Five eighth-grade girls at Craig Junior High School are careful not to let their conversations get too serious.
The girls crack jokes freely and frequently. They laugh and giggle and sometimes struggle to keep straight faces.
But talking about post childhood, pre-adulthood life, they do have issues they want to address.
For example, Kellie Jorgensen has a pet peeve. "When I go to restaurants and they hand me a kids menu," she said.
Her friends groan.
"They treat you like a kid in a restaurant," Heather Brown said. "Then you go to school and you have all of these responsibilities."
Amber Delay said she is already feeling the pressure of decisions she will have to begin making soon. "We're still kids, but they're already talking about what classes you need to take to go to college," she said.
Finding their way
The Craig eighth-graders are not unlike their peers across the state and country. They are in period when they are not quite children and not quite adults, and they're sometimes not sure how to handle it.
But studies show that this is a pivotal period in youth development that can have lifelong effects, particularly for girls.
According to "Our Daughters, Our Future," a report by the Women's Foundation of Colorado for its Status of Women and Girls in Colorado project, adolescent girls struggle more with issues of self-esteem and thoughts of suicide than boys. And despite the fact that girls in Colorado generally outperform boys in school, girls continue to pursue academic courses defined more by their gender.
Among the findings in "Our Daughters, Our Future:"
n Adolescent girls are more likely than boys to consider themselves overweight, even though a recent study showed just 12 percent of the state's girls are overweight.
In a recent Steamboat Springs High School survey, 50 percent of the girls said they are overweight when, in actuality, only 6 percent are.
n Adolescent girls are more likely than boys to have seriously considered, planned or attempted suicide. Suicide is the third-leading cause of death among Colorado girls.
n Girls are twice as likely as boys to marry during their teens.
n Though girls generally perform as well or better than boys in school, girls' test scores in math and science tend to fall behind boys beginning in middle school. Girls are less likely than boys to enroll in high school math, science and technology courses, which eventually affects their career choices and earning power.
Such statistics reinforce the need for parents, educators and other adults to pay close attention to adolescent girls. That is particularly true when the girls are entering adolescence, officials said.
"Kids in middle school have to figure out who they are outside of their families," said Margi Briggs-Casson, a counselor at Steamboat Springs Middle School. "It's a process of figuring out who your real friends are."
Briggs-Casson said middle-school students often confuse their priorities, giving undue weight to social concerns.
"Who their friends are and what they wear are more important to them," she said. "It makes them more vulnerable to superficial things."
Test scores in Craig and Steamboat Springs do not show a marked difference between boys and girls. Still, many middle school girls acknowledge their focus on academics is not what it once was.
"I was more worried about grades then than I am now," Delay said.
Harriet Mosatche, the senior director of research and programs for the Girl Scouts of the U.S.A. in New York City, said studies that indicate a decline in girls' grades in math and science during middle school years reflect changes the girls are undergoing.
"Their interest drops off," she said. "They want to continue to do well but they don't see it leading anywhere."
She believes that there is still a misconception that exists in girls that scientists are men. "They don't see themselves going into science fields the way a boy might," she said.
Briggs-Casson said the shift in priorities plays a significant role in girls' academics in middle school.
"Many girls are more concerned about who they're sitting by and who they're going to meet in 20 minutes instead of what's going on in class," Briggs-Casson said. "Social development takes a front seat. Cognitive development takes a back seat. As they start getting older you see that start to change."
Craig Middle School counselor Kathy Bockelman said she sees girls change during their time at the school. Girls who enter the school enthused about learning and doing well, eventually become more focused on other issues.
She sees it when they sign up for classes each semester.
"They don't care what they're interested in," she said. "They're interested in what their friends are signing up for."
Mosatche has written three books directed at girls between the ages of 10 and 15, including "Getting to Know the Real You," "Girls, What's So Bad about Being Good?" and "Too Old for This, Too Young for That!" She also writes an online advice column for adolescent girls.
"Basically I try to remember what it was like when I was in middle school," she said of her writing approach. "The thing is you don't want to talk down to kids."
She said she tries to encourage adolescent girls to be assertive, to stand up for themselves and be confident.
It's a confusing age for girls, she said, because at the same time they are dealing with physical changes to their bodies, they are worrying about their friends and thinking about their futures.
She said girls are exposed to more at a younger age now than their parents were. They might have more "adult" questions that might catch their parents off guard. But it's important that parents are there to answer those questions, she said.
"If they're not getting the information from you they will get it some other way," she said.
At the same time, she said, it's important that adults remember these young girls are not yet adults. "A big issue for girls is they're physically developing at a younger age," she said. "The expectation is that they should act older, but emotionally, they're the same age."
And unlike boys, who tend to resolve conflict quickly and move on, girls take a different approach that while not physical, can be even more abusive.
"Girls emotionally punch one another," said Brown, the Craig eighth-grader.
Ironically, the girls understand their behaviors reflect their age, that they won't act this way forever.
"It's hard to imagine that when you grow up it's not about the jocks, nerds and the geeks," Jorgensen said. "When we get older, it won't matter."
The changing world
Middle school teachers and counselors understand how the world has changed and the effect that has had on their students.
"Problems high school kids had back then are problems middle school students have now," said Bockelman, who graduated from high school in 1978. "Kids are growing up way too fast."
The Internet has made it more difficult for parents to know what their children are being exposed to, including sex, Briggs-Casson said. Middle school girls deal with sexual pressures now that they didn't face a decade ago.
There is a disturbingly blurred view among adolescents of what constitutes sex today, Briggs-Casson said.
"One thing I'm seeing that is new is that girls are thinking that oral sex is not sex," she said. "There's a higher participation in that than there was just five years ago."
Eating disorders often develop during the middle-school years.
"We don't see full-blown eating disorders," Bockelman said. "But they do begin skipping lunches and breakfast. It's an age when they start experimenting."
Drugs and alcohol also are an issue.
Steamboat Springs School Superintendent Cyndy Simms said the district takes a hard line, zero tolerance approach in dealing with those students who are at school under the influence of drugs and alcohol at all grade levels. Still, that doesn't prevent such incidents from happening.
"They're socially developing, and drugs and alcohol are available," she said.
"Kids will be kids and it's our responsibility as adults to be clear about what our expectations are of them. One thing we have learned in the last 30 years is you have to be clear with expectations and consequences and you have to follow through with them."
Simms said one positive of being a girl today is there are more extracurricular opportunities. She pointed out that many athletic opportunities were not even available to girls when she was young.
But that positive development makes for yet another challenge in being a girl today.
Roles are now less defined for women in society, making it more difficult for girls to know where they fit in as they enter womanhood, Bockelman said.
That makes it more important to educate girls on what is available to them in the future.
A "girls conference" recently held at the Craig Holiday Inn, educated girls on what careers are available to them when they get older.
They were able to talk with professional women in a variety of career fields. They also did an activity where they chose different careers and learned what they could and could not afford to do with the salary they earned in that field.
"I learned a lot about what jobs are out there," Jacquelyn Kinder said.
Bockelman helped organize the event.
"We're helping them feel good about being girls," she said. "We're trying to get them to think positive things about themselves."
It's crucial that girls know what options are available to them so they can pattern their lives now on what they want to be in the future.
"I think they are making some really important decisions at this age and are setting a pattern of behavior for the rest of their lives," Bockelman said.
Working toward the future
The "Our Daughters, Our Future" report offers several action items that can help Colorado girls. Some of those suggestions are shown below:
n Develop more gender-specific data to track academic performance from elementary school on.
n From elementary school on, girls need to be encouraged to enroll in math, science and technology courses.
n Expand opportunities for girls to participate in physical activities and sports.
n Increase the number of school intervention programs dealing with issues about dieting, sexual activity, drug use and alcohol use.
n Promote collaborative and mentoring programs to train girls in leadership values and skills.
With so many issues facing young teens today, counselors just deal with one issue at a time.
"It seems my job is picking up the pieces and putting Band Aids on," Bockelman said.
Briggs-Casson agreed that counselors are dealing with girls who are going through an intense transitional phase in life.
"Most girls come from families of good values and have a solid core of what their values are," she said. "That all of a sudden gets pulled out from under them at that age. Girls are longing for true friendship and companionship and can get sucked into an unpredictable, superficial whirlwind."
Briggs-Casson said it's crucial that adults help guide girls through the middle school period. "It's not a monster age," she said. "It's just a developmental age we all go through."