Teenage Girls: Exploring Issues Adolescent Girls Face and Strategies to Help Themby Ginny Olson
Girls are more than just sugar and spice. We’ve all figured that out. What we haven’t figured out completely is how they’re wired, why they do the things they do, how the world around them affects their choices and opinions, and what that means for youth ministry—until now. In Teenage Girls, you’ll find advice from counselors and
Girls are more than just sugar and spice. We’ve all figured that out. What we haven’t figured out completely is how they’re wired, why they do the things they do, how the world around them affects their choices and opinions, and what that means for youth ministry—until now. In Teenage Girls, you’ll find advice from counselors and veteran youth workers, along with helpful suggestions on how to minister to teenage girls. Each chapter includes discussion questions to help you and other youth workers process the issues your own students face and learn how you can help them and mentor them through this tumultuous time. In addition to the traditional issues people commonly associate with girls, such as eating disorders, self-image issues, and depression, author Ginny Olson will guide you through some of the new issues on the rise in girls’ lives. You’ll understand more about issues related to: Family • Addiction • Emotional well-being • Mental health • Physical welfare • Sexuality • Spirituality • Relationships
Read an Excerpt
Teenage GirlsExploring Issues Adolescent Girls Face and Strategies to Help Them
By Ginny Olson
ZondervanCopyright © 2006 Ginny Olson
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIDENTITY MATTERS
Elise watched Karla drift into the youth room with a swarm of boys surrounding her, basking in her glow. With a flip of her dark brown hair, she'd smile at the ones who made her laugh-and they were all trying. Her short denim skirt was slung low around her hips, her long legs seemed to stretch into oblivion, and one strap of her black knit tank top was resting provocatively off one shoulder. Even the guy leaders turned their heads when she walked in. Elise just shook her head. Karla was only 15, but she'd already mastered the art of flirting.
They were starting small groups that night, and Elise was dismayed to learn that Karla was in her group. If Elise were honest, she'd admit that Karla intimidated her. She had never really talked to Karla, as the girl only attended youth group in spurts. Plus, Elise had never felt comfortable around "girly girls." She was an athlete who'd broken a few school records when she was in college. How on earth was she going to connect with someone like Karla? Elise had vague misgivings that this group was going to focus more on makeovers and boy-toys than on anything substantial.
Later that evening, as they sat in tiny orange plasticchairs around the linoleum table in the second grade Sunday school room, the girls in Elise's group were sharing their stories. Elise had to hide her surprise as Karla talked about how much time basketball required, and how it was taking her away from church and her studies. She was hoping to win a much-needed scholarship for college, but she was debating whether or not it was worth the cost. When Karla asked the group to pray for her, Elise thought, "They need to be praying for me."
Even though she believed she was seeing the whole picture, Elise had seen only one of Karla's personas. An adolescent girl is multifaceted, and which facet she chooses to show all depends on her mood. She's wavering in a world where some days she wishes she could still play with her dolls, yet she recognizes that her body is now able to bear children. She's in a constant state of flux, wondering who she is right now, and who she'll be tomorrow. Some days she'll feel as though she's 21. Other days, she's 10 again. It's a season of setting aside her childhood props and grieving that loss, while at the same time eagerly rejoicing as she becomes an adult. This isn't a one-day decision; it's a process that takes place over her adolescent years, as she constantly tries on new personalities and casts off others.
During this phase of her life, change is the only constant; every relationship is shifting, and every belief is questioned. What she once knew was solid ground now feels as though an earthquake hit it. She's not quite sure where to find the stability of her childhood, or if she even wants to. In the midst of this chaos, she's screaming the question of adolescence: "Who am I?" Tied to that question is a whole series of other questions: Who is she in relation to her friends? To her family? To her community? She's seeking to find her identity.
Erik Erikson is the name most frequently associated with the topic of identity development in adolescents. Erikson, a researcher in the area of human development, divided the human life span into phases, and a key issue marks each phase. According to Erikson, the adolescent phase of life deals with the issue of "identity versus identity confusion." In other words, during her adolescent years it's healthy for a teenage girl to try to figure out who she is and how she fits into her surrounding context. The unhealthy alternative (or "identity confusion") occurs when a girl reaches the end of adolescence (around her early 20s), and she hasn't made a commitment to any identity.
Identity formation is why it's normal for a girl to walk into youth group one month dressed in black Goth attire (and an attitude to match), while next month she's wearing polo shirts and Shetland sweaters. She's researching different personas to see what she likes and what others respond to affirmatively (in her judgment). Ideally, according to Erikson's theory, by the time she's reached young adulthood, she'll have made choices and commitments about her beliefs, her values, and her goals in life. All of these help form an identity that's acceptable to her, as well as to her larger community.
However, if at age 22 she's still walking into church wearing a punk outfit one Sunday and hip-hop the next, those are indicators that she's not moving in a healthy direction. Those kinds of drastic, external persona changes are a sign that she's floundering internally and having a difficult time committing to an identity. She's probably still waffling about what she believes, what she really values, and what she wants to do with her life. She's emerging from adolescence without a committed answer in any of these areas.
This uncertainty about who she is as she heads into young adulthood results in what Erikson would call "identity confusion." Erikson doesn't claim that adolescence is the only time people deal with their identities; discerning one's identity is a lifelong process. However, adolescence is when the questions about identity are at the forefront of life and most critical to a person's future development.
Some theorists and researchers have challenged Erikson's theories, saying his research is biased toward males. They propose that adolescent girls place a higher value on intimacy and forming an identity in relationship with others than adolescent boys do, and that a girl will forgo pursuing goals and opportunities if it requires sacrificing a relationship. But gender influences on identity development seem to be dissipating.
INFLUENCES ON IDENTITY DEVELOPMENT
In the past, a girl developed her sense of self among those she knew: family (including her extended family), friends, and people in her community. She took part in traditions, such as rites of passage, where she learned about her culture and received input from the elders in the community so she would understand that she was part of a legacy of a long line of strong women. She would receive religious guidance-not just from her pastor, but also from others in her community. She would receive role training from her mother, grandmother, aunts, older sisters, and other women in the community. All this was done with only minimal input from the outside world.
Then came the advent of television, videos, print media geared toward adolescent girls, cell phones, and especially influential-the Internet. An adolescent girl is now influenced by a multitude of sources, and they're not just from her community but, quite literally, from around the world. And these sources are sending her a variety of messages, many of which are contradictory:
"Love your body the way it is ... but make sure you're tall and thin."
"Don't let your sexuality be the only thing that defines you ... but be sexy and attractive to guys."
"Be happy with your natural beauty ... but we'll define 'beauty' by the models in the magazines."
"Don't get an STD ... but if you're normal, you're sexually active."
"Be confident and outspoken ... but not too aggressive or abrasive, or people will call you a 'bitch.'"
"Embrace your ethnicity ... but we'll still hold up a white European ideal."
Our girls struggle to discern which voices to give credence to, as all of these opinions are being screamed at them. No wonder so many girls enter young adulthood confused about who they are.
THE CONTEXTS OF IDENTITY DEVELOPMENT
As an adolescent girl forms her sense of self, it's important to understand that she sees herself not just as one consistent person traveling through the different settings of her life; rather, she has multiple selves that occur in a variety of contexts. She's subconsciously asking identity-searching questions:
"Who am I as a daughter? As a stepdaughter? As a sister?"
"Who am I as a friend? As a girlfriend?"
"Who am I at school in the classroom? In the lunchroom? On the sports field? In the choir room?"
"Who am I when I'm at church?"
"Who am I as a second-generation Korean American (or as a Latina, Native American, Black, or White) girl?"
"Who am I when I'm by myself?"
These are just a few of the contexts that influence the identity of an adolescent girl. They, and several others, are explored in greater depth throughout the rest of the book.
The Context of Family
A girl's family context is the most influential on her identity development. It's here that she wrestles with a dilemma-the desire to please her parents and earn their approval, as well as the desire to be independent and no longer be seen as "our darling baby girl." At the same time her parents are grappling with how to help her develop into an independent adult yet protect her from the real and perceived dangers of adolescence.
It's easy to see that conflict is bound to happen in this pushing-away/pulling-closer context. Parents set rules and boundaries for the safety and well-being of their daughter, and she naturally pushes against those rules and boundaries. Remember, she's developing her capability to think abstractly, and one way she's exercising that competence is to question the rules, as well as the motivation and logic behind them. Sometimes parents feel as though they're living with a lawyer. Every decision they make seems up for debate. However, her social skills usually haven't yet developed enough for her to ask these questions in a gracious manner that might elicit a more positive response from her parents.
In other words, the discussion usually sounds something like this, "We want you home by midnight."
(Defiantly) "Why? None of my friends have to be in that early."
(A more authoritarian parental tone) "We're not your friends' parents, we're yours."
(Louder, more disgusted tone) "You still treat me like a child!" And from there the discussion declines rapidly, ending with the slamming of a door.
The parents are dumbfounded; they believe they've made a reasonable demand in order to keep their child safe. However, their daughter sees her curfew as her parents' lack of trust in her emerging adult judgment. A conflict of opinions, a conflict of power, a conflict of perceived identities: Is she still a child or is she an emerging adult?
This dialogue exemplifies the internal trial-and-error she's working through. She's trying on an older identity-the ability to go out with friends and self-determine when it's okay to come home-and testing that identity with her parents. She's also questioning the voice of authority that, previously, she had always assumed was correct. Again, because of her increasing abstract-thinking skills, she's able to look at several sides of an issue and is weighing which one she wants to accept, even if that means disagreeing with her family.
For example, she may have been committed to the same political party as her parents. But now she's reading more newspapers, listening to political debates, exploring issues such as justice and fairness, and she decides she'll back a different political point of view. This can create family conflict if her parents regard her choice as an act of disloyalty. Healthy parents are able to accept this kind of change as their daughter's assertion of her own thoughts and opinions-just another step she's taking toward her identity development. She's now deciding what she believes-not just because someone told her to, but because she explored the options and came to her own conclusions. Hopefully, her parents will see her decision-making process as an identity skill that will serve her well in the future.
The Context of Church
Karen and Jackie were sitting in the back pew passing notes to each other. Cynthia was sitting next to them, text-messaging Chris who was sitting with his grandmother on the other side of the church. If you asked any of them what they got out of the Sunday service, they wouldn't have been able to tell you. But whether or not they were aware of it, they were being formed by their church that day-and every Sunday before that. They were learning their roles as Christians in that community. For as long as they've been going to church, they've been learning whether or not it's okay for them to have a leadership role. They've been absorbing whether women can have a voice or if they must stay silent. They've been picking up that it's okay for women to be up front if they're singing a solo but not if they're preaching, or that it's okay for a woman to work in the nursery but not to chair the board. Or perhaps they've learned that women are called and gifted to play any role in the church.
They've also been learning if it's okay to ask questions and to wrestle with doubt by watching how the rest of the congregation handles it when someone doesn't accept what's being taught from the pulpit. They're learning if it's better to give grace or to sit in judgment by watching how the church deals with the college girl who came home pregnant. They're noticing that they only worship with people who look like them and that church visitors who don't look like them don't stay.
In this culture of church, adolescent girls are having their faith formed from an early age. It's not just the teaching and preaching that gives them input, but it's also the conversations at the church potluck and observing how people talk about each other. This community is a tangible representation of who God is and what their relationship with God should be like. It's here that girls learn how to rejoice, how to grieve, how to forgive, how to pray, and how to lament. The voice of the church carries a heavy influence in the life of an adolescent girl.
The Context of Culture, Ethnicity, and Race
"But I don't see you as Black," exclaimed Katie. "I look at you and see my friend Charise."
"Please!" Charise retorted. "If you don't see my skin color then you don't see me." Katie had a hurt and bewildered look on her face. Charise took a deep breath and continued, "Katie, my color is part of who I am. Yes, I am female. I am a Christian. I am a straight-A student. And I am your friend. I am ALL of those things. But I am also Black. When you say you don't see me as Black, you deny my story, my history."
It's said that girls often define themselves according to their relationships with others. Usually they take that to mean relationships with peers. But it's also in relationship with their culture and history. They haven't come to this place in the timeline of the world without ancestors.
Some girls in minority cultures grow up strongly identifying with their ethnic groups while others find themselves just awakening to it during adolescence. Jean Phinney has done quite a bit of work in the area of identity formation in adolescents. She's found that they have four basic ways of responding to their ethnicity:
1. Assimilation. This is when someone chooses to ignore her ethnic background and blends into the population that surrounds her. "I don't like the label 'Korean American.' I just consider myself American."
2. Marginality. This occurs when someone neither accepts her own culture nor feels accepted by the majority culture. She doesn't feel at home when she's with her family, and she feels as though she stands out when she's with her majority culture friends.
3. Separation. When someone rejects the majority culture altogether and chooses only to associate with people of her own culture. This is often seen in older immigrants who live in the same area, speak the same language, go to the same church and shop at the same grocery stores that carry items from their culture. It is also seen in adolescents who refuse to interact with people from a different culture.
4. Biculturalism. A girl who is bicultural is at home both in the majority culture and in her culture of origin. She sees strengths in both cultures and can easily move back and forth and feel as though she's staying true to herself.
Because adolescence is a time of self-reflection, for the first time girls who are members of minority cultures may find themselves getting in touch with the injustices their relatives were exposed to over the centuries. Thus, they may be angry or depressed. As youth workers, we can design experiences where they can develop plans of action to help them deal with current injustices and help them research their pasts, as well as celebrate them. Girls need to understand what they've gained by being part of an ethnic group: What are they proud of? What do they appreciate or enjoy about their ethnicities or cultures? What roles have they been told they need to take on because of their cultural backgrounds (for example, caregiver of the little ones or the elderly, advocate of causes, girlfriend, daughter, wife)? Which roles do they want to take on, and which don't they?
We also need to develop a diverse curriculum that integrates various ethnicities. Check to see how many video clips show only majority culture students. Are illustrations only of one ethnicity? Are there role models and examples of leadership from only one ethnicity? We can create environments where girls from the majority culture get in touch with the issues facing girls of color and learn to embrace their own ethnic identity, as well as their friends'.
The Context of Peers
Peers are sometimes the loudest voice of influence during adolescence. They're often the audience that an adolescent girl plays to, adapting her identity based on the feedback she receives. Positive relationships with her peers prove to her that she has the social skills to make commitments to other people and she's capable of intimacy and forming lasting friendships. They can give her a sense of confidence and increase her level of self-esteem. Good peer relationships also help her develop a sense of understanding and empathy toward others. Healthy friendships teach her how to share herself and how to support others. These relationships can be a source of knowledge as they teach her about the world and about perspectives other than those of her family.
Peer relationships can also damage her identity through betrayal, hurt, aggression, or snubbing. Not having or keeping friends during adolescence can result in an adult who's more likely to be unemployed or who suffers from poor mental health.
Robert Weiss talks about two different forms of loneliness: social loneliness and emotional loneliness. Social loneliness deals more with feeling as though one lacks "enough" friends. This can be addressed, say, if a girl gets involved in a ministry or in a small group and develops more relationships where she feels connected. On the other hand, emotional loneliness isn't determined by the quantity of relationships, but by the quality. Girls feel lonely if the relationships they have aren't sufficiently deep or if their preferred level of sharing just isn't happening.
Friends can often act as a support during identity development. They can encourage a girl's values, relationships, and dreams. In analyzing the data from the National Study of Youth and Religion, Christian Smith found that, "Teenagers' friendships seem related to their religious lives in important, if not always unexpected ways ... the more religiously serious and involved a teenager is, unsurprisingly, the more their good friends seem to be. Moreover, parents of less religious U.S. teenagers are more likely to say that their teenagers' friends are a negative influence on them, while parents of religiously devoted teenagers think their teenagers' friends are a positive influence." 8 Youth ministries can often play a role in connecting girls with these positive peer relationships.
All of these contexts have spoken into a girl's life and helped her form her identity, her image of herself. Self-esteem is how she views herself. What does she think of her identity? Is she proud of who she is? Embarrassed? Does she wish she were something more or something less? Who does she hope she will eventually be and who does she dread becoming?
Sometimes, when a girl is dissatisfied with her identity or has low self-esteem, she'll seek to hide her true self behind a mask of a false self. She may wear the mask of "perfection," striving to perform at unrealistic levels in all that she does: the essay must be flawless, the speech must get an A, the competition must be won, or the room must be spotless. Anything less than perfect means she's to blame. She forgets that no one is perfect, and that God loves her for who she is, not for what she does.
A girl might put on the mask of "the good girl." This is similar to the mask of perfection, except "perfection" focuses on tasks while this mask focuses on relationships. She must always win the approval of others-especially those in authority-even if it means losing her own self-approval. She avoids conflict, even to the point of denying her beliefs because it may cause a rift in the relationship. She goes the extra mile because that's what a "good Christian girl" does. She operates without concern for her own emotional, spiritual, or physical well-being. The worst thing someone can say to someone wearing this mask is, "I'm so disappointed in you." Those words can devastate her. For her, Romans 3:23 is a daily reality. Everyone may have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, but her sin is worse. That's why she must work so hard for approval. She wonders if she'll ever get the approval and affirmation she needs. She doesn't understand that God's grace and love are free for the asking.
She may wear the mask of "strong girl" when she wants to communicate that she's tough and confident. When she wears this mask, her feelings of inadequacy and insecurity are hidden. She doesn't cry, doesn't feel lonely, doesn't need anyone else's help. She's FINE. When a girl wears this mask, she becomes Leah-covering up her pain over not being chosen and needing to be loved. But she forgets that Hannah sobbed her heart out over not having a child; that Esther was terrified at having to take a stand; that Ruth must have felt horribly lonely after leaving the place where she grew up; and that the woman who was bleeding for so many years felt such desperation that she would reach out and touch God in public, just for the chance to be healed.
These and other masks can hide an adolescent girl's true self. The difference between wearing these masks and trying on identities, covered earlier in the chapter, is that wearing a mask is all about gaining other people's approval for our identities rather than our own approval. When a teenage girl is trying on a mask, she's seeing if someone else likes her better with it on, and she'll hide her true self behind it. But when she's trying on an identity, she's testing to see if she likes who she is: Is this a part of her persona that she hasn't realized yet? Does this feel authentic to her or not? This isn't an easy process, and there can be pain and confusion as she wrestles with who she is and who she's becoming. It's difficult for her to realize that her identity is constantly forming. It's not to be "achieved"; it's a process.
THE YOUTH WORKER'S ROLE
As youth workers, it's crucial that we surround girls with positive messages about who they are and who they can become. They sometimes need us to dream with them about what God envisions for their lives. I was having coffee with Tessa one day, and we were talking about her life. Tessa had a rough time growing up. Many of the contexts mentioned earlier in this chapter were negative ones for her. Her father abandoned her, teachers overlooked her, and the local church was absent in her family's life.
I'd known Tessa for quite a while. She's a remarkable young woman. Even with all the negative forces she'd dealt with growing up, she survived. She's amazingly gifted and could choose a number of paths in life; we talked about those. What if she became a lawyer and advocated for abandoned children? What if she became a doctor and worked with the disenfranchised? What if she became a pastor and reached out to girls like her? Any of those were viable options for her.
As we were leaving the diner at the end of our conversation, she stopped me. "Can we do this again sometime? I've never had anyone dream with me before." We need to dream with our girls, helping them envision identities that are grounded in Scripture and developed in God's love.
Excerpted from Teenage Girls by Ginny Olson Copyright © 2006 by Ginny Olson. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Ginny Olson abides in Minneapolis, MN where she is the Director of Youth Ministry for the Northwest Conference of the Evangelical Covenant Church as well as a writer, speaker and consultant. Previously, she was one of two directors of the Center for Youth Ministry Studies at North Park University in Chicago, Illinois. She also served on the youth ministry staffs at Willow Creek Community Church and Grace Church, Edina, Minnesota. She is the author of “Teenage Girls” and co-editor and contributor to “Breaking the Gender Barrier in Youth Ministry.”
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