The teenage years now start at 10, with girls navigating a world delivered online with little white space and too much comparison. Anxiety, friendships, body image worries, and a lack of resilience are keeping too many girls awake at night, and they are not always confiding in us.
That’s my take-out after researching TEN-AGER: What your daughter needs to know about the transition from child to teen. It includes the counsel of 500 10-year-old girls, 2000 parents, 100 middle-school teachers and dozens of school principals, counsellors and parenting experts. Here are five lessons as discussion-starters:
FITTING IN AND FRIENDSHIPS
Friendship is the biggest concern for this group, which itself is so varied. Some girls had a Build-A-Bear; others asked whether there would be a chapter on boys. But that need to be like the next girl, or the perfect- looking girl on social media, is driving our children to change who they are and what they believe. The smart phone means many girls haven’t learnt to socialise face-to-face. Educators say this is the generation where pacifiers became smart phones, and we now need to teach them how to be friends. They see friendship akin to a hot chocolate: instant and delicious. Experts told me we need to teach them how to talk to each other, how to set boundaries and how to communicate those in tricky moments. They need to know that friendship takes time and forgiveness when one of their peers makes a mistake. “I find it hard to make friends because I am so worried about if they like me or not,’ Aisha told me. And dozens of others did too.
PUTTING A CEILING ON THEIR OWN POTENTIAL
“I can’t do Maths,’’ girls said repeatedly. “I’m not a science girl.’’ Science girls? Maths girls? Girls repeatedly put a ceiling on their own potential and decide too early what might limit them. Many experts put this down to expectations. “They feel,’’ one told me “even in a small group of four or five, that if they sit at the bottom in marks, the message is clear. I’m not a smart girl. I won’t be doing Maths and Science in high school.’’ Male educators explained this was not the case with boys who often didn’t take results personally. Girls are more likely take on the messages of those around them. They listen to those Instagram messages. They look at those on social media and the comparison they deliver on themselves is just brutal.
“I worry about my dog dying,’’ one 10-year-old said.
“I’m worried I won’t have good enough grades,’’ another said. “I’m too tall to be 10,’’ a third said.
What might your daughter worry about? The death of a pet came up almost as much as the death of a parent. The judgement of friends registered strongly for many of these 500 10-year-old girls, along with fighting between parents, the difficulty of school work, and concern over physical features, particularly weight and height. Educators and professionals are seeing an epidemic in anxiety and so are health professionals – particularly among girls. Professor James Scott says girls worried about what others – like parents and educators – thought of them, and were aware of the need to do well academically.
Ask 100 middle-school teachers what they see as the strongest challenge facing the 10-year-olds they teach and dwindling confidence levels tops the list. They see it in class teamwork, shrinking passions to try new things, who they choose as friends, and in their frenzied attempts to fit in. Teachers told me how they saw so many lose some of themselves in order to be more like someone else. ‘I wish they could find their own identity among their peers,’ one Year 5 teacher says. And while friendship and social media and body image were raised as key challenges, ‘self-confidence’ was the constant theme.
Paediatricians believe tween girls need between 9 and 11 hours’ sleep. But it’s not just the amount of sleep. Studies show the time (all other things being equal, going to bed early is better than going to bed late), consistency (thesame bed time on weekdays and the weekend) and the quality of sleep are also important. Children who sleep fewer hours might do better academically (probably because they are up late studying) but fare worse on other measures like mental health. It’s a fascinating science – where we can really make a difference.
Experts warn we shouldn’t underestimate the role of sleep in areas as diverse as fitness, mental health, behaviour and blood fats.
Being aware of this stage in our daughters’ lives, and how they may be feeling along the way, can help parents understand what they need to know, what to say, and when to stay silent and listen.
Madonna King is a journalist, social commentator and Chair of Catholic School Parents Australia.