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"You just don't understand" (part one)

As a companion piece to Simon Vincent’s blog about teenage boys, Edrys Barkham, experienced tutor and former hsm, demonstrates that we also know a great deal about teenage girls. She shares her insights below in part one of her blog…

The teenage years are about developing self-identity, learning to take responsibility for yourself and for others, establishing independence, as well as achieving good qualifications. As a housemistress (known as ‘hsm’ at Bryanston) for 13 years and a tutor for 27 years, the trials and tribulations of teenagers from the ages of 13 to 18 have been both my challenge and my personal fulfilment throughout my teaching career.
 
Some of my best years at Bryanston were as hsm of Hunter and I offer the following insights to anyone who is wondering what their delightful 12-year-old girl has turned into as she enters her teens. The following are personal observations. They are not a complete guide to adolescent girls, but insights from a life lived with teenagers. I could not have achieved a fraction of what I did without the support of the whole team of staff dedicated to the development of our wonderful teenagers. The school has valuable expertise and endless patience in allowing girls and boys to find their adult selves through their five years with us.
 
I start, as all the girls do, in D (year 9). At 13 the girls are well into puberty and there have already been significant changes to both the body and the brain. In particular, the number of connections between brain cells has proliferated massively in pretty much all areas of the brain and the adolescent years are used to prune these down to a reasonable number and myelinate (to use a biological term) the most useful connections to form fast networks throughout the brain. This perturbation in the brain, not surprisingly, results in changes to behaviour.
 
On arrival at senior school, there is an overwhelming need for the girls to conform. It can take many forms but do not be surprised if there is a massive use of blue eyeshadow, mascara, and eyebrow definer. You may well be asked for clothes she has never worn before in order to comply with the self-imposed uniform of the peer group – in my early years as a hsm it was long skirts and baggy jumpers and now it tends to be Doc Martens and black skinny jeans. This conformity allows the individual to start testing out their own identity in the safety of looking like everyone else. It is a time when friendships are quickly made and just as quickly changed, the best friend today is ‘like, such a pain’ tomorrow. It’s painful for everyone and parents can be as confused as their daughters, but hold your nerve and let the changes happen. Listen with empathy to the regaling of stories, but don’t believe it all and certainly don’t take it as a true reflection of the situation.
 
It is also the year when parents start to become more of an embarrassment to be tolerated than wonderful people to be celebrated. Arriving to watch matches, concerts and plays may elicit a nod of acknowledgement; you may not get the grateful hug you used to get, just a brief chat before they have to rush off with their friends. Not being in the middle of the peer group is a frightening thought in the mind of a 13–14-year-old.
 
I remember a story from one father, bemused about the change in his daughters’ attitude, telling me that he used to promise to sing to his daughters in the supermarket in exchange for good behaviour. Once they started at senior school, he had to promise never to sing to elicit that same behaviour. Changing your behaviour towards your adolescent children is all part of the excitement and challenge of parenting teenagers.
 
In C (year 10), as the girls are rising 15, they become increasingly self-aware and want to discover their sense of self; so don’t be surprised if they try out different characters – kind and friendly one day, too cool for school the next, and then suddenly morphing into a party animal and rejecting all friends to concentrate on the latest craze or ambition. Trying out new activities, trying no activities, taking an interest in older boys, becoming irritated with parents, seeming not to be able to predict outcomes from their actions, wanting to be right about everything, but also being self-critical and developing self-doubt are all quite normal. It can be an emotional rollercoaster and long and wide experience tells us that it is not always helpful to tell them what to do at this stage. Suggestions that start with phrases such ‘If I were you …’ or, ‘What you should do is …’  tend to be scornfully rejected with retorts such as ‘Well, I am not you’, or ‘You just don’t understand’. If you do proffer advice, and you should as a parent, openings such as ‘You may like to consider…’ or ‘I am sure you have probably already thought of this ...’ but don’t be surprised if these approaches are also spurned. It is hard, but as they start to establish independence from you, they are more likely to listen to their friends, housemistress, tutor, or a friend’s mother: anyone but you!
 
I was always amazed by the way in which some of the girls spoke to their mothers. To me they were usually polite, respectful, funny, positive, interesting and generally a pleasure to be with, but when their mother appeared, they turned into sullen, difficult, pouty and angry behemoths. There seemed no provocation on the part of the parent, just a knee-jerk reaction from the girls to being suddenly put back into the role of the daughter.
 
The turbulence of the 15-year-old world, you will be glad to learn, begins to calm down in year 11. They still want to be with the ‘in crowd’, but they now start to show more of their own personal fashion sense and barriers between friendship groups begin to become more permeable. There is an increasing focus on work and ambition and, as exams approach, more contact with parents for a bit or reassurance and moral support.
 
Keep an eye out for Part Two of Edrys' blog...