The pre and early teens are a time when a girl starts blossoming into a woman, and are often plagued by self-doubt
As a girl transitions from childhood to adolescence, her body undergoes several changes.
She attains puberty and the physiological features that will define her as a woman start emerging. In the absence of healthy discussion about these natural changes in the body, it is a difficult time for many girls.
Today there is greater awareness about the need to discuss these changes with young teens, with many schools creating awareness and parents also discussing it more openly, however, many teens and even parents remain ignorant and fearful.
Dr Shyamala Devi, Behavioural and Developmental Paediatrician at Apollo Children’s Hospital, Chennai, says, “I have even had a case where a father, a single parent of a 13-year-old girl, panicked and told me that his daughter may be having blood cancer!”
Though such instances are fewer now compared to earlier, they are still not all that rare, says Dr Shyamala.
The United Kingdom’s Centre for Mental Health describes this period as one of significant neuro-developmental changes, when the second most dramatic structural changes happen to the brain architecture after infancy, often affecting an adolescents’ judgment and perceptions.
Adolescents tend to be more sensation-seeking, willing to take risks, more likely to miss social cues, and also have decreased capability of consequential thinking. Girls were found to be more susceptible to emotional problems such as stress disorder, agoraphobia (fear of places or situations that might cause panic or embarrassment), generalised anxiety and panic attacks.
The late German-American researcher Erik Erikson identifies this age group of pre-teens and tweens as one that is marked by Industry vs Inferiority, followed by Identity vs Role Confusion.
At this stage, they start forming values that challenge their self-confidence and can lead to erratic behaviour and moodiness. Though they may seem to resent it, what they need are patience, empathy, and continued support from their parents to deal with their oscillating emotions.
Girls in the age group of 11-15 also feel stressed about their body, body odour and the desire to look attractive to the opposite sex. Due to hormonal changes, they may also gain weight, which can add to low self esteem.
Bullying by peers is another challenge girls this age can face. With diet undergoing a change and fast foods becoming common, gaining weight can become a big issue. Providing healthy and tasty alternatives to fast food, along with counselling about diet, is crucial.
A survey, conducted on 191 school-going adolescent boys and girls with a mean age of 14 years from low- and middle-income communities in Goa and Delhi, published in May 2019, found that girls suffered stress of having to conform to normative gender roles and managing the risk of sexual harassment.
This was in addition to the common stresses of academic pressure, romantic relationships, parental and peer pressures, and exposure to violence and other threats to personal safety. Anger, brooding and loss of concentration were the result of these stress factors.
“I remember, we used to have just one paragraph each on some of the pre-teen challenges when I was studying psychiatry. But now, each has a chapter dedicated to it,” points out Dr Shyamala.
The interest in the other gender can also leave girls in this age group vulnerable to potential sexual escapades.
“We continue to see teenage pregnancies, especially in the suburbs, despite increasing awareness about contraception. It is important to teach them to be careful,” stresses Dr Shyamala Devi.
Girls in their early teens can also become victims of abuse—physical, emotional and sexual. Parents should communicate constantly with their children, watch for changes in general behaviour, sleep pattern and academic performance. These can give clues about any trauma the child maybe undergoing.
“It is important to treat teenage children as friends,” points out Dr Shyamala, adding a caution that it is equally important to draw boundaries and not stop being a parent either.
According to a 2018 study, ‘The Digital Lives of Generation Z (people born between 1994 and 2004)’, around 30 million out of 69 million teens and preteens in urban India own a mobile phone. Of this, 20% are 11 years old or younger.
The American Academy of Pediatrics warns about the increased exposure to radiation, increased risk of obesity, decreased sleep and poor academic performance due to online distractions.
More importantly, teens and preteens using social media can become victims of cyberbullying, or even become a cyberbully themselves. Around 12% of adolescents in the 10- to 19-year age group are reported to have sent a sexual photo to someone else.
Though these warnings are about children in the United States, given the high level of unmonitored mobile usage by children in India, the risks ought to be taken into consideration by Indian parents as well.
Research conducted by University College London and the University of Essex in 2018 showed that girls with prolonged use of mobile phones had a diminished sense of well-being.
Girls in this age category were also seen to be more addicted to social media than boys, and developed emotional and behavioural problems over time.
To help counter these distractions and their implications, television and mobile time should be restricted and at least one meal should be had together as a family.
Parenting today is very different and more challenging due to the family becoming nuclear, and tends to be more permissive than in the past.
The rise in dual income families sees both parents away at work, with no other relatives such as grandparents as back up. “So, when a child faces an issue, they sometimes do not have anyone to talk to,” says Dr Shyamala.
It is important for parents to at least speak to the child frequently during the day to find out what they are doing, mark their presence and interest in the child, giving them support and confidence.
While losing one of the parents to divorce is a challenge in itself, the fights that precede the separation can be worse for the children, who often end up blaming themselves for the rift.
“Children can be bullied for having a single parent,” Dr Shyamala says. In such situations, the presence of a grandparent can act as a buffer.
• It is important to closely monitor children without compromising their privacy
• Watch out for change in behaviour, academic performance and the style of dressing, as these can provide clues to any potential challenges
• Keep their communication channels open, but cut down on the time spent on mobile devices
• Plan activities together, go to a movie once in a while, play a sport together
• Transfer of knowledge is important and should be done with positive messages. Suggestions rather than instructions will work better for girls in this age group.
Children also remember that their parents give them unconditional love and are their best friends for life.
Being open with their parents will help them in the long run.