Pre-teen girls define themselves as dramatic

Eunice Lee

Drama is normal for middle school girls. They want to hang out with their friends – not their parents – and they have mood swings. Or at least that’s how they defined themselves in a list presented at a town hall forum for parents of pre-teens on Tuesday night.

About 50 parents gathered at Evanson/Skokie School District 65, 1500 McDaniel Ave., to listen to a panel of experts and raise their own questions about their child’s development. The forum, called Inside the World of Middle School Girls, was sponsored by the Evanston Community Foundation Fund for Women and Girls.

One panelist, Allina Nikolopoulou, the school psychologist at Haven Middle School, read a list compiled by female students on how they characterize themselves. Although their parents might not understand it, the girls said “drama” is a huge part of their lives.

“We’re addressing an area that is not only important, but one that parents do not have a lot of guidance in,” said Nancy Molitor, a member of the Circle of Advisers for the Fund for Women and Girls.

As a mother of a middle school girl, Molitor wanted to provide information for other parents experiencing similar challenges. This gave her the idea for the forum, where she served as head coordinator.

One mother of a sixth grader said that she came to the forum to find out more about what goes on in the world of her child.

“You always hear from parents how it’s tough in middle school, especially for the girls,” Alicia Vazquez said. “My child is trying to find her niche (and) is experiencing a lot of changes.”

Vazquez noticed small changes in her 11-year-old daughter’s behavior as she transitioned into Haven. One change she observed involved her daughter’s relationship with a former friend. Her daughter used to walk to school with a friend, but now their relationship is severed and she refuses to even talk with her.

This issue of changing friendship dynamics was addressed later in the panel’s discussion. Nikolopoulou said that this age group’s friend bases are extremely fluid and change often.

“There are tremendous inconsistencies in this age group,” Nikolopoulou said. “What’s normal is that anything goes. It’s very up and down.”

Because girls are taught not to express their anger, they are less effective in controlling aggression in healthy ways, Nikolopoulou said. Girls are more passive aggressive and deny responsibility for their actions.

The Internet has taken girls’ aggression to a new level. Molitor said that there was an issue at Haven where two girls posted gossip about several of their peers on a Web page. The girls revealed personal information about other students such as break-ups and rumors.

“A lot of kids got really upset and hurt,” Molitor said. “It is a recent example of what goes on all the time.”

The panel, moderated by ABC Chicago News Anchor Karen Jordan, gave advice for parents to help their daughters in this erratic developmental phase. Along with Nikolopoulou, Melba Nicholson, clinical psychologist at the Family Institute at Northwestern, and Kate Mahoney, executive director of an agency dedicated to substance abuse prevention and treatment called PEER services, shared their experiences working with children.

Mahoney said when children express embarrassment of their parents, parents feel rejected and distance themselves.

“Sometimes as adults who love our kids, we tend to back away a little bit too much,” Mahoney said. “Finding that delicate balance is really important.”

Mahoney said children in this age group dread being asked “How was your day?” so parents should be more creative and find other ways to connect with their children.

One statement that struck a chord with the audience was Nikolopoulou’s emphasis on listening. When in doubt, parents should stop lecturing and pay attention to their child’s concerns.

“The ‘I am listening’ bit was what I am taking away from this,” said Holli Moore, the mother of a fourth grader.

Community involvement was stressed by the panelists in raising “competent girls.”

“As our children move through school, parents become more and more disconnected with each other,” Nicholson said.

She said that strength-based communities can create opportunities for children and a space for children to connect with adult role models.

“Parents, you are your child’s greatest resource,” she said. “And as parents, you are each other’s greatest resource.”

[email protected]