By Katie Hurley
I’ve worked with a lot of tween girls over the past 18 years. They end up in my office for various reasons (I specialize in anxiety, stress, self-esteem, and learning differences), but, more often than not, we end up talking about the pressure that exists for young girls today.
On the one hand, girls have tons of opportunities at their fingertips. Options are everywhere. Name an area of interest and you can find a class or program to hone those skills and follow that dream! In some ways, that’s a very good thing. Girls who don’t want to play traditional sports, for example, find other cool sports and activities. Girls who want to skip organized sports altogether seek out other outlets to connect with other kids and follow their passions. That’s the good news.
On the other hand, the stakes feel very high. Girls tell me that the pressure to “be the best” and “rise to the top” is almost suffocating. Some consider quitting sports and other activities because they feel like there’s no point in doing those things for the fun of it – they’re expected to succeed. They also talk about the competition between girls and how it negatively impacts their friendships.
Yes, relational aggression continues to be a problem in the life of girls, and they don’t know how to manage the stress of friendship troubles coupled with the stress of rising to the top. It’s a lot.
Tween girls go through some tough stuff. They need to get those feelings and out and talk about the ups and downs of girlhood. The problem is…they’re not sure where to turn. Tweens have a tendency to be pleasers at times, and many go to great lengths to show their parents and other adults in their lives that they can handle everything on their own. They also hear a lot of, “move on” messages from the adults in their lives. Thing thing is, it’s really hard to “move on” when you’ve had a terrible day (or week, or month.)
I’ve asked girls to share their least favorite responses from adults over the years. Below is a small sample:
“Everybody goes through this.”
“Don’t be so dramatic.”
“You’ll be fine.”
“Move on and find new friends.”
“Don’t worry; it’s no big deal.”
Why these phrases hurt
Tween girls tend to be highly social beings. They’re learning to gain independence and find their tribes. When the tribe fails them in some way (even if they played a role in that failure), it hurts very deeply.
Sometimes tweens internalize feelings. Sometimes they make assumptions based on limited information. Sometimes they react before they’ve had time to process, while other times they spend so much time processing that resentment and other negative emotions build up.
They are growing and changing at a rapid pace, and the world around them is full of conflicting and often confusing messages. They are entitled to a few bad days and rocky moments!
5 Phrases that help tweens
What they don’t want is a pep talk every time they express their emotions or share their tough stuff. What they need is support. I like to go to the source, and I suggest that you open that dialogue with your tween (see below.) All girls are different, and a phrase that helps one might annoy another. The following phrases, however, come up over and over again:
“I’m here for you.”
Sounds simple, right? I can’t tell you how many girls tell me they just want their parents to say these words. They don’t want corrections. They don’t want to be quizzed on what went wrong. They just want you to be there. They want to hear that they’re not alone.
One the biggest complaints among young girls right now is that they feel like parents are only ever half listening. I’m guilty of looking down when I should look up at times; I get it. But this age range marks a critical period of self-esteem development. They need 1:1 time with us that includes tuning out the rest of the world so that we can tune in to them.
Studies show that self-esteem begins to dip for girls as early as age 9, with an average age of dip occurring at 11, and doesn’t make a comeback until later adolescence.
Listening, really listening, makes a difference. Girls often tell me that they feel like their parents only listen enough to respond. What they want is for parents to sit back and let them talk their way through their big feelings.
“I’m proud of you.”
We’re all proud of our kids. But do we all communicate that feeling to our kids regularly? Parents get so focused on results (grades, goals, scores) that they forget to talk about the little things that make them proud (acts of kindness, helping someone in need). Your girls need to hear this. Regularly.
“That sounds hard.”
The benefit of being an adult is that adults have excellent hindsight. Adults know what mistakes they made and how to fix everything for their kids! One small problem: Your tween is not you, and she needs to work through her own ups and downs. Instead of running in for the save with a point-by-point plan to solve the dilemma, try this simple phrase. It will open the door to communication and might even inspire your daughter to seek you out for help another time.
Parents and other adults talk to kids about empathy fairly regularly these days (I hope so, anyway.) We do this because we want to raise caring and compassionate kids. But then we turn around and minimize their concerns when they share them.
I find that most parents do this so that their girls won’t worry too much or get overly upset about what the parents consider small bumps in the road. It comes from a good place. The problem is that girls’ problems feel very real and very big to them. When they feel overwhelmed and unsure, minimizing their problems only leaves them feeling isolated.
It also causes them to shut down.
Parenting with empathy and communicating that you understand helps build a strong connection and encourages your daughter to seek help from you in the future.
One important question
When I ask girls what they need or want from their parents when they’re upset, I get a wide variety of answers. Some want hugs and snuggles. Some want time together to take a walk. Some want to read together or color in one of those fancy coloring books together. But almost all of them wish you would ask them this one important question:
“How can I help?”
That’s it. It’s a simple question, and they might not have the answer right away, but it shows that you listened, you understand, and you’re there no matter what.
Talking can be really hard for tweens. Sometimes they don’t know how or where to begin. A parent-child journal is a great way to communicate without the tension that can emerge when sitting face-to-face. Give it a try!