Betwixt and between: Girls (and boys) in their ‘middle years’ need tailored support

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Children and young people in their middle years (defined here as between the ages of 8 – 12) are being overlooked in policy and program design. Not yet adolescents, but no longer children, these young people are increasingly experiencing complex challenges.  Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand is launching their new report, Bridging the divide: Supporting children and young people in their middle years this week. Authors Magdalena McGuire (@Magdalena_McG) and Policy Whisperer Susan Maury (@SusanMaury) undertook this research to highlight some of these challenges and to identify how to better support this age group. This research included a scoping exercise, a review of recent research literature and the current policy context relating to the middle years cohort, and consulting with a key informant advisory forum – a process that sought insight from a curated group of 43 expert participants representing over 20 cross-sector organisations with experience working with the middle years. This post provides a shortened version of the executive summary. The full report is available here.

Why the middle years?

The ‘middle years’ are a critical time of development, often setting the trajectory of a person’s life course. When children and young people in this age group experience homelessness; are placed in out-of-home care; experience discrimination or stereotyping due to their gender, ethnicity, socio-economic status or sexual orientation; are victims of violence; or fail to achieve at school, it can lead to social isolation, poor mental health, and disengagement from school.

Despite the critical nature of these formative years, they are in many ways ‘hidden.’ When Good Shepherd first started exploring the challenges that children and young people in their middle years experience, through two student scoping projects conducted in 2008[1] and 2011,[2]  we found that age-appropriate services are both hard to find and are overlooked as being needed. In the words of one practitioner:

Left hanging...?  Photo detail, Chicago 1902

“I find with the eight to 12 year olds, they’re the silent group…The focus is either on the adolescents or the young kids and their behaviours, but the eight to twelves tend to be the children in the middle that aren’t displaying a lot of behaviours, they’re kind of floating along until they hit adolescence.”[3]

One practitioner likened services on offer to babysitting, despite this age group requiring information and guidance for navigating the intricacies of young adulthood, the onset of puberty, transitions into high school, and the increasing complexity of social networking – both online and offline. Perhaps most critically, practitioners said that children and young people in the middle years need safe places to develop their own sense of identity and agency.

These scoping projects highlighted that the middle years are being overlooked by virtually everyone. With some isolated exceptions, government policy, programs, practitioners and funding agencies are focussed on either the early years or adolescence.

Opportunities and challenges

The literature review found that children and young people in their middle years are often deeply attached to family and friends, they are open to new experiences and learning, and often enjoy school and other organised programs. These characteristics mean this is the time of life when children and young people are particularly open to learning how to navigate their world in protective ways, and how to create and sustain positive relationships.

Conversely, the middle years is a time of great transition and upheaval, which is complicated (and at times, enhanced) by the dominance of social media and internet usage. This cohort is increasingly presenting at young people’s services with complex issues, which can be driven by gender, socio-economic standing, experiences of family violence or other trauma, and/or having an identity that is Aboriginal or culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD). Without proper supports, children and young people in the middle years can start to manifest poor mental health, disengage from education, lose connection with family and friends, and start to engage in risk-taking behaviours.

Requiring agency and respect

A key theme of the findings is one of agency. Children and young people in their middle years are looking for both opportunities and guidance in sharing their views and experiences, as well as in making or contributing to decisions that affect them. In order to do this effectively, they are eager for, and need, appropriate information – including, for example, holistic, age-appropriate sex education. This education should include such topics as gender inequality and stereotyping, respectful relationships, human rights, and body image. In the absence of such information, the middle years cohort either fills this gap with unhealthy messaging obtained from ‘tween culture,’[4] pornography and other sources, or remains ignorant of very real issues and are unprepared to navigate them when they arise.

Linked to agency is the message of respect. The research indicates that the middle years cohort handles many responsibilities and difficulties. These can include caring duties, providing cultural and linguistic translation for parents, navigating the out-of-home care and homelessness systems, or being subject to early sexualisation and bullying. Supporting this group cannot be done effectively without respecting their experiences and viewpoints, and allowing them spaces and places to safely develop a sense of identity.

Gendered differences are concerning

Gender is another important focus of the Bridging the Divide report, as the experiences of girls and young women are different to those of boys and young men. Even more concerning, it appears that girls and young women in the middle years are faring less well in key development areas, particularly mental health. This is a recent trend. While it is difficult to identify with certainty why mental health is deteriorating for girls and young women, it may be due to the messaging encoded in ‘tween culture,’ in which girls and young women are positioned as passive consumers rather than actively engaged in civil society. Added to this is the sexualisation of girls at ever younger ages, and the ready access to pornography which reinforces negative, passive stereotypes about women and girls and – worse still – carries a limiting message about the value of women and girls and condones violence perpetrated against them. And finally, unfounded stereotypes about gendered differences of ability in science and math continue to be perpetuated, which discourages female participation in these critical areas of learning.

Part of a pattern

The findings reported here are part of a greater pattern that is starting to emerge in terms of the experiences of the middle years cohort.

Plan International Australia recently published survey findings of 817 Australian girls and young women aged 10 – 17, in the Dream Gap report. The responses reinforce the unique difficulties that girls and young women face in Australia. Nearly every person surveyed agreed that girls do not receive equal treatment to boys. Disturbingly, young women’s confidence decreases across time, from 56 per cent of 10-year-old girls saying they are confident to only 44 per cent saying they are at the age of 17. Similarly, 75 per cent of girls under the age of 14 indicated they had leadership opportunities, but only 57 per cent of young women 18+ felt this was true for them. When asked what they would like to see change, 50 per cent of girls under the age of 14 wanted gender equality. For those who were slightly older (15 – 17 years), an overwhelming concern – 93 per cent – was being judged by their appearance, rather than their skills, talents and intellect.

Similarly, Women’s Health Victoria has recently released Growing up unequal, focussed on the health outcomes of gender inequality on girls and young women aged 10 – 20. The findings point to gender inequality as the primary driver of physical and mental health differences between males and females in this age group. The way that inequalities manifested were quite diverse: boys and young men, for example, are given more latitude to move around on their own, whereas girls and young women were much more likely to have restrictions placed on them due to safety concerns. Girls and young women do more housework, but are paid less for it, thereby restricting both their time and finances for connecting with their peers. Mental health is significantly poorer for girls and young women in this age bracket compared to their male peers, including rates of anxiety, depression, concerns about body image, and the onset of eating disorders. And finally, girls and young women are at increased risk of poor health outcomes when they are also subject to racism, ableism or homophobia.

It is clear that there are enormous benefits to increasing support for children and young people in the middle years. It is also clear that support must be co-designed; this is a cohort that understands their experiences, wants to be engaged, and is eager to learn how to navigate the world. Bridging the divide advocates for supporting the middle years in a way that is enabling and respectful, understanding that the experiences and views of children and young people must remain at the centre. 

References

[1] Rizza, S. (2008). Tweenies: To gain an understanding of the service gaps that exists for children between the ages of 8-12. Unpublished scoping project conducted as part of a Bachelor of Youth Studies, Victoria University.

[2] Close, R. (2011). Disadvantaged pre-teens and their families: A scoping study for Good Shepherd Youth & Family Service. Unpublished scoping project conducted as part of a Master’s in Social Work, RMIT University.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Tween culture “has formed, and been formed by…earlier onset of puberty, greater responsibilities in the family and at school, and an increase in personal income… Tweens have emerged as a demographic in their own right as previously adult experiences and interests such as sexuality, popular culture, money, and the occupation of public space are pushed back further and further into youth.” Harris, Anita (2005). In a Girlie World: Tweenies in Australia, p. 210. In Seven Going on Seventeen: Tween Studies in the Culture of Girlhood. Claudia Mitchell & Jacqueline Reid-Walsch (eds.). Peter Lang: New York. 

This post is part of the Women's Policy Action Tank initiative to analyse government policy using a gendered lens. View our other policy analysis pieces here.