4 Messages We Send Tween Girls That Undermine Their Self-Expression (And What To Say Instead)

Source: DMD

Source: DMD

It’s trippy how undecided adults can be about younger children and self-expression, particularly when it comes to young girls.

Adding my own personal and professional focus on radical self-expression to the mix makes it even more interesting—and at times, pretty damn complicated. Why? Because I’m the mother of two girls, and I sometimes worry about whether I’m giving them too much space to express themselves and their needs — or not enough.

Fair warning: This article is about girls because I choose to write about my personal experiences in girlhood, and the ongoing observation of the girls I now have the privilege of raising.

As I observe the patterns and similarities among my girls as they emerge out of young childhood and approach adolescence, I am reminded of my own life experiences, from girlhood right through to today.

And here’s an observation I’ve made: many tween girls are being muted out of the dialogue about girlhood.

Babies and toddlers get plenty of new human attention, and teenagers seem to demand attention. But tween girls are sandwiched between the layers of childhood and adulthood, and are also charged with the task of defining and communicating the nuances and needs of that sandwiched space to the rest of the world.

I never want my daughters, or any of the tween daughters in the world, to get to the point where their behaviors are determined by how comfortable or uncomfortable someone else seems to be with what they say or do.

But how likely is that when our society doesn’t prioritize self-expression in elementary school-aged girls?

What, then, can we do help our tween girls un-mute? What can we do to help them manage un-named and largely unexplored emotions they experience daily?

Ongoing dialogue is certainly in need here, but let me start by sharing some prevalent muting messages, and alternatives that I’ve put into practice as my tween daughters’ experiences and needs continue to unfold.

1. “It’s important for you to be beautiful.”

If you’re reading Everyday Feminism, you’re probably familiar with the reality that women worldwide are charged with the task of being beautiful. That standard of beauty is rarely dictated by women, but can be largely perpetuated by us.

Telling our daughters that they look pretty or beautiful is a good thing. Keep doing that. However, when we neglect to place equal — if not higher — emphasis on other traits like being smart, assertive, kind, thoughtful , or even funny, we send them down the same landmine-ridden paths that many of us as adult women walk daily.

When we tell our daughters to show up, smile, and look pretty no matter what, we reinforce the idea that a woman’s job is not to rock boats, but to make environments more comfortable.

3 Things To Tell Her Instead:

We should help the girls in our lives prioritize authentic expression over other people’s comfort. Here are some suggestions of how to do that:

  • Tell her she doesn’t have to smile when someone’s taking her picture.
  • Make more positive comments about your daughter’s character, and fewer comments about her physical characteristics.
  • Bring her attention to her tendency to judge herself, whether it be judgment about her body or her choices. Offer her self-expression alternatives to explore self-judgment such as journaling, so she can begin to recognize her own patterns.

2. “I don’t need to listen to you, but you need to listen to me.”

I know how tough it can be to gauge when tween girls need space, and when they need us to lean in. Navigating the transition between “I need help, Mommy” and “I’m almost your height, so can I make my own choice here” is difficult.

At this age, girls may want to explore themselves through things like clothing choices, higher age-group books, TV shows with more teen-appropriate content, or hair color.

They may start to explore aspects of sexuality (yes, even at this young age), want more privacy when they’re with friends, or begin to challenge some of the boundaries that adults have set up around them.

Knowing when to back off and allow them room to make their own choices, and when to step in and guide from a closer distance is not always readily apparent at this stage.

Though we may feel that we know best (and in some cases, we just might), our tween still needs space to apply what she knows and feels (her thoughts) to what she chooses to do (her actions).

Essentially, she needs to feel that you have some level of confidence in her ability to make good choices for herself. Each parent needs to decide what’s on the table for decision-making, but my point is that something needs to be on the table.

Allowing her to practice making safe choices in small ways can build the foundation for the heavy lifting that often occurs during the teenage years.

And no, it isn’t likely that your tween daughter is going to give you credit for actually listening to her. But as she navigates this cusp of adolescence space, she will be able to trust that she has someone who listens to her, instead of attempting to speak on her behalf, or offering unsolicited help in making choices.

3 Things To Tell Her Instead

  • Tell her she will ultimately be responsible for herself, and that you want to help her practice that task. It might be surprising how amenable your daughter is to your insights when you come from a place of partnership, and not dictatorship.
  • Tell her you’re interested in her decision-making process, and be willing to share your own process with her. Asking how she arrived at a particular decision is a great way to peek into her mental and emotional space, and help her get more confident in her process.
  • Tell her that some choices are not hers to make. As we build a pattern of guided exploration with our tween girls, we shouldn’t forget the important reality checks. Let your tween daughter know that some choices about her life will be made solely by you as her parent. Remind her that you take that responsibility seriously, and encourage outlets like journaling or talking with another trusted family member about the choices with which she may not agree.

3. “This thing you’re into is dumb.”

Steven Universe, The Amazing World of Gumball, and anything about Iggy Azalea — all things that elicit a left-eye twitch and a stink-face stance from me.

Also, all things that my daughters adore.

And though I admit that I fall several miles short of the goal in this area, I do still practice accepting the things my daughters dig — even if I don’t understand them.

The goal here is to remember that our daughters are exploring the world just as we are. Instead of planning road trips or joining meet-up groups, they watch, read, and listen to stuff. And sometimes that stuff, in our minds, feels dangerously akin to horrible, intelligence-eroding, brain farts.

But our tweens need space to explore their environments without the megaphone of judgment blasting out claims of dying brain cells and “better options” per your suggestion.

3 Things To Tell Her Instead

  • Tell her about some of the things you used to love when you were younger. Share the things that now give you a giggle or a “was I really into that?” moment. For me, that includes my MC Lyte, lopsided haircut, wearing rhinestones in my bangs, and my infatuation with Milli Vanilli. Your turn.
  • Tell her you’re interested in what appeals to her in terms of people and ideas. She should know that you’re paying attention to her influences, because over time, that knowledge can help her pay more attention to her influences as well. She might see it as her parent being “all up in her business” at first. But for me, that’s far less relevant than developing an understanding of what my daughters are drawn to, and why.
  • Tell her what you don’t like or understand about the things in question, without asking her to change her mind. Give her an opportunity to share her why. It shows her that you care about her perspectives, and that your questions are not always prefaces to asking her to do what you prefer.

4. “It’s disrespectful to disagree.”

As a Black woman growing up in predominantly Black neighborhoods my entire life, I feel safe in asserting that dissent being synonymous with disrespect is an issue in many Black households.

A high reverence for elders, and a general respect and courtesy toward all adults is part of traditional Black culture. And sometimes, maintaining reverence and respect comes at the cost of severely muted expression.

I’ve often joked with other like-minded Black parents about how lucky our daughters are that their parents are New Age and power-to-the-children prone, otherwise they wouldn’t get away with half the attitude they tout. And by attitude, I mostly mean their willingness to steady their big brown eyes, fold their lanky arms, and assert, Yes, but I disagree.

I don’t mean to get all Grumpy Old Men here, but back in my day, children got backhand slaps (or worse) for disagreeing with any adult, especially a parent.

That framed our feelings as bad or inappropriate, and made it very difficult for us to even come to terms these feelings, let alone be able to express them.

3 Things To Tell Her Instead

  • Tell her it’s good for her to question everything. Messages like these help her to practice communication skills that are vital to her ability to explore and express her own needs.
  • Tell her to stay away from anyone who expects her to agree with everything they do. Discouraging dissent at the expense of critical thinking is, as my daughters would say, not a good look. Not ever.
  • Tell her you care what she thinks, but that she should be considerate of your feelings too. This might feel like you’re telling her to filter her feelings to save yours, but it’s more than that. It’s about her practicing the life skill of conveying her feelings while still having compassion for the feelings of others.

***

When girls grow comfortable in their own ability to confidently express themselves, they can better manage the societal pressures to acquiesce, steady the boat, and focus on making sure others are comfortable.

A lot of people won’t get them, or won’t approve of the way they thwart expectation.

You must decide that whatever behavior our tween girls exhibit, you will not use that behavior against them, but instead to guide and better understand them.

Make a conscious decision to be their ally.

Akilah S. Richards is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. She is a six-time author, digital content writer, and lifestyle coach who writes passionately about self-expression, womanhood, modern feminism, location independence and the unschooling lifestyle. Connect with Akilah on InstagramTumblr, or her #radicalselfie e-home, radicalselfie.comRead her articles.