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Camouflaging and Your Tween Daughter

In her book, Girls will be Girls, Raising Confident and Courageous Daughters, Dr. JoAnn Deak, PH.D., writes about tween girls (girls aged 8 to 12): “Girls this age move psychologically into what I call camouflaging. The psychological equivalent of adaptive coloration, camouflaging means you just slip into an attitude – fake it, if necessary – to blend in with the crowd and avoid being singled out as different in any way.” She explains that this could involve a girl who isn’t really into it wearing make-up, but does, because that’s what the other girls are doing. Or, a girl may hide her glasses in her pocket to avoid “looking nerdy”, even though she can’t see her teacher.  She goes on to say, “While we might not think of camouflaging as an event, it is a predictable, identifiable … event of the tween years, a cumulative experience of countless crucible moments – camouflaging moments – in which a girl decides if, when, and how much to modify herself or hide her feelings.”

Adapting to your surroundings is natural and normal.  It is “a sign that you are able to read social cues.”  Being the kid sitting at the lunch table picking your nose (which a pre-schooler may find totally acceptable) isn’t ideal.  But, in excessive camouflaging, “you close yourself off to new experiences and honest self-expression…. (creating) a temporary stagnation of the development process.” She goes on to say, “A girl can grow too dependent on the no-risk safety of camouflage, and delay coming to understand her own strengths and weaknesses.  When she camouflages, she hides herself not only from others, but ultimately from herself.”  The results of camouflaging take root and persist into adulthood.

I believe camouflaging is a conversation starter with your tween daughter.  I’ve talked about it with Julia, my 10 year-old tween, when the issue of playing weekend sports came up in our house.  You see, we live in a community where sports in a huge activity for most families.  There’s traveling soccer, hockey, dance, gymnastics.  My daughter?  She loves to sing.  She loves art, music and fashion.  She can spend hours watching “Cute Girl’s Hairstyles” on YouTube and then run to CVS to buy the curlers to try and create whatever it was she just watched on the show.  So, when I started to receive the emails from the other moms in her class organizing the carpools for the soccer practice all her friends were doing, I asked Julia if she wanted to join the team.  She was torn.  She didn’t really want to play soccer, it’s not something that makes her happy, but she also had a little FOMO (“fear of missing out”).  Being a part of the team.  Being included.  So, we talked about camouflaging.  And what, ultimately, was the right decision for her.

Girls at this age do not have the experience or perspective to realize what is lost, and for how long, when they camouflage.  But they do understand what it means to be true to themselves, to let their light shine.   As a parent, keeping your daughter’s true, authentic voice alive while she’s learning how to navigate the social landscape of the tween years is the goal.  I recently spoke with a friend whose daughter loves to play lacrosse.  But once his daughter hit the age of 11 or 12, she changed.  She had always been the star scorer, but now when she had a chance to score she would pass to someone else.  Asked about the new strategy, she said she didn’t want to upset her friends on the team by always being the one to excel.  She was camouflaging her true abilities in order to fit in with those around her, and at the same time dimming her light.

Here’s the thing.  If we sit back and let our girls camouflage themselves without us calling attention to it, we risk our daughters losing their true selves completely.  Dr. Deak writes, “Girls in their teens have told me that they’ve been playing the part for so long, they’ve lost any sense of who they really are and what they really believe in.  As one fifteen-year-old girl said: “I don’t know if I like myself or not anymore.  I don’t even know who ‘myself’ is.  Am I this person who pretends this and acts that? Where’s the real ‘me’?”

The kicker?  Often, Dr. Deak tells us, grown women ask the same question, “and when they think back to the time they began to lose sight of themselves, they typically go straight to these tween years, when the pressure to blend in first became so all-important to them, and (camouflaging) became a way of life”.

That “way of life” can last up to three decades.  Dr. Deak calls it “the 30-year-power-outage”,  when women often live their lives not as their authentic selves, but of those they think will be accepted by everyone else.  She says, “there is abundant anecdotal reporting that many women do not hit their full stride again until age forty-something.  That’s a long time – three decades – for females not to be operating with a full core of self-esteem.”  Yup, that sounds familiar!

We can all picture the feisty 7 or 8 year old girl.  She’s the one who is commonly outspoken, has dreams and stands up for herself.  So, what happens to her two or three years later?  Where does she go?  Well, in a 1993 study, feminist scholar and author Carol Gilligan calls the tween years a “transformational period” that it is often overlooked, in part, because the object of concern – girls themselves – seem to almost intentionally fall out of focus, disappear by choice into the crowd.”  It is during the tween years, Gilligan says girls “lose their voice,” literally and figuratively.

So, what do we do about it?  We talk about it with our daughters.  We empathize, relate.  We tell them that their voices and dreams are too important to surrender.  We teach them how to deal.  We love them.  At my company, TIA Girl Club, we teach an empowering language so that when they feel the need to hide themselves, girls can choose words and thoughts to stay true to who they are.  We also give them positive role models, women who fulfill their dreams and ambitions despite the forces that would hold them back.  At TIA Girl Club, we support and encourage girls through words, mentors and community (check out 4000 plus TIA Girls – @tiagirlclub on Instagram).

As parents, we can also provide opportunities for our girls to engage in activities they care about that will empower them and build their own self confidence.  It’s called “action therapy” in Dr. Deak’s words.  It’s when you provide your girl with “a commitment to helping her connect up with the opportunities for self-discovery through active involvement.”

What does that entail?  Someone once said “if you want self esteem, do esteemable things.”  The same goes for action therapy.  It means doing the things that you love.  Take your daughter on that hike she’s talked about even if she thinks she can’t make it.  Encourage her to score the lacrosse goal if that’s her gift.  If she wants to do hair instead of soccer, get her those curlers at CVS.  If it’s charity work, get her involved in a charity where she is actively engaged with the people she is helping.  All of these activities will help her empower herself.  Because only then will she come to understand and believe that she is enough and wonderful, just the way she is.