‘My friend, she’s really skinny, I need to lose weight’ … the teenage angst swamping 10-year-old girls

Body anxiety. Friendship break-ups. Social media obsessions. Tears, so many tears. For today’s Australian girls, tweens are growing up faster than ever. Welcome to the life of the “ten-ager”.

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In the Media: The Age, Good Weekend, 22 Jan 2021, By Madonna King


Body consciousness saturates what tweens see, looming large on billboards and in smartphone ads. It’s the talk at lunchtime, in sports change rooms and at dance classes.


Body consciousness saturates what tweens see, looming large on billboards and in smartphone ads. It’s the talk at lunchtime, in sports change rooms and at dance classes.CREDIT:GETTY IMAGES

Ava* is shopping with her mum. She’s 10. Feisty. Articulate. And unsure. Her mother wants to buy her a new swimsuit. Ava wants to get one, too, just not the two-piece her mother has chosen for her. “I feel like I have a bit of a belly,” she says. Her friends, listening to the story a few days later, all nod.

“My parents say that when I get older it’s going to stretch out and be okay. But I think I have a really big ribcage.” She stands in front of her friends and holds her hands stiff against her sides. “See, you can see the outline.”

She traces an invisible line down her body. Her friends nod. “So even if I do like them, I don’t want to wear them because my belly sticks out. They’re also too revealing for someone who looks like me.”

Ava and her friends are ten-agers, 10-year-old girls who seem both older than their parents were at the same age, and less well-equipped to deal with life. Moulded by unique times, a 10-year-old today was born a few years after the iPhone came out, and in the same year the first-generation iPad was released and Instagram launched. Siri and AirPods, streaming and TikTok, Instagram and YouTube will be part of their teenage DNA. “Not only are these 10-year-olds a cohort, an age group, but in so many ways [they’re also] a metaphor for the future,’’ says Sydney-based social researcher Mark McCrindle.

It’s okay to be the shape you are. You’re 10!

Courses and school excursions have in many cases replaced childhood adventures, and the social skills of many have been stunted by devices used as pacifiers since birth. That’s partly a reflection of the way we parent, but also of a change in the make-up of our cities and the lure of medium- and high-density living, which has killed off big backyards. Life is more structured, too, with after-school tutoring, soccer coaching and gymnastics sessions taking over from the free play of earlier generations. The focus of parents, often, is towards academic outcomes, and with busy lives themselves, family time tends to see every minute filled.

Intrigued by what all this is doing to the young women of tomorrow, I conducted a year-long study involving 500 10-year-old Australian girls, 100 year 5 teachers, 1600 mothers and 400 fathers, along with dozens of school principals and psychologists. The results highlight how anxiety and friendship dramas haunt this generation, how smartphones and social media are moulding their personalities, and how schools are grappling with their lack of resilience and sleeplessness. Unfailingly non-judgmental of others, their assessment of themselves and their bodies is achingly difficult to understand – and cause for alarm.

“My friend, she’s really skinny,” says Samantha*, who has just turned 11. “Sometimes when I have to play with her and then I go home, I feel like I need to lose weight very quickly. She makes me feel bad.” And so it goes on, around this small table of 10- and 11-year-olds. These girls attend a private primary school in a big Australian city, but their answers are echoed by students in public schools, in other cities and in regional areas, too. Fat arms; a gap in my teeth; too fat for dance now; and tall. They don’t know exactly how tall they are in centimetres, but if they’re taller than their friends they’re too tall. Once assumed a blessing, being tall appears to be especially bad to today’s young girls.

“I don’t fit in, especially since I’m quite tall,” Mia* says. “I usually kind of feel like an outsider.” Alexis* agrees: “I know, right. It just means you have no friends. I wish there was a way of not being tall.”

Brisbane Girls Grammar School psychologist Tara McLachlan says body image issues are made more heartbreaking by the fact that girls often want to change what is not possible. “It’s so hard when it’s something like the colour of their skin, or their height, or things that they just can’t change about themselves,” she says. “And I think it starts at 10 – they just want to fit in and be like everyone else. So if everyone else is taller, they just want to be the same.”

For tweens, reminders of how they want to look are omnipresent. Body consciousness saturates what they see, looming large on billboards and in smartphone ads. It’s the talk at lunchtime, in sports change rooms and at dance classes. HeightWeightHairNosesKnee shape. Susan Dalton, principal of Miami State High School on the Gold Coast, wishes she could make the issue disappear for her students. “It’s okay to be the shape you are,” she says, like she’s talking to 10-year-olds everywhere. “You’re 10!” You can hear the exasperation in her voice.

Paulina Skerman is the principal of independent Catholic school Santa Sabina College in Sydney’s inner west. Conducting enrolment interviews with her youngest students, she emphasises the school’s no-make-up policy. “I have a little giggle when I say that we don’t have make-up here at school, so when you get to grade 11 and 12, you know, no false eyelashes!” The girls laugh and are shocked that false eyelashes could ever be “a thing” at school. But they are in many, many schools. “That’s very much a part of a 16- to 17-year-old girl’s world,” Skerman continues. “False eyelashes, and some may even be experimenting with a bit of Botox.”

She is supported by other principals in making this point: everything we can do to slow down this race by girls to grow up, we should.

How a girl views her body will be influenced by many factors, but mainly by her peers, by technology and by her family, particularly her mother. Janeen Fricke, principal of Queensland’s Mt Isa School of the Air, says fashion is big in country areas, particularly around horse-riding and rodeo events. Body image issues often kick in when the girls go away to boarding school. “There’s often this change: ‘Mum, we don’t want to wear that stuff any more. We want to see what’s at Forever New.’ ”

Other educators share this observation: that girls want to look like someone else – the girl sitting next to them in class, or the girl on this television show, or that YouTube channel, or on the bus. “I want to look like Katie,” one girl says. Why, I ask? “She just looks awesome.” Pressed to describe her, it’s about her hair, and the fact that “she’s just the right height” and she “always looks good”. Some want smaller noses and skinnier knees, different smiles and longer legs. And while many of their mothers might have been critical of their own appearance as teens, it’s the age at which it is happening that shocks educators and parents alike. The self-assessment is more savage, too, a consequence of the constant messaging and perfect world delivered into their social media accounts.

Former long-term Victorian police officer Susan McLean travels Australia talking to students about cyber safety. She says many girls assume the fake or photoshopped photos of other teens and perfect sunsets and products filling their screens are genuine. “If they have access to social media, then they’re getting this total newsfeed of images that you and I know are photoshopped. You and I know they aren’t real,” she says. The girls don’t. The coronavirus pandemic had added a layer of scariness, she says, citing cases where teachers tried to provide lessons via Zoom or a similar platform during lockdown. Children as young as 10 refused, because they were required to appear on video and didn’t like the way they looked.

About 10 is when girls are becoming more aware of branding, in a way a teenager was a decade ago. “It’s not enough just to have a pair of jeans from Target,” author and teen educator Dannielle Miller says. “They’re starting to want designer labels. They’re starting to think that their value increases based on the value of the items they have. So a lot of this has an even deeper impact on girls from lower socioeconomic backgrounds who are starting to realise more and more that what our culture defines as attractiveness may be something that they will find very hard to attain.” That, she says, has been the motivation for some girls caught shoplifting.

“Periods are important because it’s a late event, but there’s a hell of a lot that’s happening beforehand. What we’ve come to understand is that puberty is a process which unfolds over half a dozen years.”

Lisa Miller is head of the junior school at Strathcona Girls Grammar in Melbourne’s Canterbury. Miller says she’s seen the significant shift over the past five years in relation to girls’ sexual development, with puberty arriving earlier, affecting everything from friendships to how girls see themselves and their bodies. This is a focus for George Patton, professor of adolescent health research at Melbourne University. An epidemiologist who is also a senior principal research fellow with Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council, Patton says puberty actually starts years before a girl’s first period, a fact that’s rarely understood or discussed. It is at this point that substantial hormonal changes take place that later play a role in everything from metabolism to mental health to relationship building.

His Childhood to Adolescence Transition Study (CATS), which explores the biological, social and emotional influences during puberty, tracks children from the age of eight to 16. Beginning in 2012 and involving more than 1200 children, families and teachers in and around Melbourne, its findings about the onset of puberty might help teachers understand “something they can’t really put their finger on” that takes hold in years 3 and 4. “Teachers are important figures in the lives of kids. I don’t think this is something that teachers are generally trained in,” he says. “But in terms of teaching and kids reorienting themselves to the wider world, this is an incredible opportunity for education systems to be providing and guiding that sort of reorientation.”

Differences in development and maturity – in the same class and even the same friendship circle – can make for long days and short nights. Some girls at 10 still believe in unicorns, want the warm hand of their dad on the walk through the school gates, and treasure the Build-A-Bear they received last Christmas. Others are shaving their legs, offering their opinions on Snapchat and wondering whether the boy on the bus likes them. Kellie Lyneham, deputy principal –student wellbeing at Melbourne’s Korowa Anglican Girls’ School, sees this wide variance in development regularly. “There’s a critical mass who want to be treated like grown-up girls, who want to have the opportunities to demonstrate independence and to make choices about their learning and about their experience on a daily basis,” she says. “Then there’s a cohort who would really just like to be treated like little girls.”

Ask 1600 mothers about the concerns they hold for their 10-year-olds and the answers run the spectrum. Featuring highly among most of them, however, are body image, the inability to make and keep friends and the obsession and nastiness involved with social media. “Why do some girls become so unkind and nasty?’’ one mother asks me.

The girls’ responses illustrate her concern. “I find it hard to make friends because I am so worried about if they like me or not,’’ Aisha* tells me. Francesca* is equally anxious. “I’m hard to talk to,’’ she says. Mei* can identify. For her, finding and keeping friends is the toughest part about being 10. “Some of them turn out to be using you,’’ she says. “Real friends are hard to discover.”

Many principals believe the need to teach girls friendship etiquette has increased after last year’s coronavirus lockdown, when for a while schoolchildren didn’t have regular physical interaction with their peers. All too often, tech-savvy children reach for a phone, iPad or school computer and send off a message that starts a chain reaction. Simple annoyances become friendship deciders. One of the most common examples comes about as a consequence of a girl sending a text to a friend at night. The sender sees the “read” receipt, but doesn’t receive a reply. By morning, a “fight” has developed and everyone knows it. The 10-year-old whose parents stopped her replying, or who read the message just before nodding off to sleep, is unfriended and ostracised. In the parlance of our 10-year-olds, she was responsible for her friend being “left on read”.

Dealing with friendship fallouts and social media nastiness requires a maturity many 10-year-olds lack. Former primary school teacher Hugh van Cuylenburg authored The Resilience Project, a 2019 book that explores why many Australian children struggle to find happiness and calm. He wrote it after a stint a decade earlier teaching in India, where he was mystified at the contentment of children sleeping rough with their families each night. “I thought of all the people I knew back in Australia and the students I’d taught over the years who’d struggled with depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses. Why were we in the developed world so broken? Why were we in Australia, such a beautiful and privileged country, so anxious and depressed?”

Van Cuylenburg came to the conclusion that gratitude, empathy and mindfulness all play an important part in building a foundation of resilience in tween girls.

Resilience is also mentioned by mothers. “She’s a high achiever in most areas and hasn’t really experienced much disappointment. I wonder how she will cope when things don’t turn out well,” one mum says. Adds another of her own daughter: “She cries a lot over nothing. It could be her siblings, or having to walk too far. I wish she would toughen up.” Says a third mother: “She is way more awesome and amazing and smart than she seems to believe or give herself credit for.” And this from a fourth: “I’d love her to be more willing to try new things and to tough out things she finds hard. She quits too soon.”

Melbourne teen psychologist Andrew Fuller warns however that many children present differently at school than they do at home. “Grade 5 and grade 6 is a time of incredible capacity. They are quite resilient,” he says. “At home with their parents they might be different to what they truly are. I think it’s easy to underestimate kids a bit.”

Melbourne teen psychologist Andrew Fuller: “In terms of creative and critical thinking, they’re very good. Where they struggle often is in disruption in friendships, how to repair a relationship, and often [they] may become overly concerned about minor setbacks in their life, so they freak out.”


Melbourne teen psychologist Andrew Fuller: “In terms of creative and critical thinking, they’re very good. Where they struggle often is in disruption in friendships, how to repair a relationship, and often [they] may become overly concerned about minor setbacks in their life, so they freak out.”CREDIT:GETTY IMAGES

Teachers hold a special position, able to see and hear how 10-year-olds interact with each other, and the level of self-awareness and self-sufficiency they show. I ask 100 grade 5 teachers how they viewed resilience levels among their 10-year-old students, and common themes pop up: structure, routine, outside influences and experiences all boost confidence levels. Sometimes it’s the quieter girls who exhibit the greatest calmness and strength.

“Those with outside interests show more resilience,”’ one teacher explains. From another: “Those with higher resilience come from families with structure, routine and strict protocols, and a culture of reading/adventure.” Adds a third teacher: “I think the level of resilience really depends on the experiences they’ve had. Some have high levels of resilience and will usually be confident in themselves, but also still [be] quiet – they are not the loud, out-there girls.” And this from another: “The students with higher resilience tend to be more comfortable with their own view of themselves; are more willing to try new things; are active listeners and readily give encouragement to others. They also are usually more self-sufficient and don’t require others so much for validation.”

Overwhelmingly, teachers see parents playing a significant role in making or breaking resilience levels. Says one: “I have noticed the students who are more resilient come from families who have parents who are easygoing and resilient themselves. However, I find students who are not very resilient seem to come from families who worry, are over-protective and lack problem-solving skills.” And another: “Those who are more resilient usually come from homes where parents don’t bubble-wrap their children every step of the way.” And a third: “Parents who allow their children to ‘fail’, not rescue or problem-solve for them but cheerlead from the sideline … [this] definitely makes a difference with how a 10-year-old responds to challenging situations.”

Those who’ve faced adversity early in their lives, like illness, are mentioned by teachers as being better able to handle the issues thrown at them. Melbourne psychologist Andrew Fuller, whose own daughter survived childhood leukaemia, says this is a common belief in cancer wards. “Kids with cancer are sometimes tearaway teenagers, willing to do anything. They have both a derring-do and a fragility.” Rural children also seemed generally mentally tougher, an observation supported by boarding school educators and those who’ve worked in both rural and metropolitan areas. Janeen Fricke, the Mount Isa principal, says watching their parents struggle with drought on isolated stations means many of her students understand the bigger picture in a way 10-year-olds in the warm embrace of a city might not. “It might be weather-induced problems, or an accident, or the life cycle of animals living and dying, but they’re really in touch with that side of life.”

“Grade 5 and grade 6 is a time of incredible capacity. They’re quite resilient. At home with their parents they might be different to what they truly are.”

Fricke, who has also worked in big regional areas, makes a link between this and their ability to both solve problems and use networks. “So if you’re on an isolated station, and there’s a problem, your next-door neighbour is probably going to help, or the Royal Flying Doctor Service, or people on the side of the road. You all pull together. They know they have to problem-solve to deal with difficult situations, and that tomorrow still exists.”

What’s interesting, she says, is that the work around body image and anxiety needs to begin when country children move to the city to attend boarding school, or to stay with cousins and attend day school. “Whether it’s after year 6 or year 10, it’s then they get exposed to human behaviours that they’ve never had to deal with. And that’s where they don’t have resilience because they’re not used to people not working together.” So what can we learn from our country cousins? “Probably backing each other. Particularly when stress hits, you have got to have others around you who can help you.”

Andrew Fuller believes 10-year-olds today are smarter than in previous generations, and says many are good problem-solvers. “In terms of creative and critical thinking, they’re very good. Where they struggle often is in disruption in friendships, how to repair a relationship, and often [they] may become overly concerned about minor setbacks in their life, so they freak out.” Any of us can “freak out” when we’re challenged; it’s how we deal with it that matters.

“For some people,” continues Fuller, “you can then become avoidant to
the situation and go, ‘Well, I’ll never do that again because basically it was just too hard.’ But for others there will be a kind of over-focus on achieving in that area that can also be a form of not being resilient.”

The 100 teachers whose advice I seek nominate similar characteristics when it comes to identifying those who showcase grit and persistence in their classrooms. These are: the ability to work independently; not having the same driving need to fit in as some of their peers; a better self-concept; more positivity; better problem-solving skills: the ability to bounce back from disagreements; and fewer tears.

Tears. That word pops up repeatedly in my research, and it raises the issue of self-regulation, which Fuller says is one of the strongest predictors of success. This includes developing executive functions like willpower, decision-making and planning abilities. “ ‘So when I’m feeling grumpy and anxious and tetchy, how do I learn to deal with that? And when I’m feeling flat and uninterested and bored and avoidant, how do I learn to deal with that?’ ”

Self-regulation is also a research focus for Professor Kate Williams from Queensland University of Technology’s School of Early Childhood and Inclusive Education. She says about 30 per cent of young children have difficulty regulating their emotions and that a tie exists between the ability to self-regulate and wellness. “We’ve been able to link, in our studies, early self-regulation – even as young as four or five and absolutely it would still be predictive at 10 – [to] things like adult mental health and psychological distress, gambling, substance abuse, teen substance abuse, self-harm,” she says. “So if you can build those self-regulation skills early, you will drop the risk of those things happening drastically.”

Music can also play a role in developing self-regulation, according to Williams, who is a registered music therapist. She cites this example: when her husband played his music of choice at home, her then 10-year-old would complain it made her “dizzy”. She’d say, “That makes me feel yuck, can you turn it off?” Her daughter would then put on her own boppy music and her mood would instantly change. “So really, letting them use music as a tool, and talking to them about that, from about 10, is good.” That’s because the older our daughters get, the more music is likely to become part of their social lives and the more they’ll need to understand how the music they listen to affects their moods.

Author and former teacher Hugh van Cuylenburg also sings the praises of music – along with exercise and laughter – to help us feel more positive. In primary school, those three activities take up a chunk of the day both in the curriculum and in the playground. But at around this age, structured music lessons begin to trail off for many girls, and that needs attention, he believes. “A lot of kids are self-conscious at that stage, so getting involved in music is probably a little bit harder – but we definitely need to have more.”

Fuller admits this is all tricky and that the links between self-confidence, self-esteem and resilience are not linear. “It is not a neat link,” he says. “It’s interesting because what we see is that some of our most optimistic, high-self-esteem kids can actually fall apart quite quickly. While intuitively you’d think that higher self-esteem is going to lead to higher resilience, it’s not always true.”

“Some of our most optimistic, high-self-esteem kids can fall apart quite quickly. While intuitively you’d think higher self-esteem is going to lead to higher resilience, it’s not always true.”

Nonetheless, principals say they can often spot confidence and self-sufficiency at the age of 10. Many raise, unprompted, the notion that it lights up a path to leadership. Kevin Tutt, the recently retired principal of Seymour College, a private day and boarding school for girls in Adelaide, says those showing self-confidence and an ability to adapt to change frequently become class or school leaders. At his school, primary education ends in grade 5 and the junior school has its own captains. “The two girls there at the moment … you can see a maturity about them – but it’s the right maturity with respect to really good values.” That, he believes, comes from their families. “The values side of parenting is increasingly important.”

So what do our 10-year-old girls want from their parents? I ask 500 10-year-olds that question. Many jot their answer down on paper.

“Dear Mum and Dad, I love you a lot but I wish you wouldn’t cut me off when I’m talking. Also some more privacy please.”

“Can you listen to me without commenting and [then forgetting what I said] completely?’’

‘“Can I have a phone and can you spend more time with me?”

“Can we do more things with family including Dad because he is always at work?”

From Sydney to Melbourne, Adelaide to Hobart, Perth to Cairns, the answers are a direct plea to their carers for a few key gifts. More time with them. The touch involved in snuggles and cuddles and kisses. More independence. Less judgment. But more than anything, our ten-agers want a reminder that they remain the centre of our worlds.

* Names changed for privacy. Ten-Ager: What Your Daughter Needs to Know About the Transition from Child to Teen (Hachette, $33) is out Tuesday.