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May 4, 2012
Teenage girls. What comes to your mind when you hear those two words? I polled a few adults and here is what they came up with: attitudes, drama, emotional, catty, mean, lost, and confusing. Teenage girls as a whole are a population that not many adults know, or care to know, how to effectively deal with. Teenage boys bring their own difficulties, but we will leave that for a different day.
A good percentage of my practice is teen girls. I didn’t necessarily plan for this to be, but it happened. I believe God has made this as one of my niches and has helped equip me to speak their language and see past all the walls and masks they put up. Maybe it is because I am on the younger side (at least I think I can still say that?!) or maybe because I am not afraid of them, who knows. What I do know is that I have grown to absolutely love this population and would even go as far as to say that teen girls are my favorite. There are many reasons for this.
You see, everyone loves little babies. Then everyone loves when those babies turn into inquisitive, energetic toddlers. From there they become sweet elementary school kids. And then….these sweet, happy-go-lucky little girls begin to grow up. They begin to be more moody, sullen, and more unpredictable. They go from looking up to their parents and other adults to worrying mostly what peers and boys think of them. They seem to misplace their confidence and become more insecure and doubtful. Mix in hormones and puberty and it is the recipe for the perfect storm!
All the more reason for caring adults to be there consistently. Storms can be dark, scary, and ever-changing, just like the teen years. The teen may not advertise it, but she needs love and guidance just like she did as a child, but in a different way.
I love it when a teen girl enters my office, clearly not wanting to be there. How do I know she doesn’t want to be there? Oh, it is so painfully obvious. She will stomp in, sit at the edge of the couch as far away from her parent as possible, as if she could bolt at any second. She will fold her arms, sit back, and alternate horrific glares between myself and the parent who “is forcing” her to be there. She will answer an emphatic “no” when asked if she wanted to come in. Any other question is typically met with “I don’t know”, “I don’t care”, or silence. I get so excited when this happens. I know that sounds odd, but it is true. Because the vast majority of the time, give it a few sessions, and that same girl will be lounging on the couch, making eye contact, and telling me more than I actually even want to know. I get to see prom pictures, piercings, report cards, and private journal entries. I am expected to remember the names of best friends and boyfriends, which is quite a feat since both seem to change on a weekly basis. So many girls have ended up telling me that they went from loathing coming in to looking forward to it each week.
Why? I would like to say I have a special magic wand or a secret formula, but I don’t. What I offer to them is what they are so desperately seeking: safety, respect, consistency, boundaries, and a listening ear. See, it’s not that most teens don’t want to talk or share their feelings. It is so hard to share your feelings when you yourself don’t even know what you are feeling, or when you don’t feel you are truly being listened to. Often you have to let the teen guide the conversation. They need to know that what they have to share, even if it is “bad”, against the rules, or harmful will be met with care and concern, not over-reaction or criticism. You have to learn how to join their world, to connect in ways that interest them. For example, one of my angriest and most defiant teen girls softened and began to open up when I told her she could share a song from YouTube with me from her phone every week (or from my phone if hers had been taken away, which was often the case) that described the place she was in or something to do with her and her life. Perfect way to start our sessions (except much of the time I have never even heard of the groups, so I think that officially makes me old). We would discuss what the lyrics meant to her and go from there.
Many teen girls come in with eating disorders or cutting (both topics for another article). These high risk self-harm behaviors are a physical representation of very real and intense internal pain. Through connection, acceptance (of the person, not the behavior) and loving patience, teen girls can come to share their pain and begin to move past it and develop healthier coping skills to manage the turbulence of life. We have to remember that kids and teens are facing pressures earlier and earlier, such as alcohol, drugs, porn, and sex. They simply are not equipped to manage such demands, and that is why they need our help and support.
If I were to write a book containing the success stories I have seen from my clients in my practice, it would largely recount stories of teen girls. Although there is a lot of “push-pull” in those years, we adults need to remember not to take it personally, and to provide love, a place to talk, hugs and “I love you’s”, even when the teen does not appear to want it. The truth is that they need it, and will struggle without it. They need to hear what they are doing well, not just what they need to work on. “I am proud of you” goes a long way; be specific about what you are proud of. Provide boundaries and consistent follow-through, in a non-reactionary manner. Support them in what they are interested in, even if that means they choose music when you wanted them to choose soccer.
So put your rain gear on and enter the storm with your teen or a teen in your life. You won’t be sorry. It is an honor and privilege to walk alongside someone who is trying to navigate life and to be their safe place to land when needed. Truth be told, I learn just as much from my teen girl clients as they learn from me. I worked for several years with a girl who had attempted suicide a few times before she started seeing me, as the pain she felt from losing her own parent to suicide was just too much. I was brought to tears when near the end of her treatment she brought me a mug she had personally made in pottery class at school and said, “This is for you because you care about me. I know that you are my angel who saved my life. Thank you.” Wow. I am certainly no angel, but she is right in that I cared tremendously about her well-being. She did the work, and I was right beside her cheering her on. You don’t need to be counselor to be an anchor for a teen girl in your life when they need it most.
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