Tween Angst, and How You Can Help

As my youngest child moves across the stage to accept her elementary school diploma, my heart flutters and tears stream down my cheeks. Time has moved with such speed that I ask myself who the young woman standing there is. Could this tween swathed in a satin dress, bra straps showing, hair perfectly ironed, lip gloss shining, be the baby I rocked to sleep not so long ago? About to turn 12, my daughter has become obsessed with social standing, cries at the drop of a hat (literally), and peruses the Delia’s catalogue as if it were the Bible. She is a pre-teen at the cusp of middle school and I am terrified.

    Much of the terror emanates from my own bad memories of middle school: being ostracized for doing well academically, for not wearing the newest Nikes (I date myself here), for not being a cheerleader or jock, for not having the perfect boyfriend. While I never fit in, my daughter does, and this fact scares me as much, if not more, than any other. What will middle school hold for her? Will she be able to overcome the academic and social pressures she is about to encounter?

   According to Carol Forster, a pediatrician with Kaiser Permanente, the middle school years signal the beginning of true independence for children, on both an emotional and physical level. Girls and boys witness body changes that are exciting and terrifying; girls suddenly have to wear bras and handle menstruation, while boys notice their voices changing and other physical manifestations of growth. As Forster writes in her article for KidSource, “At puberty, your son or daughter changes from a child to an emerging adult.”

Who am I and where do I fit in?    
   Middle schoolers, mired in puberty, feel a higher level of self-doubt, fear and insecurity. As the opinion of peers becomes more important in their daily lives, so does social pressure. Tweens are apt to compete in order to rise above their classmates. Girls suddenly need to have the right clothing, the best haircut, the nicest home — or their world falls apart. If Emily wears Juicy Couture to school, then Sarah has to have the same sweatshirt, even if it means that Mom spends her entire monthly budget on it. The child who loved to watch The Disney Channel is now obsessed with MTV.

   When my son, now 14, journeyed through middle school, he encountered gossip, bullying and the social hierarchy that took place during Bar and Bat Mitzvah season (who was and who wasn’t invited). A self-confident young man, he was able to let things run off his back and maintained friendships with most of his classmates.

   While boys seem to have an ability to maneuver through such social pressures, girls are often more sensitive to the middle school caste system. In her work, Penn State professor and author Cheryl Dellasega, Ph.D., has addressed what she calls the Ophelia syndrome – or relational aggression – in middle school girls. According to Dellasega, the onset of puberty “affects the way the girls relate to one another” as they compare and evaluate their bodies, their friendships and their relationships with boys, i.e., who has a boyfriend and who doesn’t. Relational aggression can include exclusion, gossip, clique building, intimidation, trash talking and humiliation. When many of us grew up, such behavior was personal in nature; now with cell phones, blog postings and text messages, tweens can behave aggressively anonymously with little or no ramification. In addition the role models that girls see in the media (Britney, Paris) are contradictory in nature; they are famous for being infamous.

   Dellasega’s research shows that almost all tween girls are involved in aggressive behavior in some way. “The usual roles involved in this dynamic include the aggressor(s), victim(s) and bystander(s) (one or more girls who witness the aggression and may do nothing or may encourage it).” she writes. “These roles can change constantly.” Relational aggression can occur anywhere — on sports teams, in classrooms, in the lunchroom, at parties and in the neighborhood.

What Can Parents Do?
   Forster believes that parents must set up private times to talk with their tweens about issues like school, friends and sex. “It’s important to respect your child’s wish to be left alone as well,” she says. “If they refuse to talk, respect that. Try saying, ‘I’ll be here when you feel like talking’ instead of ‘Why don’t you ever talk to me anymore?’”

   Even when your child is making you feel unwanted and insignificant, it’s your parental duty to stay involved in her life. Don’t just talk to or lecture your tween; sit down and really listen to what they need to say. School counselor Mary Pat McCartney, in her article on, writes, “Just knowing that parents are available gives kids an out to talk if they need to. Keep the lines of communication open.”

   Middle school is your child’s chance to journey down the road of puberty and gain a sense of self and independence. With you along for the ride, your tween will arrive at her destination with greater maturity and wisdom.

Ideas from Dr. Dellasega’s Club and Camp Ophelia on How Adults Can Help Tweens
• Support positive role models for girls.
• Discuss how gossip can hurt and how your tween should handle it.
• Strategize with your tween on coping mechanisms.
• Remind your tween that you are always available to listen and help.
• Discuss online gossip and bullying; make sure your tween knows that you will never judge but will always advise and listen.
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