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Can My Daughter Just Never Be a Pre-Teen?

I have this nightmare. My little girl—my sweet, adorable, loving toddler—isn’t so little anymore. Instead, she’s an angsty pre-teen with hormones coursing through her veins and attitude for days.

I don’t worry about that attitude, or those hormones, so much in terms of how she relates to me. I’ve worked with pre-teen girls in a volunteer capacity for many years, and even got my foster care license with intentions of fostering young girls, aged 8 to 13. I know it’s a group most people would whole-heartedly avoid, but for my part, I’ve always done well with this demographic. I’m good with pre-teen girls.

So it isn’t our relationship I worry about, so much as the challenges I know await her in those pre-teen years.

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The memories of my own pre-teen years pervade those nightmares. Girls were best friends one day, enemies the next, and even the nice girls could be pretty damn mean from time to time.

I recently helped a friend host a slumber party for her 12-year-old daughter, and my worries about the pre-teen years only increased as a result. There was the pervasive jealousy I had anticipated, a shifting of dynamics throughout the night that had girls fighting with each other one minute and exchanging tear-filled hugs and declarations of love the next. You could actually see the emotions of being left out etched across girls’ faces when two bounded off together in a corner, or when one announced another as her “best friend,” leaving the rest to wonder where that left them. They all tried to force smiles, pretending as though none of it mattered, simultaneously plotting their own ways to get back “in.”

These were all things I had expected, even the “Best Friend Challenge,” which apparently involves testing other girls on their knowledge of you and hitting them in the face with an egg if they get your questions wrong. As the girls laughed and smashed eggs, I was reminded of a birthday party where my own friends and I challenged each other to eat our cake without utensils—the resulting photo, and the look on my face, highlighting all that angsty attitude I was certainly harboring myself.

But then there were the mean girl antics. One girl, who hadn’t been invited to the party, repeatedly prank called the others, saying increasingly insulting things in a nasaly voice when they answered her calls from a blocked number, until I finally confiscated the phone and put an end to that nonsense, making it very clear her behavior was encroaching upon harassment territory and wouldn't be allowed any longer.

I, of course, also gave the other girls a lecture on mean girl behavior, thoroughly convinced that they certainly weren’t innocent in this “war” (after all, I was once a pre-teen myself). But what more can you do?

It always felt like what was happening then was bad enough, but is it possible the pre-teen years truly have gotten so much worse?

I remember being in junior high, at a slumber party with a large group of “friends.” We decided to play a game—one that involved anonymously writing down the things we didn’t like about other girls in the room, and then placing those notes into a hat. We took turns drawing items from that hat, reading the grievances aloud. Twenty minutes in, everyone was in tears.

And I just look back and wonder … why? Why would we ever have treated our friends that way?

The only explanation I have is that pre-teen girls are assholes.

But let’s not forget the boys. Don’t even get me started on the boys. Our crushes shifted from minute to minute. We were always in competition over some boy or another. And they volleyed back and forth between us like trinkets up for trade.

So I shouldn’t have been surprised when the girls at this slumber party started to explain to me the complicated love triangles they were all involved in. One girl had purportedly dated each of the other’s current boyfriends at one point or another; she claimed to have no qualms with the pairings now. Girls shared crushes on the same boy, and on one in particular, who was a year ahead of them and had been held back in school, and was thus 15. He seemed a particularly ominous figure to me.

I told him as much when the girls called him a few hours later, giggling as he was on speaker phone telling them about how he “used” to be gay (yeah, I don’t understand how that works either) and also “used” to be a drug dealer (from the sound of things, a friend once paid him for pot, but he clearly thought the words “drug dealer” made him sound so much cooler than he was). When I had heard enough, I picked up that phone from the middle of the room, too, telling the girls this boy and I needed to have a chat. Then I told him he had no business talking to a bunch of 12-year-old girls, and that he probably shouldn’t call back.

I definitely lost my cool auntie points right about then. But seriously, who was this kid? And what was he doing talking to a little girl I have known and loved for years?!

For some reason, the girls still felt comfortable talking to me as the night progressed. They seemed to think my interjections were amusing rather than embarrassing, maybe because I wasn't actually any of their moms. They told me about the friends of theirs who have already had sex. About those who are in foster care because of alcoholic parents and tragic situations. They spoke about the girl whose father tried to kill himself, prior to undergoing a sex change that now left her with two mommies. And about the boys who would only date the girls willing to put out; the expectations being to hook up before commitment. Always.

They were issues that so far exceeded anything I was dealing with when I was their age. I mean, it always felt like what was happening then was bad enough, but is it possible the pre-teen years truly have gotten so much worse? As I listened intently, offering up poignant advice when I could, I felt my stomach churning. Because my daughter will be there, at that stage, in only 10 years. And then what?

I’m pretty sure the pre-teen years are about as bad as it gets, both for parent and child. I can’t remember any other point in my life when I felt so unsure of myself. So insecure. So uncomfortable in my own skin.

And so ready and willing to do anything, and everything, just to be popular, just to please those friends who could so easily write nasty things about me on anonymous shreds of paper, just to see if they could make me cry.

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Don’t get me wrong—I was never innocent myself. Because pre-teen girls are assholes, each capable of acts I’m sure their parents could never fathom.

It's suddenly the age of my nightmares. And I wonder if it is at all possible to navigate the pre-teen years with my daughter locked safely away in a closet.

Image via Leah Campbell

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