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How do you solve a problem like 11-13 year olds

Welcome to #TalkaboutBobby: a series of blog posts where we examine the issues raised by our production and explore what is not-quite-right about the way stories are told in our society.

This week, director Lucy Bird explores the bad reputation of 11-13 year olds - like our protagonist, Annie - and our failure to communicate with them properly.

Two teenage girls laughing

When George, the writer, first asked me to direct this play I was really drawn in by the intellectual ideas behind it, but the further we’ve got into the process the more I’ve been drawing on my practical experience working with Annie’s age group as a drama teacher.

I know that a lot of people my age (early twenties) are kind of scared of 11 to 13-year-olds - it’s an age group commonly perceived to be bratty and self-involved. Often, we accuse them of being, amongst other things, ‘moody, over-dramatizing, self-centered, focused almost solely on friends, close-mouthed, surly, back-talking and condescending’.

For me, the complicated thing about this age range is that they are transitioning from children to teenagers. They are capable of thinking in an intelligent way but there’s still a lot they can’t understand; and some of the intelligent thought and empathy they are developing can be really overwhelming. Throw a ton of hormones into the mix and I don’t really know how they are coping - or how I got through it myself.

A big thing I've noticed is the disparity in maturity between kids of the same age - you can walk into a classroom full of 12-year-olds and some of them will look and behave like 8-year-olds, while others could pass for 16 or older.

In particular, I remember two girls I met on an English language summer school last year. They were both 12 and were family friends. One of the girls dressed like a teenager, and hung out with the older kids - even flirting with the older boys. When we imposed the restrictions that the younger students had (like earlier bedtimes or needing adult accompaniment on group trips), she was really embarrassed and made it clear that she found it patronising. Her friend on the other hand, was much more like a child. She was homesick all the time, would get overtired if she didn’t go to bed early, and she found it a lot harder to understand the older kids, often interpreting their jokes as them being mean.

It was really hard to balance how we treated the two of them and to watch how both of them put huge pressures on themselves to act older than they were. I was sad they were rushing through their childhood - but I could also remember exactly what is was like to be frustrated by people treating you like a kid.

Most of the time 11-13 year olds just want to be treated like adults. They don’t want to be patronised and they definitely don’t want to be told that they are a kid or that they’re immature. There is no quicker way to lose a young person’s respect than to treat them like an idiot.

And I’ve found that they will almost always surprise you.

Girl blowing bubbles-Image Credits: momicheta / Flickr

Image Credits: momicheta / Flickr

I recently directed a youth theatre production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with some 12 year olds. In one session we were looking at the scene where Helena is chasing Demetrius through the wood and he threatens to hurt her. One of the students suggested that he should slap her. I said that if he slaps her that makes their relationship a really complicated one that I didn’t feel we had time to explore in our twenty-minute production. Really, I was saying that I felt that would introduce a dialogue about abusive relationships that we didn’t have time to explore in the way it would deserve; however, I was worried she wouldn’t understand the weight of what I was talking about so I was speaking in an esoteric manner.

But I distinctly remember her looking me dead in the eye and said: “I understand”, in a way that made it clear she knew exactly what I was talking about. It really made me reassess how much these kids could understand, and how important it was to discuss the topics that they are beginning to come across in a frank and open manner.

How are they meant to learn about things like abuse if we don’t talk to them about it? Or more importantly where are they learning about these things? Often, it’s online and on TV.

At the same time with all this talk about not patronising teenagers I think we should be aware of the immense pressure they are being put under and putting on themselves. In our play, the protagonist (a young TV actress), is put into really difficult situations, and while adults repeatedly offer her a way out she doesn’t take it. I think that’s because she wants to be treated like an adult and thinks taking the offer is a show of weakness or immaturity. Really, she desperately needs someone to realise what’s going on and extract her from these situations.

We've still got a lot to learn about this age group as a society, especially in an environment where they are regularly exposed to, and have access to what we would regard as really 'adult' material. For now, I think we need to work harder with these kids at striking the balance between protecting and patronising them.

"We Need to Talk About Bobby (off EastEnders)" runs at ZOO Southside Studio 12.40pm daily from 14 - 28 August

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