Why is tweenhood so fraught with “drama”?

Technology has transformed the process of growing up. An expert explains how to help girls in their "drama years"

Topics: Parenting, Adolescence, Education,

Why is tweenhood so fraught with "drama"? A detail from the cover of "The Drama Years"

They’re not the carefree years. They’re not the everything-is-awesome years. They are, as Haley Kilpatrick explains, the drama years. It’s that uniquely turbulent time in a girl’s life between childhood and adolescence, when friends become frenemies, when hormones run amok, when the pressures of school and activities ramp up, and Mom and Dad suddenly just don’t get it anymore. Welcome to middle school, kid.

Kilpatrick understands. While still in high school in her small town in Georgia, she founded the national peer mentoring organization Girl Talk, mostly as a means of helping her younger sister navigate the social minefield she herself had only just departed. With its emphasis on helping tween girls learn from teens who’ve survived their own drama years, Girl Talk now has chapters in 43 states and six countries.

But after a decade in the tween trenches, Kilpatrick (with the help of co-writer and former Salon.com contributor Whitney Joiner) is sharing the secret life of girls with the people who often seem the most blindsided by it – their parents and educators. “The Drama Years,” published this week by the Free Press, is a plainspoken set of dispatches from the front lines of tweenhood, culled from three years of interviews with girls around the country and framed in their own quirky, authentic voices.

As the mother of one middle school-aged daughter (and a younger one who’s careening toward her own tweenhood), I know all about drama — and the ways that stony silences can erupt into tears, or that blossoming maturity can go hand in hand with exasperating stubbornness. Case in point: When a copy of “The Drama Years” arrived at our house, my daughter rolled her eyes at the array of tween archetypes on the cover and huffed, “Which one is this supposed to be me? I don’t know anybody who looks like this.”

Yet the “dramas” of the book — defined by chapters on body image, materialism, friendship, the intense pressure to succeed and more — do look familiar. And the fact that we as parents are struggling through this unique time in our children’s lives right along with them is new and challenging territory in and of itself. As my friend Louis, a Bay Area artist with an 11-year-old daughter, says, “In my house we let the kids say whatever is bothering them and we try to help them fix it. My parents didn’t give me this kind of platform. I can see why they said, ‘We’re not doing this.’ It’s exhausting to live with this shit over and over.”



And even my daughter, wielder of drama though she is, acknowledges her growing pains can be rough on the family members in her warpath. “Everybody says you’re supposed to live in the moment. Well, when you’re in the sixth grade, everything is all in the moment, all the time. That’s why when I can’t figure out my homework or the outfit I wanted to wear today is in the laundry, it feels the most important thing in the world. ”

Salon spoke recently with Kilpatrick about Girl Talk, the new book and what our tweens want us to know about their drama years.

You’ve been doing Girl Talk and working with middle-schoolers for a decade. Why did you decide to do something now addressed to adults?

It grew out of behind-the-scenes conversations with adults around Girl Talk. They’d ask, “Are there things they’re not telling me? How can we help them? I felt obligated to put together a document that would be a resource for them.

Tweenhood feels like such huge terrain to tackle in a book. How do you stay specific about it? Can a seventh grader in one set of circumstances, in one part of the country, really grasp the issues that another in a very different environment might be facing?

When I started this 0 years ago to help my sister, I just wanted to make a difference in my hallways. It turned out that whether it was inner-city schools or elite private schools, there are so many things girls have in common. That’s how we defined the nine core issues in the book we wanted to address.

We have programs in boarding schools in Connecticut and the slums of Cabrera; we have girls from upper-middle-class families and we have girls in foster care and shelters. It doesn’t matter if you live in a rural area or a city. There’s a horizontal line that goes right through middle school. Girls everywhere need to feel validated by their peers, to feel like they’re making their parents proud, and to know that it’s OK to change. There’s so much stigma that peers put on each other. They say, “Oh, she’s changed.” Well, everything changes in middle school. You’re supposed to change. What I want to see is girls of all different backgrounds coming and laying the tracks for how they’ll treat each other through high school and womanhood, and break the cycle of some of the negative things women do to each other.

One of the things that I thought was admirable about the Girl Talk model and the book is that it teaches younger girls that older girls can be their allies instead of enigmas.

Not having an older sister, I was completely intimidated by older girls when I first got on the school dance squad. I was terrified of them. But if you expect older girls to have good behavior and you say, “You would be an amazing leader and role model,” there’s something about that that flips the switch in high school girls’ minds. They’re someone to look up to. That’s a great thing for girls — learning though teaching each other.

And it takes some of the pressure off parents. It seems like so many parents spend their daughters’ lives being overprotective, and they get to the tween years and the girls don’t know how to fend for themselves.

I think it’s important for parents to remember that girls are going to make mistakes and get hurt. If you’re not going to experience pain, you’re not going to experience growth.

How are things different for tween girls now than they were even a few years ago, when you were in middle school?

The one line that sums it up is that there’ve been more technological changes in the past decade than ever in human history. Now girls feel so much pressure, knowing that anything they say or do can be something that hundreds — even thousands — of people can see. There’s a fear of being judged and it’s creating a huge social anxiety disorder. Girls are nitpicked from head to toe, and that pressure to look beautiful and feel perfect is relentless.

Meanwhile, parents are scared of this unknown world their kids are in, and the long-term effects of what they’re doing there. You have to know your child and how they’re affected by things people say. I see schools now trying to establish norms to prepare kids, because the way we’re communicating with each other is not a way that’s respectful. We give attention to the bullies and the mean girls. But if we focus on kindness, that will become the norm.

What do middle-school girls most want their parents to understand about their lives?

Remember their brains are still developing. Adults see the world and their problems vertically. They prioritize them. Middle-school girls see their problems on a horizontal line. It all has equal weight. We asked every girl, “What is stressful in your life?” And girls would say, “I’m stressed because I don’t have the right clothes and I’m nervous about school and I had a fight with my friend and my brother is sick.” That’s really how they see things. That’s why the word they keep coming back to is “drama.” So don’t think she’s an alien or she can’t prioritize.

The greatest gift you can give her is your presence. It’s so hard to be completely present in conversation, but challenge yourself when you want to move ahead to the million other things you’ve got going on. Engage in a conversation, ask for an update, ask what’s causing stress. You know those days when she’s hysterical? Please refrain from just saying, “Don’t worry.” She wants you to listen to her, to say it’s OK and know you’re there and sympathize at that very moment. Put a note in her lunch, get a dry erase board and write her a message. Remind her that you’re there and you care and you’re listening.

You daughter wants you to understand that she’s going to fall and she’s going to mess up. You can’t walk the tightrope with her anymore. All you can do is let her know you’re there for her with the net, cheering her on.

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "Gimme Shelter: My Three Years Searching for the American Dream." Follow her on Twitter: @embeedub.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>