Helping Pre-Teenagers

Q: We have two daughters, ages 9 and 11, who are quite mature for their age. They’ve become very emotional in recent months, and my husband and I don’t know how to respond to them. They’re both quite self-absorbed and get very dramatic about things that don’t seem important. Our older daughter reports the social goings-on in her classroom daily. She tells me all the details of who said what to whom, and who talks behind another’s back. She doesn’t want to be friends with any of them, and can start to cry in frustration. She would rather sit in her room and read (and not help me around the house, of course).

My younger daughter used to be pretty relaxed, but now thinks that we’re always criticizing her and overreacts. She hates to do homework, and has been doing poorly in school. She never wants to review schoolwork with me, and gives up easily on those occasions when she attempts to study. She has no patience when people make her bed “wrong,” put her laundry in the “wrong” place, etc. She feels that no one cares about her and starts to cry. She seemed a lot more relaxed in the summer, so I think this has to do with school.

We’d appreciate any tips on how to relate to our preteen daughters.

A: In our society, it is a common phenomenon for girls to complain and evince emotional behavior. (You can ask many a schoolteacher about this reality.) Sociologically, girls are “permitted” to cry over seemingly small occurrences. (Ask a sleep-away camp director about this, as well!) Telling them that they are overreacting will not change this response. Boys are usually socialized to be “tough” (for good or bad). They more typically exhibit their frustration by acting out and cause great aggravation to others in this way. Both responses are difficult to deal with.

A parent should first respond with empathy for a child’s feelings of frustration and disappointment, but then utilize problem-solving methods to help move past these counterproductive feelings. An example of this might be: “I understand how such a thing can be so disappointing. What do you think you can do at this point?” There is no gift a parent can give a child that is more helpful than helping the child learn to internalize positive coping mechanisms.

It seems your older daughter has to learn to navigate a complex social situation at a young age. Not all groups of girls are as tightly knit, with cliques and issues of loyalty, at age 11. Perhaps your sharing similar experiences that you remember from your own childhood will help her feel more support. Role-playing possible verbal responses to uncomfortable social situations can help decrease her anxiety and concern about potential “back-stabbing” situations. Giving encouragement about joining a less problematic social group can also be helpful. Being part of the popular, competitive group is not always the best recipe for a pleasant life for certain children.

In relation to your younger daughter, she seems to be frustrated in her academic abilities (as you observed). Her self-doubt is projected onto others (who also never seem to get it right — be it making the bed or putting the laundry away). You need to use a style of helping as discussed above to help her internalize positive coping mechanisms. She is most likely criticizing herself about her school abilities — or lack thereof — and the criticism she hears from you echoes that which she hears from herself. Even if your daughter is embarrassed to admit disappointment in her scholastic prowess, you can bring up stories of your own struggles in bygone academic pursuits. You can then suggest whatever techniques or efforts were helpful to you, and perhaps similar endeavors can be attempted on her part, with successful results. Through trial and error, solutions can be found.

Hatzlachah rabbah!