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Why Girls’ Social Struggles Intensify During Adolescence

Friendships can be challenging, especially during adolescence. When you ask women to recall their preteen and teen social lives, a consistent pattern emerges. There are stories of enduring friendships but also uncomfortable social memories. Women share stories of exclusion, drama, loneliness, fitting in, and friendships lost.

And this rings true for girls today. A UCLA study of 6,000 sixth-graders found that two-thirds changed friendships during their first middle school year. The majority of adolescents report feeling lonely at some point.

What is it about adolescence that intensifies social struggles, especially for girls?

It turns out, several factors contribute to this. Tweens learn how to navigate complex social groups alongside the physical, emotional, and intellectual changes that go along with puberty. And all of this happens as peer acceptance grows in importance and confidence levels drop.

Confidence drops

Puberty is a turbulent time for confidence in all genders, but girls experience a significant drop. Claire Shipman, Katty Kay, and JillEllyn Riley, authors of The Confidence Code for Girls, found that girls’ confidence levels drop by 30% between the ages of eight and fourteen. The authors contribute much of this drop to newly formed habits such as overthinking, people-pleasing, and perfectionism. This lack of confidence ripples through girls’ relationships and increases the likelihood of self-doubt, social anxiety, and risk avoidance.

Increased reliance on peers

While confidence is dipping, adolescents are also in the midst of the developmental phase that shifts their reliance on family to a reliance on peers. During this period, friendships begin to replace family as tweens’ primary source of identity and support. Social conformity becomes a typical response to the urgent need to fit in and be accepted into a new replacement “family.”

As psychologist Lisa Damour shares in her book Untangled, this process of finding a new group is nothing less than a strategy for survival. Cliques and social drama are often anxiety-fueled behaviors to manage the transition from family as the primary social support to finding a sense of belonging in peers.

Seeking identity

As kids look more to peers to find support and belonging, they need to figure out where they fit in the sea of students, groups, and activities. During adolescence, kids begin to explore their social world, including who their friends are, what they wear, and what activities they do. They start to question, experiment with, and shape their identity.

In early elementary school, friendships often form based on proximity, such as being in the same class or the same neighborhood. Starting in late elementary school and middle school, friendships begin to form based on shared interests and deeper feelings of acceptance. The pursuit of identity ripples into friendships and prompts changes.

Physiological changes

Bubbling beneath the surface of all of this, the physiological changes in adolescence amplify the intensity of teens’ emotions and experiences. During adolescence, we feel our feelings most deeply, which creates enduring memories. As described by psychologist Laurence Steinberg in Age of Opportunity, “the hormones released in puberty affect our ‘sensitivity thresholds,’ how reactive we are to things that happen to us and what we feel.”

In summary

To say a lot is going on developmentally during adolescence is an understatement. It is a period of tremendous change and growth. Decreasing confidence and finding identity, combined with physiological changes, make this a tricky time for many girls and their parents. An enduring pandemic layered on top adds a new level of change to this already complex phase.

So how can parents support their daughters?

By listening deeply and empathizing, parents can help girls navigate their emotions and complex social situations. Active listening, without judgment, gives girls time and space to process their feelings and experiences aloud, which can increase self-awareness, improve clarity, and reduce anxiety. Parents can help their daughters avoid assumptions and gently broaden their perspectives. There is usually more to situations that they may not be considering. If a girl’s social struggles are ongoing and impacting her well-being, parents should consider reaching out to the school counselor or another professional for additional support. There is no way to avoid discomfort during this phase or any phase of life, but parents play an essential role in helping their daughters feel loved and accepted at home as she navigates bumps in the road.

Jessica Speer is the author of BFF or NRF (Not Really Friends)? A Girl’s Guide to Happy Friendships, which grew out of her friendship program that strengthens social awareness and helps kids learn to navigate common struggles. She has a master’s degree in social sciences and focuses her research and writing on social-emotional topics for kids and families. To learn more, visit, www.JessicaSpeer.com.

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