For my new book, Ten-ager, I sought the counsel of 500 10-year-old girls, 1600 mothers and 100 Year Five school teachers. I also interviewed dozens of school principals, teen psychologists, doctors, researchers and female role models to provide a guide for parents helping tween daughters into adolescence.
These are the five things I learned our tween girls need from us.
1. How to navigate friendships so they’re not exhausting
So many of our tweens feel as though they’ve got to change who they are to “fit in” with a friendship group. We—their parents—learned that friendship is something that takes time and needs to be worked on; they are skills we need to gift our children.
Friendship is not like a hot chocolate: Fast and delicious! We need to teach them to take it slowly and find someone who will have their back. And we need to teach them to forgive someone if the friendship means more than the misdemeanour. We need to pack their “friendship tool kit”.
My top two tips
1. Teach your daughter boundaries: What will she accept and not accept in a friendship. Get her to write it down and understand it.
2. Give her the skills to explain her boundaries. Even role play it at home, so she can use it at those tricky times at school.
The above advice was unanimous—from school counsellors and tween psychologists, parenting experts and educators.
2. Reminders they don’t need to be someone else
Repeatedly, the tween girls I talk to told me they wanted to look different: Taller, thinner, be different, more intelligent, better at this and better at that. This is creating a tsunami of anxiety and body image issues are gripping this cohort.
I also asked 100 middle-school teachers: What do you see as the biggest challenge facing 10-year-olds you teach? These were the answers:
- I wish they could find their own identity among their peers.
- Confidence in self.
- Self-esteem and identity.
- How they see themselves.
- Self-worth from within.
The answers went on—but the theme remained the same. Our girls need to learn that they are enough; that they don’t have to be someone else.
Take them to a pool and show them the different lanes. Teach them to swim in their own lane, not the lane of the girl next to them.
3. To know they are more than what they’re labelled
Kids adopt the label they are given. That means we have to be very careful how we describe them.
When I asked mums to describe their girls, they did so in various ways: The peacemaker, the third wheel, a naughty girl, shy, a queen bee, even the mean girl. They were “not a maths/science girl” or “not good at sport”.
Their girls then described themselves to me in those same terms! They were the “messenger” in their friendship group or did what they were told by the “bossy” girl. They were the “peacemaker”. They were “not the maths-science type”.
We need to be so careful how we describe our girls, because they will lean into that label.
4. Realise they are changing earlier than they (or we) think
Puberty begins years before a girl’s first period. Girls repeatedly told me about feeling anxious and not fitting in, and sometimes being angry and not feeling confident standing up in class . . . you know the list!
Well, this is something I certainly did not know but puberty actually begins at age six or seven, and we often confuse those “invisible” changes with bad behaviour. They’re not! And that time when we can’t see what’s happening—but our girls are really feeling it—is an important marker to how she will fare in Years 10–12 in areas like mental health, obesity and disease, for example.
One world expert told me that those early stages of puberty were as invisible as they are profound. At seven or eight, changes begin which we can’t see. “This is a really important age where you may be able to change trajectories,’’ he says.
Our children begin to develop a sense of who they’re going to be in the world. This is when they go from having their family as their whole world, to looking at how other families and other girls do things: Are they allowed to stay up later? Get more pocket money? Do less homework? Play more sport? And they decide then on who they might want to be.
This is such a crucial time also because it’s when concerns about body image may emerge and confidence might fall. And this all sets the scene for how they might fare as a teenager.
I wish I knew this earlier!
5. They are worth our time
I asked 500 10-year-old girls what they want from us—their parents. This is a snapshot:
What do tween girls want from mum?
- I love it when me and my mum go shopping together and when she has a happy moment.
- I love cooking with my mum and helping her. I also like making her day really nice.
- Hugs and kisses and lots of love and playing games and teaching her cringe dances.
- I love my mum actually talking to me and not being on her phone.
What do tween girls want from dad?
- Building things in the garage and making spears with an axe.
- I love my dad and I going bike riding and kayaking.
- I like anything as long as he visits me.
- A game we made up called “a hunt for tickles” and it’s where my dad hunts me down and tries to tickle me.
Across the country in city and rural areas, public and private schools, the same theme remained, our girls want two things: Our time and our touch. They are gifts that not only we can deliver—of all the advice, this is one area that can make a real difference to their day, their week and their future.
Ten-Ager: What your daughter needs to know about the transition from child to teen, by Madonna King is out now (Hachette, $33).
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