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Playing Push-Pull: The Social Life of a Tweenager 

click to enlarge HILLARY HARVEY
  • Hillary Harvey

Tweens are the first to tell you they have it rough. Amid the temper tantrums and eye rolling, they're straddling childhood and adolescence. But in the face of all its ensuing challenges, it's a transition where adults largely close their eyes and hold their breath until it passes. Basically created for product marketing, even the label tween, meaning roughly 10- to 12-year-olds, suggests something's coming and kids have to get ready. "It creates anxiety," says Amy Frisch, a psychotherapist with offices in New Paltz and Montgomery. "If you're not ready in the pace of our culture, there's judgment around that." There are endless investigations about the teen years, but at its brink, all we have to say is, "Watch out!" Three local programs are geared toward the real, developmental needs of our tweens.

It's a Girl Thing

A secret adorned the back of the T-shirt. The circle of eight 12-year-old girls were a few weeks into a 10-week support group. Each week had a theme (for example, healthy communication, relationships with parents, and school transitions), and the T-shirts were an exercise. On the front, the girls depicted something that they show readily to the world; on the back, they revealed something they usually kept hidden. That's when one girl confessed that she kept her Polly Pockets dolls hidden under her bed. She didn't always play with them, but she liked to have them there. "It was an incredible moment," says Frisch, the group's facilitator. "They're afraid of getting older. They're moving too quickly into the adolescent world and feeling pressure. Then there's this tender moment where the girls could say, 'I just want to be seven again.'"

Most endocrinologists agree that the onset of puberty, which is still wholly individual, is generally happening earlier. And with that comes increased hormonal activity at a time when kids aren't mature enough to handle it. It can be painful for parents when kids need space and aren't able to communicate that politely. "The call of adolescence is to leave childhood behind," says Frisch. With that, comes the desire to give up parents, too. But Frisch notices that parents also get tripped up in that belief, usually because they're tired at that point in their parenting from giving so much already. We nudge tweens to place more importance on their friendships than their family relationships, essentially using their rawness as an excuse to push them away. "It comes down to parenting—the limits set and how far they're allowed to explore," Frisch says.

Because they develop at different rates, tweens often worry about how they're perceived. And Frisch feels those expectations start with adults. Adults joke about arranged marriages and feign disgust when tweens' personal hygiene and style fall outside of cultural norms. They're subtle cues, but kids seek them. "It's based on what adults allow kids to do. It's unspoken. But that's why that secret that was disclosed in my group was so golden. Even with mature kids, it's fun to play. And we don't value play for tweens in the same way." When 10- or 11-year-olds hit the toy store, they're offered movies, devices, and arts and crafts. There are a lot less manipulative toys developed for that age group. But play remains, as it did when they were little, an important activity for developing social skills, creative problem solving, focus, and an outlet for blowing off steam.

In her adolescent support groups, which create a safe community for peers to give and get support, Frisch helps the girls to slow down and play. "These are formative, critical years, and they need space and permission to just be girls." Frisch runs weekend retreats at a private residence in Montgomery each summer in early July. There's a labyrinth and a fire pit. They swim at midnight, play their music too loud, sleep in tents, and cook their own vegetarian meals. They try walking meditation, yoga, and expressive arts, like journaling, movement, and music, which allows them to articulate their innermost feelings. "Girls want to know that they're okay at their core, that they're loveable and worthy, that they fit in somewhere," Frisch says. "We all have emotional debt. We all have a story. The threads in those stories are similar, and that's what helps girls feel connected."

GoodLife Youth Journal

When one of her son's friends passed away, Catherine McNamara responded by creating a print magazine for the Hudson Valley where the content would be entirely provided by young people, ages 10 to 20. Her younger son photographs for it, and her older son writes a column of interviews with artists. What started three years ago with five printed pages and research hanging from a clothesline in her living room has grown to a quarterly print run of 7,000 and a small office in the center of Woodstock.

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