Want to go back to middle school? Yeah, we don't either. The tween years are tough. And a new study has put a number as to just how hard it for kids: Charity think tank New Philanthropy Capital surveyed nearly 7,000 children aged 11 to 16 and found that kids report a decline in happiness at age 11.
The researchers were surprised, however, to find how much more girls were affected by this than boys. While girls started out a little less happy than boys, their happiness levels plummeted—while the boys' remained mostly stable—until 16, when both genders started to feel happier again.
An obvious reason for this gap is biological. On average, girls go through puberty two years earlier than boys, so they're subjected sooner to hormonal fluctuations and the changes that come with them. "At this age, kids are going through a variety of 'firsts,'" says Ana Moreno, associate director and director of the adolescent program at Lucida Treatment Center. She says these new experiences combined with the hormonal changes can have great effects in the management of emotions and the development of healthy sexuality.
In addition to biology, kids today live in a very different social landscape than most of us experienced. "All our kids are exposed to peer pressure through social media and different types of bullying than 20 years ago, but girls tend to be more sensitive than boys with ‘fitting in’ related to physical appearance, weight, and gender expectations," Moreno says.
One more reason: Sex in the media. Ready access to porn, everyday sexism, over-sexualized images of girls and women in the media, and new technology that makes sharing images and videos easy and fast are all possible factors, researchers say.
Parents can help teens navigate this tricky time by listening to them, teaching them coping skills, and teaching them to seek out internal rewards rather than depending on their peers for validation, Moreno says. Lastly, she says to give kids lots of opportunities to build self-esteem. "You can do this by doing esteem-able acts. Encourage and recognize when kids do something positive. Simple acts such as opening a door for someone or getting a good grade can be very rewarding."