What do you do if you are ashamed of your body? What should you do if you have a friend who needs help but refuses it? What is love? How do you know if you can trust someone? Why are girls so competitive? Will you always be in a fight with your mom? Why is it when people give you compliments, you can still feel ugly?
This past fall, I found myself sitting in a circle talking with a group of teenage girls on a football field at a school in Michigan. We were there to talk about the private questions that were on their minds and in their hearts. This group was especially tight-lipped at first. "It's okay," I told myself. "I'm sure pretty soon the magic of this group will reveal itself, like it always does."
I was right. As we started gently talking about the anonymous questions each girl had written and put into a box in the center of the circle, the girls saw that I wasn't there to judge them or tell them what to do, and the tightly crossed arms and averted eyes started to fall away. They started to lean in, and I could tell with each torn little scrap of paper I pulled out, they were hoping their question would be the next one read so they could get the answers they had so desperately and secretly been wanting.
One of the questions broke my heart. It was all I could do to keep the tears from my eyes as I read it aloud to the girls sitting in this now sacred circle. It said: "My mom was just diagnosed with breast cancer, and I'm really scared. Has anyone else been through this, and what can I do to feel better?"
I shared with this anonymous girl, sitting among us, about how I had dealt with the fear, emotions and process of when my beloved mother-in-law and godmother were diagnosed. From the other side of the circle, a girl slowly raised her shaking hand and whispered: "Um...Elizabeth? That was my question." I thanked her for so bravely coming forward and asked the circle of now open, compassionate faces if anyone had any other thoughts or insights that could help her. The girl to her right immediately gave her a huge hug, while the one to the left leaned over and wiped the tears off her face. Before now, these were girls who had ignored each other in the lonely hallways of this massive high school. Then, the floodgates opened and all the girls that had experienced anything similar began sharing their advice and wisdom. The transformation we all felt on the field that day was palpable.
Welcome to the world of Ask-Elizabeth!
I know a lot of you may only know me as an actress from TV, film and stage -- some of you have even watched me grow up on Saved By the Bell during my teen years. Can you imagine having your own adolescence captured on television for the world to see? Yes, thanks, I know -- you've seen me in all my frizzy-haired glory! You're probably wondering why I'm talking with you about my thoughts and experiences I've had with teenage girls, so let me back up and tell you something you may not know about me and about the column I'm honored to share with you here on HuffPost.
Four years ago, I started a nonprofit organization (501c3) called" target="_hplink"> Ask-Elizabeth. I wanted to offer girls, ages 11 to 18, a safe, judgment-free place to ask their innermost questions -- where they could get real and get the answers they need. A place where they could open up, feel heard, ask questions, laugh, cry, vent and, most importantly, know that no matter what they are experiencing, they're not alone. What began as a grassroots forum with a handful of girls in a small school in New York City has since exploded into a nationwide movement.
I've sat and talked with more than 30,000 girls from all walks of life, in all parts of the country, from Los Angeles to New York City, Colorado to Kentucky, Detroit to Connecticut. Schools and organizations like Girls Scouts of the USA have invited me to work with girls in their cafeterias, libraries and on soccer fields, in camps and coffee shops. But no matter where we are, very soon after we gather in a cozy circle on the floor, the slumber-party vibe comes to life. They share their innermost secrets -- everything from not liking their bodies (we've all been there!) to feeling stuck in a bad relationship to dealing with drama at home. At a time when texting and emails have become the way girls try to create intimacy or meaningful connection, I have witnessed how much they desire and need to actually communicate and talk. The relief and takeaway they are armed with after a workshop has been truly transformational.
I definitely don't need to tell you, as a mom you already know this: Your girls are amazing! Smart, strong, brave, kind, loving...and most of all, so generous in their willingness to reach out and help other girls who need advice or support.
I've been so blessed to get to know your incredible daughters. At the same time, this journey these past few years has also led to so many extraordinary conversations with the very special moms just like you, who are leading your daughters with so much love and support. So many of you have talked to me about the fear you're feeling right now as a parent. I hear you when you say how scary it feels to not know or understand what's really going on in your daughter's world! Because you've all been a teen girl yourself, so you know that no matter how close your daughters are to you, there are things girls don't want to share with their moms. Remember? You also know that life is really different now than it was when you were growing up (Facebook, sexting, etc.), and a lot of you have been asking for a glimpse into what's really going on with your girls to help ease those fears.
I'm here to share with you what these extraordinary girls want you to know about what they're dealing with. Each month, we'll explore a question that another mom (or you!) has sent in, and I'll take it to the team of amazing Ask-Elizabeth girls for them to weigh in on. I would never betray the trust I've built with the amazing girls I've worked with -- this is all with their permission, meant to even further empower them by giving them this platform to share their wisdom with you. They'll reveal the stuff they may not feel comfortable telling moms directly. They'll give you the 411 on what's really going on for them around that issue and tell us what matters most to them. They'll tell you what they wish their own moms would do and, for inspiration, what their moms did that worked.
I'm not a therapist, and I'm not a parenting expert. I'm a big sister to thousands of girls who have opened up the vault and given me the go-ahead to let you have a little peek inside. Think of me as a facilitator, here to bridge the gap between you and your daughter so you can become (and stay) close and connected.
Just to give you some ideas, here are just a few of the moms' questions I've been asked:
- What's the best way I can communicate with my daughter about an impending divorce?
- How do I get my daughter to trust me?
- Why is my daughter so angry at me?
- How should I show interest in my daughter's problems without being perceived as intrusive?
- My daughter is no longer the confident girl she was -- how can I help her?
You'll also get to hear from other moms who are in similar situations. I know when I'm in Ask-Elizabeth workshops, it helps the girls so much to hear how another girl dealt with the same thing! I'll bring in experts on certain topics when we need to, and I'll share my thoughts and observations with you based on what I've learned from the girls -- and maybe even some personal experiences, challenges and gifts I've learned from my own amazing relationship with my mom. No one is here to tell you what to do. As you know, there's no one right answer. Instead, my wish is that reading these different perspectives helps you uncover the right answer for you and your individual mom/daughter relationship -- that's the unique gift of the Ask-Elizabeth exploration!
My mission up until now has been to provide girls with an oasis in the midst of the maelstrom of adolescent pressures and confusion so they can know they are not alone, and to enable them to find and hold true to their inner light. And from the thousands of requests I've received, it's clear that it's time to broaden that mission to help support incredible moms, who have the hardest and most rewarding jobs on the planet.
So, think of this as your own special invitation to join a circle of moms who are expanding the Ask-Elizabeth community around the world. And as you are seeking answers, it's just like I tell the girls: We're all in this together! I know I can't make your relationship with your teen daughter completely perfect. But you can look at this column as an opportunity to build a new understanding and a way of communicating with girls that creates connection, love and harmony.
I am so excited to be on this journey with you, so please send in your questions! I want to make this a place you can ask anything, a place where you can get inside knowledge that will give you some comfort and peace as a parent.
I look forward to hearing from you!
Recognized by the London Times as a "fearless and committed actress," Elizabeth Berkley has demonstrated the versatility of her talent from comedy to drama in a host of successful film, television and stage performances. She is also the founder of Ask-Elizabeth, created as a safe forum for adolescent girls (ages 11 to 18) to ask the questions they have been afraid to and empower them with answers. When Berkley works with the girls, she creates a big sister relationship in a safe setting that allows them to open up and start talking and sharing. In these two-hour, interactive workshops, Berkley discusses themes like body image, fitness, beauty, family, goal-setting, friendship, dating, etc. -- all important aspects in the emotional life of a teenage girl. Berkley has touched the lives of more than 30,000 teenage girls so far through her nonprofit organization.
Her book, Ask Elizabeth was just published.
Follow Elizabeth Berkley on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ElizBerkley