For the past 40 years, the headlines blaring out at us about adolescent girls have brought increasingly bad news: "Girls in Crisis," "Girls Lose Their Self-Esteem," and "Rising Rates of Depression, Anxiety, and Cutting in Teen Girls." By focusing on symptoms and worries, we have missed the forest for the trees. The real issue? We are not understanding and supporting adolescent girls in the ways that they need.
The original versions of fairy tales like Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella and Rapunzel taught teenage girls that they were undergoing a crucial transformation, from a girl to a woman, and this 'heroine's journey' required them to withdraw from the world, i.e. metaphorically sleep, in order to gather the strength and wisdom they needed to face the adult world.
In our uber-busy culture that overvalues achievement, external rewards and looks, we have neglected to inform girls about what it takes to successfully navigate this stage of life. Here are five of the most crucial ways adults can support girls during their transformation.
1. Awareness: A lack of understanding about all of the changes and challenges they are going through can cause adolescent girls to doubt themselves, become insecure and think they are "the only one" going through whatever they are going through, and to lose confidence.
Every large leap in psychological, emotional development is accompanied by symptoms of being out-of-sorts, crabby and disjointed. Ages 2 and 6; high school and college seniors; the months before a wedding; the months before having your first child; a mid-life crisis; an empty nest; menopause.
Much of the depression, anxiety, insecurities and negative self-talk for girls at adolescence is a sign that they are undergoing a huge leap in development. The symptoms and the challenges of this stage need to be reframed and normalized for girls.
2. Skills: There are some key skills that girls need to successfully navigate through the challenges during adolescence. They need to learn how to handle conflicts with friends directly and effectively, because failing to do so creates tons of drama, hurt feelings and tension. It is essential that they learn how to not let teasing and words get to them, to not give their power away to others. Being at the mercy of what other people say and do to you is a sure-fire recipe for losing self-esteem.
Girls need help knowing what they are feeling and having healthy ways to express all of their emotions. Acquiring tools to become aware of and switch any negative thoughts is also a powerful protective factor. And finally, we need to teach girls to slow down, get quiet, and go inward to know what they are feeling, what they need, and what is right for them.
Becoming comfortable with solitude, reflection, and soul-searching paves the way for self-discovery and wisdom.
3. Changing their environments: Many girls spend too much time in toxic settings where they feel unsafe, judged and surrounded by relationship aggression and drama. Who wouldn't feel insecure and unsafe there? The hallways at school are probably the toughest places for girls to stay true to themselves; there is just too much judgment and mischief to feel safe. What girls have demonstrated to me over and over again is that when you can get them into an environment where they feel safe, not judged, accepted for who they are, nurtured and loved, they break out of their protective shells and their true, authentic selves come out to play.
4. Passions: Helping girls to find and to fully engage in their passions is a strong, protective factor. Girls who put their heart and soul into activities and causes that they love are less concerned with popularity, look-ism, boys and impressing other people. And, the time spent with their interests is fulfilling and helps them define themselves in healthy terms.
5. Safe Spaces and bases: All girls need sacred spaces where they can decompress, let their hair down, be real and be accepted for who they are. This can look like hanging with a best friend at home, a youth group, doing service with a group of peers or a place like my retreats and summer camps. It's a place where you don't have to worry about how you look or attracting guys or being cool.
Another important protective factor for our girls is providing them with safe bases. Every girl deserves to have someone who loves and accepts them for exactly who they are, who doesn't judge them, and who takes the time to really listen to them. We can't always be there for our girls, and even kids with great parents need people other than their parents to talk to sometimes. Help guide your girls to people you trust to become their mentors and safe havens.
Dr. Tim Jordan is a leading expert on parenting girls from 2 - 20 years of age. He is a Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrician, international speaker, author, media and school consultant and contributor for GalTime.com.