When you ask women to recall their preteen and teen social lives, a consistent pattern emerges. There are stories of enduring friendships, but also uncomfortable and often painful social memories. Women share stories of exclusion, drama, loneliness, the desire to fit in, and friendships lost when they were only young girls.

By: Jessica Speer

The words harsh and change are commonly used to describe this phase. And this rings true for adolescent girls today.

A UCLA study of 6,000 sixth-graders found that two-thirds changed friendships during their first year of middle school. The majority of adolescents report feeling lonely at some point.

While friendship changes and struggles occur throughout life, they intensify and are especially uncomfortable during the preteen and teen years.

So what’s going on? What is it about adolescence that intensifies social changes and struggles, especially for girls? The answer lies in a confluence of events that create the perfect storm.

The Perfect Storm

When we explore everything going on during this phase, it’s no surprise that girls’ social worlds sometimes feel like a steady rain shower with occasional flashes of thunder. Tweens learn how to navigate complex social groups alongside the physical, emotional, and intellectual changes that go along with puberty. And all of this happens as peer acceptance grows in importance and self-confidence levels dip.

Confidence Drops

Puberty is a turbulent time for confidence in both genders, but girls experience a much more significant, dramatic drop. Claire Shipman, Katty Kay, and JillEllyn Riley, authors of The Confidence Code for Girls, found that girls’ confidence levels drop by 30% between the ages of 8 and 14. The authors contribute much of this drop to newly formed habits such as overthinking, people-pleasing, and perfectionism. This lack of confidence ripples through girls’ relationships and increases the likelihood of self-doubt, social anxiety, and risk avoidance.

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Increased Reliance on Friends

While confidence is dipping, young girls are also in the midst of the developmental phase that shifts their reliance on family to a reliance on peers. During this period, friendships begin to replace family as tweens’ primary source of identity and support. Social conformity becomes a typical response to the urgent need to fit in and be accepted into a new replacement “family.”

This process of finding a new “tribe,” as psychologist Lisa Damour shares in her book, Untangled, is nothing less than a strategy for survival. Cliques and social drama are often anxiety-fueled behaviors to manage the transition from family as the primary social support to finding a sense of belonging in peers.

Seeking Identity

As kids look more to peers to find support and belonging, they need to figure out where they fit in the sea of students, groups, and activities. During adolescence, kids begin to explore their social world, including who their friends are, what they wear, and what activities they do. They start to question, experiment with, and shape their identity.

In early elementary school, friendships often form based on proximity, such as being in the same class or the same neighborhood. Starting in late elementary school and middle school, friendships begin to form based on shared interests and deeper feelings of acceptance. The pursuit of identity ripples into friendships and prompts changes.

“At a time when identity is so very insecure, kids need everything in their lives – shoes, friends, Instagram posts- to project the image of self they’re working so hard to construct. Any deviation is far too dangerous to tolerate. It’s also why old elementary school friendships so commonly and brutally come to an end in sixth or seventh grade – an event that can feel completely mysterious to the person who’s left behind,” explains author Judith Werner in her book“And Then They Stopped Talking to Me.”

Physiological Changes

Bubbling beneath the surface of all of this, the physiological changes that occur in adolescence amplify the intensity of teenage girls’ emotions and experiences. The limbic system, or the emotional brain, ramps up quickly in puberty, while the executive functioning part of the brain responsible for self-regulation and self-control lags. During adolescence, we feel our feelings most deeply, which creates enduring memories. As described by psychologist Laurence Steinberg in Age of Opportunity, “the hormones released in puberty affect our “sensitivity thresholds,” how reactive we are to things that happen to us and what we feel.”

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In Summary

To say a lot is going on developmentally with young girls during adolescence is an understatement. It is a period of tremendous change and growth. Decreasing confidence, finding an identity, and identifying a new tribe combined with physiological changes make this a tricky time for many girls and their parents. An enduring pandemic layered on top adds a new level of change to this already complex phase.

So what can parents do? How can they help their girls weather the inevitable storms? 

By listening deeply and empathizing, parents can help their daughters navigate their emotions and complex social situations. Active listening, without judgment, gives girls time and space to process their feelings and experiences aloud, increasing self-awareness, improving clarity, and reducing anxiety. 

Parents can help their daughters avoid assumptions and gently broaden their perspectives. There is usually more to situations that they may not be considering. If a girl’s social struggles are ongoing and impacting her well-being, parents should consider reaching out to her teacher, school counselor, or another professional for additional support.

There is no way to avoid discomfort during this phase or any phase of life, but parents play an essential role in helping their daughters keep their gaze on the lighthouse and offering ongoing support along their journey to shore.

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