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Survival Guide for Parents of Tween Girls

Parenting a Tween’ feels a bit like you’re running a medieval gauntlet. You know it’s going to be tricky. Some of your friends already have had kids going through the Tween stage, between the ages of nine and 13, and you’ve heard the stories of once happy and empathetic children morphing into self-absorbed, emotional nightmares when they don’t get their way.

But surely, it can’t be that hard? Assured that you know your child, you step into this next 'tween girl' phase hoping that you’ll get through it as you have other stages: together.

Then suddenly, thwack! You’re blindsided by your nine year old daughter’s overnight transformation into what Julie Ross (author of How to Hug a Porcupine: Negotiating the Prickly Points of the Tween Years) endearingly refers to as a “porcupine”: prickling at any suggestion that they should do anything you ask.

Tween Girl Changes - It’s All Normal

Professor Anne Graham, the Director of the Centre for Children and Young People at Southern Cross University, says that changes in children between the ages of nine and 13, the ‘tween’ years, are perfectly normal.  

The so-called 'tween' years signal a time of transition in children's lives - between childhood and adolescence - and transition often brings some disequilibrium!” she says.

However, Professor Graham thinks that the notion of a 'tween' is essentially a socially constructed term that is “much more embedded in American consumer culture and is largely a marketing creation targeting middle class (mainly western) consumer values although, we've increasingly appropriated it in Australia,” she says.

Research suggests that the ‘tween’ tag is hooked on tween girls more than boys simply because girls mature earlier than boys. “Another view is that at this stage boys use sports and other physical activities to 'fit in' whereas girls tend to focus more on outward physical appearances and belongings - therefore there is more focus on the girls - who companies are targeting,” Professor Graham adds.

A Physical Reality - Girls and Puberty

Children’s bodies do start to change and produce hormones leading up to puberty, says Professor Graham, “although at this stage it tends to be more of an 'internal' change rather than an 'external' physical change".

“These changes can be uncomfortable for children in these years - resulting in mood swings and changes in energy levels, and experiencing some level of psychological discomfort,” she says.

“For many children the 'who am I' question, which is fundamentally an identity question, is unconsciously or sub-consciously contributing to this discomfort.” 

The discomfort is also felt by others in the family, who can find this time just as challenging as their child.

“The 'little' girl now wants to be a 'big' girl - which may mean dressing, behaving and thinking in ways they haven't previously done - not all of which will be readily acceptable to, or welcomed by, parents,” she adds.

The Needs of Tween Girls and Tween Boys

Professor Graham was an advisor to a September 2009 NSW Parliamentary inquiry, Children and Young People Aged 9-14 Years in NSW: The Missing Middle (so called because government funding traditionally has been put into the early childhood and teenage developmental stages).

Evidence to the Inquiry identified a variety of needs of this age group, including the need to:

  • have good self-esteem;
  • belong, feel connected and supported;
  • have increasing independence in a safe environment;
  • be able to achieve, learn and feel competent; and
  • be heard, participate, and be listened to.

“The greatest need for children in this age group is the surety of a secure, nurturing family which is supported by a strong socially cohesive social structure,” states the inquiry report.

Having these needs met is integral to the development of resiliency, and to the social and emotional wellbeing of children and young people.”

Adds Professor Graham: “Developmentally, tweens are developing a sense of 'self' - and this is quite malleable in these years. Trying to 'fit in' - not look different or act differently to peers – the influence of this peer pressure shouldn't be overlooked.”

How Parents Can Help During the Tween Girl Stage

“This stage is difficult for parents as they need to move from having a protective role in the child's life to helping prepare them for a few realities in the future,” says Professor Graham.

She says it's important for parents to remember:

  • It's 'normal' for children to go through some difficulties – your child isn't necessarily going off the rails because they want a particular hairstyle that you think is too grown up!
  • Take as many opportunities to talk with your child as you can – and especially to listen to them about the world they are discovering.
  • Stay calm – keep things in perspective and don't overreact or take things personally.
  • Your child is in a time of transition – it's important for parents to be 'adult' and model the kind of values important within the family.
  • Set limits – and explain why some decisions are as they are, including that it keeps the child safe.
  • Compromise is important too.
  • Know who your child's friends are – they will have a powerful influence in your child's life at this age.
  • Children may model their behaviours on others they admire – which can be entirely inappropriate, and parents need to find non-threatening ways to help them discover this!