‘TWEENS’ — never listened to, and almost always talked at. But we can change all that…
One of the characteristics of this century has been the creation of more defined stages of life, each with its own distinct features and cultural tropes. Examples include tweens, teens, over 18 year olds attending secondary school, or adult kids living in share house arrangements with parents.
Of these, it is the tweens who are the most overlooked from a policy and programme perspective. Our national early year’s agenda has focussed attention on the importance of early brain development and early years learning. Health policy has recognised that children are maturing earlier than in previous generations, and that for services to be useful they must respond to a more independent, physically developed and socially aware early teen cohort. Cultural references to the ‘growing ups’ and ‘boomerang generation’ are the subject of community debates on housing affordability and casualisation of the workforce.
But, although a significant target for the marketing industry, 8–12 year old children are largely seen as being the responsibility of schools and families. This is problematic on a few fronts. Firstly, the tween years can also be the time when behavioural and emotional challenges emerge, and children can start to struggle with engaging in school and building and maintaining friendships. Secondly, it can also be the time around which parents start to identify differences in a child’s social and emotional development. As this becomes more noticeable parents start looking for extra support. Tweens too, are constantly changing as puberty kicks in, bringing with it the experience of major physical development and social and emotional change all at once.
Importantly, it is a period through which significant adults, apart from parents and carers, can, and do, have great impact on shaping and framing how children aged 8 to 12 years deal with the concerns and challenges they face. It is a stage where their values are set, where early intervention can have the greatest impact and benefit, and where constructs of fairness and respect are forged. It is also a time when adult validation, approval, and advice is both respected and sought.
It is this last point that is perhaps the most important, because this creates a real opportunity for leaders, educators, as well as parents and carers, to really connect with this age group on those things that matter to them most.
By establishing the lines of communication and trust at this time, adults can help young people navigate the next stage of their lives having experienced firsthand, that someone they respect has their best interests at heart.
In the case of the coronavirus, we have not yet seen our Australian leadership directly address children of this age group in the same way some other progressive countries have. Just imagine what a powerful message this would send our 8 to 12 year olds if they did. It would demonstrate to these young Australians that what they are experiencing right now is ‘big’ and that ‘significant adults’ care about the impact it is having on their lives.
This is not about making it some wishy-washy feel-good moment. It is about taking a critical moment to teach children this age — when they are very receptive to adults and what they have to say — how best to deal with big issues, how to problem-solve with others, how to discuss difficult things, and how to look to the future. These are crucial life skills that when practiced and reinforced, underpin healthy development and improve capacity for attaining and maintaining good mental health over the long term.
As a preventative mental health policy then, it must surely be time for us to have targeted community conversations with children aged 8–12 years?
Conversations that support them to make sense of the changes to their routines they are experiencing, followed by clear and accurate information about what the expected timelines for these changes will be, and in a language they understand. And not being sure of the extent of changes and timelines is okay. Just providing them with the emotional reassurance and authenticity they seek is enough — because kids this age also recognise honesty when they hear it.
Of course, it’s the kind of conversation that is important for individual families to have too, but the opportunity for our leaders to build social trust with a whole generation of young people at this time cannot be underestimated. These children will take this important life lesson with them as they grow into adulthood. It will show them that the way in which adults in leadership deal with difficult issues as a community, is to be inclusive of all citizens; to cater to the needs of all age groups and to empathise with and validate the different experiences of each.
To get this right means understanding the world from the perspective of a child in this age group. It means sitting down with them and really listening to what their concerns are, and then addressing the specific things they name. It doesn’t mean dismissing or patronising them, but instead, explaining the solution put in place and what important things they can do to play their part.
Children desperately want their concerns addressed — not minimised, dismissed, or trivialised. However, they also know that sometimes they don’t quite have the words they need to describe what they’re thinking, or how they feel. That’s when they look to us to take the time to listen and help them to find the words. But neither can our conversations be all about what is worrying them either. They also want significant adults to acknowledge and validate their hopes and dreams at this time too, and how important it is that they still have them.
So let’s encourage our leaders to have conversations with our 8–12 year olds about what’s worrying them most. Let’s ask our leaders to really listen to what they say. That way, like us, they will provide the reassurance our children need, to believe that those in charge really do have their best interests at heart. This kind of reassurance sends the strong message that their wellbeing is important — an essential element of what matters most in our community — and not just right now because of COVID-19, but at all other times too.