The five stages of girlhood

What your daughter needs to learn at each step in order to grow wise, warm and strong.

Two-year-old Mollie lifts a truck high in the air and is about to smack it down on her friend Jemima’s head. Even at two, she knows this is not right, so she glances towards her mother. Mum has seen it all and is flashing her a ‘don’t you dare’ frown. Ever … so … slowly, Mollie lowers the truck to the carpet and returns to crayoning.

Jemima is blissfully unaware and goes on humming to herself while holding firmly on to the only yellow crayon.

Ten-year-old Elise looks at her computer screen and sees a message bagging one of the girls in her class, a girl who is already shy and insecure.

It’s mean and personal, and one of her own friends just posted it. Elise chews her top lip. She hates bullying, but how can she intervene and not make enemies? She taps angrily on the arm of her chair before heading upstairs to find her dad.

Fifteen-year-old Samantha hesitates during the maths exam. She knows if she keeps going she’ll probably top the class – she likes maths and always does well. But if she does, she will be seen as a ‘brain’, which is so uncool, especially with boys. She could make a few deliberate mistakes or leave out a couple of questions – but does she want to?

Raising a daughter is fun – they bring lots of joy into your life. But there can be anxious times as well. Dramas happen – but these dramas help our girls grow. Will little Mollie learn to share? Will Elise stand up for her friend? Can Samantha stay true to herself? All these struggles are part of building the woman your daughter will become. If you recognise them, you won’t be flustered and can help your daughter figure it all out.

1 Birth-2 years
Security: ‘Am I safe and am I loved?’

Human babies are totally defenseless, but they instinctively know that the adults around them must love them, or else they may not give them proper care.

It’s not enough to be fed and clothed. Machines could feed a baby girl and keep her alive, but she would not develop intelligence or kindness. She would be a very strange being indeed. As her parents play with her, comfort her tenderly, sing and talk to her, jiggle, tickle and love her, a baby comes to believe that life is good.

As people respond to her physical and emotional needs, growth hormones – instead of stress hormones – flood her body and brain. She instinctively knows she is loved and safe. She carries that inside her, always.  

2 2-5 years
Exploring: ‘Is the world a fun and interesting place?’

At this stage a girl builds on the secure feelings from Stage 1, learning to be smart, creative, confident and interested in the world around her.

She thinks, ‘If people are going to stay close and care for me, I can relax and check out the toys, toddle out across the grass, and mess about with dirt and leaves.’ Babies who don’t feel securely attached to their mum or dad don’t explore very much: they’re too afraid they will be deserted.

This is the age when you can encourage your daughter to paint and poke and build and create in the world of things, animals and people. If the people who love her share some of these activities with her, she will pick up the pleasure of making and doing. Her brain will become switched on to learning. You will have taught her that life is an adventure.

Strange, new and challenging things will be a joy for her for the rest of her life.

Under stress, we all regress

Sometimes kids deal with stress by dropping back a stage. A five-year-old will suddenly suck her thumb and wrap herself up in a blanket. A 14-year-old would rather hang out with you at a party than mix with the other kids. Or a 21-year-old will refuse to make a decision and want to be told what to do.

We all do it, under stress. Think of those days when you just don’t want to get out of bed, or just don’t want to deal with others – it’s quite normal from time to time. Nobody can handle reality all the time.

You only need to worry if your daughter doesn’t seem to ‘grow up’ after a few days or weeks. You might need to help nudge her out of it. See if you can find out why she’s stressed – there may be something she needs to tell you that she is finding hard to talk about.

Be gentle on yourself, too, so she can see everyone needs some nurturing and to slow down from time to time. Lower your whole family’s stress levels with holidays, keep one day of the week as a rest day, and avoid over-scheduling – it all means she’ll be less likely to go into overload.  

3 5-10 years
People skills: ‘Can I get along with others?’

Other children and other adults – as well as mum and dad, brothers and sisters – can be difficult, but are mostly fun. Your daughter finds she can have better fun by sharing a little, giving way a little, cooperating and playing together rather than on her own.

This isn’t possible until about three or four years of age, and even then it’s hard. But by learning first from her parents, and then others, she discovers she is not the centre of the universe. Other people have feelings, too.

Right through primary school, this most complex of skills – valuing yourself, but also valuing others and treating them with respect – is gradually being learned. Being treated kindly, you grow kind.

Being treated sensitively, you grow gentle. Being treated honestly, you grow honest. If your daughter decides people are mostly fine, she will become a ‘people person’, and will know how to be with others in a happy and helpful way.  

4 10-14 years
Finding her soul: ‘Can I discover my true self and what makes me happy?’

At puberty, a girl starts to experience a much stronger sense of her own self as separate and private. She’s far from being a woman but she’s no longer a child, either. Like a tree in winter, she is building up reserves, ready to blossom.

These are the years for strengthening her sense of self – what she stands for and cares most deeply about. Often at this age, a girl finds her ‘spark’ – something that she loves to do and which gives her purpose.

A strong sense of identity means your daughter will be freed from the need for approval that haunts many teenage girls, making them conformist and dull. A girl’s soul is powerful, but it’s also shy, like a wild animal: it needs patience and quiet to emerge.

As a girl discovers her soul, she will be equipped to face life’s big questions – being wise and strong around males, choosing intimacy on her own terms, selecting a peer group. A girl who knows her own soul may be gentle, but with a steel in her that’s not easily manipulated. She will be loyal, tough and protective of herself and others.  

Girls do it differently – and more quickly

Gemma, aged ten, is very clingy and always needs cuddles and closeness from her mum. At first, her mum finds this annoying. But then she remembers she was stressed and suffered depression when Gemma was a baby.

She realises that while really in Stage 3, Gemma is going back to complete Stage 1: ‘Am I loved and safe?’ After deciding to give Gemma all the hugs she needs, her mum finds Gemma relaxes and is happier and more confident about growing up.

Girls develop more quickly than boys, especially in brain abilities. The oestrogen their body creates while still in the womb actually increases the rate of brain growth, meaning they are many weeks ahead of boys at birth.

The difference increases in the first five or six years. Girls learn to speak whole sentences and control their fingers – to do neat drawings or even writing – six to twelve months sooner than boys.

Girls are ready to start school earlier than boys, and do not suffer as much separation anxiety as boys if they have to go to childcare (though this depends on each child).

Girls enter puberty about two years sooner than boys, virtually turning into young women overnight, when the boys seem to be standing still.

And they become adults sooner – their brain development finishes several years before boys’, which finally gets there in their early 20s! It’s as if nature says to girls: better grow up ahead of the game, you’ll need your wits about you.  

5 14-18 years
Preparing for adulthood: ‘Can I take responsibility for my own life?’

At 18, your daughter begins to be a woman. But around the age of 14, the preparation for this huge leap begins in earnest. It’s mostly practical – how to manage money and time, drive a car, and balance eating, clothes, health and safety. But it also marks a powerful shift in attitude.

Some time between age 14 and adulthood, a girl needs a marker event, a growing-up rite, experience or even misfortune, which teaches her she’s now at the steering wheel of her own life.

This is a frightening realisation, but in a good way. With the support of older women, she can leave behind childishness and harmful gullibility, be accountable, connected to consequences, and proactive in making her life worthwhile.

While life itself can deliver this realisation to a girl, leaving it to chance can be hazardous and unreliable. When girls are proactively launched into healthy womanhood, the results are impressive. A girl takes charge of her life and begins to make her unique way in the world.

All girls grow through these five stages to become a woman. Adult support is needed for all of these stages, and parents who understand the map of girlhood can help provide what is needed. Journeys are always easier when you have a map! It’s your daughter who makes the journey, but you are her caregiver and ally along the way. It’s probably the best thing you’ll ever do.

Bumps on the road

As your daughter completes each stage, she comes to decisions that are profound and life-altering. In a girlhood where all five stages go badly, she might conclude the following:

1. Life is uncertain, and nobody loves me.
2. New ideas and things are frightening.
3. People can’t be trusted, they’re impossible to get along with.
4. I have nothing of value inside me, and I am a nobody.
5. Growing up is just too hard. I don’t want to be an adult. I don’t have any power or any choice in what happens to me. Stuff just happens.

Fortunately, these decisions are made little by little and combine many experiences, so we shouldn’t panic about always getting things right. The stages last for years and we get lots of chances. Every girl is different, so the stages can vary widely in terms of what age they happen. In practice, the stages overlap.

As a parent, what matters is not giving up. Loving your daughter and keeping on trying are what will get you through. And if your daughter has already passed some of the stages, and you feel she didn’t really get the message, don’t despair. Those decisions can be re-made later.

What age is your girl and what is the biggest question her life is asking at the moment? (Check with your own experience, as every girl is different.) You may pinpoint earlier stages that she might have missed out on, due to difficult circumstances.

The nature of human beings is that we can recover things we missed out on, further down the track. For example, adopted children from terrible backgrounds can gradually find security with their new parents.

Overprotected girls who are fearful can be challenged and coaxed to show more courage. Girls with no people skills can learn to get along with others better, and so on. Be open to the possibility that your daughter may be a certain age in years, but a far younger age in development, especially if she missed out – due to life’s circumstances – on parts of her ‘quest’. At any age, if you have enough caring and motivation, you can still put things right. The chances of your daughter getting all she needs for a long and happy life are very good.

Q&A with Steve Biddulph

Good: What are the key challenges facing today’s teenage girls?

Steve: Marketing is aimed at our daughters from a very young age. Corporations specifically go after eight-year-old girls as the most vulnerable demographic – her sensitivity to others’ feelings, wanting to belong, and her sociability.

She could be made anxious about weight, looks, clothes, not growing up fast enough, not being cool enough.I’m not making this up – I’ve talked to leaders in marketing who told me about it.

This has been worsened by two other things. When I ask an audience, “Put your hand up if you don’t like your own body,” 90 percent of hands go up. So you can see the problem: how can we convince our daughters to love their bodies if we have been fretting about our own weight and looks all our lives?

Also, we’ve reduced the amount of time girls have with older women by about 80 percent in the last 50 years, so girls don’t get the loving mentoring and straight-talking that older women provide.

They have to depend on their peer group, who are often as brain-addled and lost as each other. Girls try to make up for this with Facebook and constant conversation with friends, but it’s not enough.

Good: What family practices work best for instilling girls with positive messages?

Steve: Girls need three things to survive: A mum who has time and is unhurried enough that her daughter naturally talks to her about friendship angst at school, dilemmas and difficulties.

Secondly, a dad who is gentle, kind, and treats her like she is important. Not with presents, but with his time. He takes her for a hot chocolate after they have been to the hardware store, he focuses on her and her life concerns, as well as having fun with her.

He is her first male example, and he sets the bar. If her dad respects her, then she will expect that from boys and men in the rest of her life.

The last of the things a girl needs to survive is to be shielded from overexposure to electronic media. That means little, if any, television watching in her preschool years. Maybe just a favourite show, or DVDs.

Keep online media out of bedrooms – only in the living space. No laptops or iPads in bedrooms late at night, and make sure mobile phones go on the charger in the kitchen from teatime onwards. Otherwise you get 12-year-olds checking Facebook at midnight in their room, bringing all the anxieties of the playground into their lives 24/7.

It’s all about lowering the inputs that make your daughter anxious and edgy – letting her stay a girl and not be forced into a pretend woman at 12. One in five girls today starts having sex at 14; that’s an indictment on how we have not made their childhoods happy enough.

Both boys and girls really need the same things – time, affection and male and female role models, both inside and outside the family. But girls need to talk more. It’s how they make sense of the world, and develop their values. Knowing and meeting lots of wise, eccentric and interesting women, who are around long-term in their lives, helps them build up their own unique womanhood.

Steve Biddulph’s book Raising Boys was a global phenomenon as the first book in a generation to look at boys’ inner world and specific needs. His latest publication is both a guidebook and a call-to-arms for parents of girls: Raising Girls: Helping Your Daughter to Grow Up Wise, Warm and Strong.

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