her gazelle-like body moved confidently as she headed toward what she hoped would be her future classroom. But the mom saw the roll in the older girl’s eye, the lip that curled up into a snarl, and the neck that jerked back, asking, Who do you think you are, newcomer?
Is this what middle school will be?—the mother thought. A place where young women sneer and snarl when they worry they’re not the prettiest on the yard, the most fit in gym class, or the most confident of them all?
The challenges for preteen and adolescent girls
The reality is that preadolescence and early adolescence can be challenging times. Girls at this age can be jealous, angry, and mean; they become grumpy with their parents and siblings. They belittle or reject each other for the shoes they decide to wear, the neighborhood they live in, what they bring for lunch, and the music they like to listen to. These changes happen for a reason. When we understand what makes this time so difficult for girls, we can be better poised to help them through it.
The double whammy of disrespect as a child and as a female
By the time they are ten, many girls have endured a decade of being dismissed, disrespected, and mistreated. Is it any surprise, then, that they start extending this same disrespect to other people?
For one thing, young girls and young boys alike endure arbitrary mistreatment simply for being young people. Children are bombarded with the messages that they are not smart enough and that their thoughts and ideas are not taken seriously. The disrespect of young people sets in early—when adults whisk a baby away from her bouncy chair without telling her where we are going; when we laugh at a young girl’s suggestion or her attempt to take part in an adult conversation.
For a girl, the experience of having her ideas not taken seriously and her dreams and big ideas squelched is often more profound, because she has also learned from a very young age that being female means her looks matter more than her ideas.
Even if girls are somehow sheltered from the pretty, pink, princesses in childhood, when they hit the preteen years, it becomes undeniably clear that thin and beautiful are in and formulating theories is not. Both girls themselves and everyone else in their lives start to focus on the way their hair falls across their face, the build of their body, and the softness of their skin.
The limitations and disrespect that young women are faced with become internalized, and they begin to treat other young people with the same disrespect that others have shown them.
Holding in the tears
If they were told not to cry in their childhood or shamed for their big emotions (nearly unavoidable in our society), by early adolescence, young people are careful not to show the healing tears or the trembling fears that came more readily to them as young children. For both boys and girls, the expression of emotion becomes more limited as they get older—although girls actually have somewhat more leeway than boys to show how they feel inside.
Losing a sense of play
At the same time, as children get older, they are expected to be more serious and less playful. Our culture views play as something that little kids do. Although some preteens still find ways to play with friends or younger siblings and invent new games, many assert that they are too old for physical play—which is unfortunate, because play can help us through the challenges of adolescence and beyond.
As Patty Wipfler, the founder of Hand in Hand Parenting explains in the booklet Supporting Adolescents: “Goofing around, laughing with friends, creating games and fun out of nothing becomes rare [for adolescents]. This lack of play, laughter, and lighthearted fun robs young people of one of the key ways human beings express their good will and their creativity.”
A brain under construction
Young people also become more volatile because preteen brains undergo such profound transformation. Emotions run high, as people at this age often experience even more extreme emotional fluctuation than they did in childhood. As psychiatrist Dan Siegel notes in Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain, as the pre-frontal cortex is being remodeled, children lose its calming and organizing influence, and instead flare easily. While this restructuring is going on, preteens often express strong feelings and display big outbursts—particularly at home, in the safety of family.
But It’s Not All Downhill From Here!
The good news is that, with this understanding in hand, we can strengthen and nurture our relationships with preteen girls so that they feel safe to show us how they feel and can sort through the challenges of the preteen and adolescent years with our loving support. Despite the challenges, these years can also be an exciting time for young people!
So stay tuned for tips on how to nurture your relationship with the young women in your life...