Five Challenges of Teen Girls and What to Do About Them
Teen Truths: Helping Adolescent Girls through the Challenges
Each year, I speak at conferences, schools, and other youth-oriented events all across the United States. Following these presentations, I always hear from girls who were in the audience. Through emails, Facebook messages, letters, and even phone calls, these young women share their challenges, successes, and concerns for the future. Many of them ask thought-provoking questions about how to handle difficult situations.
Throughout the years, I have noticed five common topics that link our young women regardless of their race, socioeconomic status, or state of residence. Every single time I hear from one of these girls, she is repeating themes from the same five challenges. Every teen girl does not experience every challenge. But every teen girl is challenged by one or more of these five universal concerns.
I am not a licensed counselor. I am not a certified teacher. I am, however, a professional who has worked with teens for more than 25 years. Because I understand them, teens feel free to talk with me. As a result, I have gained their trust. It has been a privilege to help many of these teens through some tough situations.
Here are the five themes that I most often hear in my conversations with young women, as well as some advice about how to help girls navigate the tough terrain of adolescence.
1. Body Image:
This is, by far, the biggest concern I hear from girls. Across the board, teen girls want to have the perfect body. “I’m not skinny enough. I’m not pretty enough. My boobs aren’t big enough.” The list of negative comments about self goes on and on. In response, I usually ask, “Okay. When will you know you are skinny enough? When will you know you are pretty enough? Because when you add the word ‘enough’ to a goal, it means that there is an end—that a result is sufficient. So how will you know when you have reached your goal?” There are no easy answers. I hear comments like, “So and so told me if I just had bigger boobs, I would be pretty.” Or “If I lose weight, then he will like the way I look.” Again, I ask each young woman how she will know when her goals have been reached. But having survived the teen years myself, I already know that there are no definitive answers. What these girls are seeking is a feeling that they have the perfect body. The idealized image they seek comes from someone they admire, from someone they are trying to please, or from someone they only know through unrealistic media presentations. What each of these girls is seeking is just a feeling. When they feel like they have the perfect body, it will be enough.
2. No Boyfriend/Girlfriend:
Teen girls want to know they belong to someone; they want to know they are special. Being in a relationship somehow elevates their self-worth, and when they are not in a relationship, they don’t feel as valuable. Sometimes I use a “Question Box” that allows teen girls to ask any question by dropping a note into a box. Without exception, the number one question is “How do I get a boyfriend/girlfriend?” My answer is always, “You do not ‘go get’ a boyfriend. You choose one. Make them search for you.” In response, the girls in the room all cheer. But while these girls are cheering for the moment, I know that the majority of them don’t feel like celebrating this advice in real life. Girls feel strong when they are in a group, but when separated and left to be viewed as individuals, many feel they must be part of a couple or they are not good enough. This is also one reason why I believe girls stay in relationships longer than they should. The fear and stigma of being alone is worse than being in an unhealthy relationship. Young women want to feel like they are loved so they stay, even when they know a relationship is not the way the fairy tales said it should be.
3. My Parents Put Too Much Pressure on Me:
Teen girls want to please. They want to be perfect. And when they aren’t, it feels terrible. Combine this with a set of parents who are constantly monitoring grades, activities, and social life and the pressure becomes too intense. At this point, depending on the teen’s personality, she will either try harder or give up entirely. She feels desperate either way, and if she doesn’t feel like she can go to her parents with her problems, there is a feeling of isolation. This doesn’t mean she has to be able to connect with her parents on all levels or even be best friends, but she would like to know that she can come to her parents when she is feeling pressured and they will help her. This may mean that parents need to put aside their own dreams for their children and start tuning in to what makes their child tick. I can’t tell you how many times a girl has said to me, “I really want to major in this when I go to college, but my parents say I can make more money if I major in that. They say they won’t pay for college if I don’t go where they want and if I don’t have the career that they specify.” While the parents usually have good intentions, the pressure from this constrictive approach is too much. A girl in this situation feels like she has no control over her own life. She has become a pawn for her parents. The desire to do well becomes less about her and more about her parents. She feels like serving the needs of her parents will bring them happiness, so she puts aside her own ideas for her future.
4. I’m Being Pressured to Have Sex or Send Nude Pictures. Does This Mean He Loves Me?:
The fact that a young woman might compromise her values to prove that she loves someone is difficult to understand. But unfortunately, many of the girls I talk with succumb to this pressure. I believe that deep down in their souls these girls know that the guy doesn’t love them. But because they want to feel loved, they are allowing themselves to be convinced that the sex or the nude pictures are the same as love. These girls want to prove their love, so they end up doing things they don’t really want to do. Sure, there are some girls who freely send nude pictures and/or have sex without giving it a second thought. I’m not talking about them. It’s the girls who are feeling pressure—who are sacrificing their morals and their self-worth—it’s those girls who worry me. This is such a complex issue, and it goes way beyond self-esteem. By definition, self-esteem means how one feels about himself or herself. But what if a girl starts out by feeling good about herself and still does something she doesn’t want to do? That’s when the concept of self-respect is missing from the equation. Self-respect involves behaving with honor and dignity. It is not honorable or dignified to engage in an act that you believe is wrong. Somehow, adults have got to do a better job of teaching our girls about self-respect. We need to teach our girls to trust their instincts. When a girl has to ask “Does he love me?”, then she already has a gut feeling that something isn’t right. Our girls need to listen to those feelings.
5. I Hate Everything in My Life:
This is a typical teen challenge; one or two issues impact everything in the world. One failure means everything she tries is a failure. One breakup means everyone hates her. One lost award, and she is a loser with everything she tries. One bad grade, and she is stupid.
Instead of realizing that everyone experiences moments of failure, an adolescent girl believes that a few failures define her existence. When this happens, the adults or friends who are closest to the teen often get disgusted and move on from the drama. After all, they know that this girl isn’t really a failure. They don’t listen to the clues, because to them it’s completely ridiculous that everything is horrible. As a result, they underestimate the depths of the girl’s concern. Big mistake. The something that is bothering her is very real to her. Listen. Ask questions. Have a conversation. She may not be overtly asking for help because she feels disconnected. This is not the time to dismiss her. Try to understand what is making her feel so bad, sad, or mad.
If you read all five of the challenges, you know that the key to each one revolves around the same basic concept—feelings. Teen girls are a ball of emotion. Their feelings take over when their minds aren’t able to process their thoughts. If you can capture how a teen feels and then provide a solution by helping her to feel better, then you have created a winning strategy. Teens need to feel like they matter, and they need to have their hearts touched. When their hearts are touched by a caring adult who listens and then provides appropriate empathy and concern, then teens are better able to process their feelings, organize their thoughts, and learn from the experience. Some adults fight me on this and want to impart information first. They want to fix the problem with facts without taking time to listen to the feelings. This might work for some, but in my experience, girls always respond better and faster when the feeling is identified and understood first. If you can help a girl develop a better sense of self by addressing her feelings, you can have a positive impact on the way she views her life and her future.