What Do Teenage Girls Need?
By Carol Kuniholm Posted on October 07 2009
What do teenage girls need? Ask ten girls and you'll get ten different answers. But a ninth grade girl recently said something that set me thinking. She was emoting about how frustrated she was that so many of her friends had stopped playing our youth group's active games. "They just sit on the side. They feel like everyone's watching them. They feel like the boys don't want them to play, and they feel like they're in the way."
So what do they need? "They need for the female leaders to get in the game and encourage them to come play."
Life is more complicated than that. So is youth ministry. But it's a good place to start. Teenage girls need permission—permission to play, permission to speak, permission to set their own boundaries, feel their own feelings, stumble along the way. And if their youth leaders don't give them that permission, too often, no one will.
Permission to Play
I was talking to some girls one evening at youth group when I noticed a group of guys starting a casual game of hackey sack. It started with two of our young male leaders kicking the sack back and forth, and soon there was a circle of boys eagerly joining the game. I noticed, too, that there were several girls watching, not talking, just watching, as if they wanted to play. I finished my conversation and walked over to the circle. "Can I play?" The guys hurried to make room for me, while I looked over my shoulder to the girls who had been watching. "Hey, Amber. Heather. Come and play too." "We're not any good at it." "Neither am I. Play anyway."
In our active games too often girls are the spectators. Or cheerleaders. Or they play the Vanna White role—props, accessories. How can we structure the games so everyone takes part? How can we equalize abilities? Sometimes we play two games: one labeled "competitive," one labeled "relaxed," so there's a place for girls who feel they can't keep up with the bigger, stronger guys. Or we play games like Human Foosball, where everyone is anchored to a specific spot on the floor, so the bigger, faster players can't swoop in and take the ball from those who aren't as competitive. We encourage our guy leaders to make sure they're passing to everyone, to set an example for the boys watching them. But most of all, we try to have a female leader in every active game, so there's someone giving permission to play and inviting the girls to take part.
Permission to Speak
Girls also need permission to talk, which sounds a little strange considering how capable most girls are of talking. But in a group, especially a mixed group, watch the dynamic. Girls often lose confidence mid-sentence, as if they've suddenly forgotten what they were going to say. They start off on a point, pause, and say, "Never mind."
Too much of this has to do with how often girls are interrupted. Repeated studies done in schools, universities, businesses, and other group settings show that females are interrupted far more often than males. It would be nice to think that male youth leaders are more sensitive to this than the average American male, but I'm not sure that's the case. In groups with other professional youth leaders, I've found myself (often the only female) cut off repeatedly. It's not hard to start thinking that I'm being interrupted because I'm female. And it's not hard to start thinking no one wants to hear what I have to say. If I'm feeling that, how much more are the girls in our youth groups feeling the same?
When interrupted, I've wondered why no one jumps in to say "Hey, I want to hear the rest of what Carol had to say." That's a skill we try to teach our leaders. And we encourage our students to do the same: if someone's interrupted, wait until the interrupter takes a breath, then say "Interesting point. But first I'd like to hear the rest of what Sarah was saying. It sounded really worth hearing."
It's easy as leaders to steam-roll along, making our own points, keeping the discussion going, without paying too much attention to the group dynamic. But it's worth the effort to watch who says what, to give girls permission to speak, and to affirm their right to be heard, whether they're wresting with interruptions or with their own flagging confidence. When they trail off, uninterrupted, we can still push for them to finish the thought: "What you said so far sounded really helpful. Can you say a little more about that?"
Permission to Feel
It's easy to think "well, if girls feel left out of games, or cut off in conversation, that's just their imagination." Is it? Too often girls are told that what they feel is their imagination, or they're just too sensitive. "You shouldn't feel that way." "There's no reason to get upset." The heart cry of many girls is that someone, anyone, believe they're feeling what they're feeling. If peers have a huge influence in the lives of teenage girls, this may be the biggest reason: at least they understand the power of each other's emotions.
It may be that teenage girls feel more strongly than any other group alive. Hormones, huge physical changes, fear of the future, exquisitely fine-tuned social awareness, anxiety about crushing expectations, epidemic lack of sleep—all contribute to make many girls emotionally volatile and easily upset. Yet to dismiss their emotions is in many ways to dismiss them. To say "oh, that's just your hormones" is to minimize them and the things that most concern them.
As I listen to girls, one of the saddest things I hear them say is, "my parents don't believe how stressed/anxious/afraid/unhappy I am." Girls whose parents say, "my daughter never tells me anything," tell me, in tears, of attempts to share their hurts with their parents. Those parents would be amazed at the depth of anger their daughters feel when they're told, "You don't really feel that," or "You're just saying that as an excuse," or, "Is it that time of month?"
What happens to those feelings girls are told they don't or shouldn't have? They go underground—to resurface in eating disorders, self-injury, deep depression, or the kind of rage that acts out in substance abuse and promiscuous sexuality. How much better to acknowledge the depths of girls' feelings, to give room for them to be expressed, to look for appropriate ways to relieve them, and to beg parents to do the same.
Permission to Set Boundaries
Parents also need encouragement in affirming their daughters' rights to set boundaries. Too often girls are taught to be "nice," which means putting the needs of others above their own. Assertiveness is valued in boys, but questioned in girls, which gives both guys and girls a skewed vision of what it means to be "Christian" and leaves them at greater risk of inappropriate sexual activity.
A parent recently came to see me after a school dance. Her ninth grade daughter went with a "Christian boy," and the boy made physical advances the daughter wasn't interested in. The girl told him to stop, told him he was making her uncomfortable, then went to find her mom, who was checking coats. She explained what was happening and asked to be taken home, but her mother told her she couldn't, that she would hurt the boy's feelings, that she should be nice about it and handle it the best she could.
The mother was wondering if she'd done the right thing. No. She hadn't. Her daughter was struggling to establish boundaries, and she was undermined by the person who should most affirm her. Fortunately, that mother apologized to her daughter and agreed to be available in the future any time her daughter needed a ride home in a similar circumstance.
But what are we doing to tell girls that they can say no, that they have the right to set boundaries, that when they don't want to do something they can choose not to? Not just in the realm of sexuality, but in everything. What are we doing to say that being "Christian" isn't the same thing as being "nice"? And how are we encouraging guys to set their own boundaries?
Permission to Stumble
From where I stand, it looks like there's still a tragic double standard at work. Boys will be boys, but girls who mess up find themselves quickly labeled and easily dismissed. The church should be the place where this is least so, yet from what I see of youth groups, there is plenty of space for boys who "wander," but little tolerance for girls who do the same. The girls themselves are perhaps the reason for this: they inhale an impossibly high standard, struggle under the anxiety that they won't be able to meet it, then turn with scorn on girls who fail.
Adolescence is hard. The competitive, hurried pace of American life is hard. The Christian life is hard. Purity is hard. Dealing with stress without falling prey to alcohol, cigarettes, and drugs is hard. And when girls decide it's all too hard, too often they're judged harshly by those who should be most sympathetic.
As we introduce girls to Jesus, we should make sure they see the side of Jesus that the women of his day loved so deeply: his ability to see beyond the failures, the sin, and the brokenness. Jesus reached out to the woman at the well, to the woman caught in adultery, to the woman with an issue of blood, to women who were cut off, ostracized, untouchable. We need to help our girls see his deep love and forgiveness, and we need to model that same love and forgiveness.
The more I see the deep needs of adolescent girls, and the more I learn of Jesus, the more convinced I am that he is the model of ministry our girls most need. He included women in a way that the men around him found alarming. He listened to their deep needs, even when they were afraid to put those needs into words. He wasn't disturbed by their deepest emotions, even when others found those emotions frivolous or shameful. He encouraged women to rethink their roles, to put obedience to him over being good hostesses or "nice" people. And he reached out to women no one else would touch. He gave women permission to be whole, complex, valued people. If only we can do the same.