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Tweens: The Changes They’re Going Through

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

“How Childhood Has Changed for Tweens” by Phyllis Fagell in Phi Delta Kappan, April 2019 (Vol. 100, #7, p. 8-12),; Fagell is at
In this Kappan article, school counselor/author/therapist/parent Phyllis Fagell says the challenges she faced as a young adolescent in the 1980s were not that different from those of today’s middle-school students: “As their prefrontal cortex develops, they’re malleable, impulsive, and impressionable. They’re capable of reasoning intellectually, interpreting emotions, and taking a moral stand, but they lack perspective or life experience. Sorting out social drama can consume large chunks of their time, and they tend to experience emotions in polarities. Any mishap can register as a catastrophe, and they have little understanding that negative feelings are temporary. They’re trying to figure out what coping skills work for them and where their strengths and interests align. They’re hyperaware of an invisible audience judging their every move and picking up on their shortcomings and limits… It’s a time of insecurity, hormonal changes, and contradictions. The only other time a child experiences so much development is between birth and age two.”
But Fagell believes three things are different for young adolescents growing up in today’s rapidly changing world:
• Technology is omnipresent. Many kids are online almost constantly, which has some benefits but poses a number of challenges: staying safe, being kind, dealing with bullying, making sense of violent news clips and pornography, cheating in school, multitasking, staying up too late, and preserving one’s reputation. Looking at brushed-up photos on social media and competing for “likes” amps up worries about appearance, contributing to negative body images. There’s also the problem of online material being up there for good: a seventh grader in Fagell’s school allowed his friends to film him swishing his head in a toilet; it hadn’t occurred to him that the video they posted might be available to someone deciding on his college application.
• Tweens have more mental-health issues – Today’s families are more open about divorce, job losses, therapy, and special needs; also, many parents are hyper-involved and overly controlling, which results in kids having less autonomy and not feeling they have as much control over their fates. In addition, today’s parents are putting more emphasis on achievement and competition and less on caring for others – and this is true across racial, cultural, and economic groups. What’s missing at home and in school is the space for kids to learn problem-solving skills, make mistakes, resolve conflicts, and build a sense of confidence and agency. These and other forces have led to an increase in anxiety and depression among young people; the suicide rate among 10-14-year olds in the U.S. doubled from 2007 to 2014.
• Hate is competing with positive identity work. There’s been an increase in racism, antisemitism, and homophobia in recent years, even while there’s heightened interest in Gay-Straight Alliances, political activism, and efforts to build emotionally healthy boys, pushing back on the perennial macho ethos and trying to adjust to the #MeToo era. On balance, things may be moving in the right direction, says Fagell: “Middle schoolers have always been tuned into justice and fairness, but today’s tweens are perhaps even more likely to take on an activist role, whether they lobby for gun control, the environment, or immigration rights.”

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