Many of you have heard me tell the story of finding my love for sex therapy while developing other passions early on in my career. While working as a therapist with pre-adolescent and adolescent girls in juvenile justice facilities, psychiatric hospitals and non- profit agencies, I recognized that although I was able to build rapport easily and build trust with these girls who were labeled as “tough”, I had a nagging feeling that there was something missing…more I needed to know. More I needed to DO. I wasn’t as equipped as I wanted to be to really influence change in these girls’ lives. I felt that… sure, even though I may have been the one listening to them, the only person hearing them, I was still yet another person who was ultimately failing them. This is when I returned to school to study clinical sexology.
The sexual abuse, the lack of self awareness, the shame, embarrassment and guilt, gender disparity, chronic low self-esteem, hypersexualization and void of confidence that these beautiful children suffered from was inconceivable to me. Not only were these girls unable to recognize the names of their own body parts, but they were unable to name a single thing that they liked about themselves and unable to identify at least one adult role model that they could look up to. The correlation there was no coincidence.
Through my research (and because I finally cared to ask) I found that these issues were not unique to “my girls”. I came to realize that this wasn’t the pathology of ‘children in programs’, these were issues that girls (and women) from every walk of life struggle with at some point in their lives.
Sure, my girls were angry and they were hurt. They were vulnerable and they were guarded, but they were also strong, fiercely independent and the most resilient human beings I have ever known. They were articulate and engaging, charming and gregarious, intelligent and inquisitive. They were witty, funny and downright silly! They weren’t “the tough girls” or even worse, the “bad” girls as I had been led to believe… they were just like the rest of us. Regular, wonderfully flawed, amazing, extraordinary GIRLS!
My girls gave me such gifts, the challenges they laid before me and the tasks they charged me with led to the cultivation and development of therapeutic strategies and curricula which I created specifically to help any girl and every girl:
Increase confidence, self-esteem and assertiveness
Resolve conflicts without aggression or passive ambivalence
Explore sense of self… not only who she is but who she wants to become
Recognize and be proud of her abilities, unique gifts and talents rather than to minimize them
Surround herself with friends who celebrate rather than berate her
Reduce teen pregnancy and victimization
Understand sexually responsible behavior
Find that her true power and self-worth lies within her heart and her mind, not in the outward appearance of her rapidly developing body.
That research informs every ounce of the current work I do with my adult female clients. Many of us never received these roadmaps as children ourselves, so how can we be expected to impart this to our daughters? We don’t know what we don’t know. But as Maya Angelou has said, once you know better, you do better.
So how do we “do better” by our girls when we live in a society bombarded with negative media messages that we eat up with a spoon? A culture that worships emaciated rehab-bound pseudo-celebrities? I believe that this country is in a demoralizing downward spiral where we celebrate unrealistic photoshopped images of women and girls, sexualize them at a very young age, all while glorifying detrimental and ridiculously stereotyped “girly” behaviors such as bullying, cattiness, over-pleasing, feigned stupidity and perfectionism. The panacea for this is media literacy and relationship building with our girls. Ask them about the TV they watch and the websites they frequent. Do they feel pressure to look a certain way, BE a certain way to appease the cultural “norms” created by the media? Talk about it… challenge beliefs… show real interest… be present.
We brush a lot of this off, claiming “It’s just a phase!” “This is just how girls are with each other!” or “This is just how they dress nowadays!”. Stop the madness! Young girls are portrayed as “sexy” so unapologetically and commonly in the media that we have been tricked into a false sense of security that it is ok. We have become brainwashed to believe that this is the new normal. We have forgotten that we as consumers are the ones who have the power to drive trends. We as parents are the ones given the responsibility to PARENT our children; however, we seemed to have relinquished some of those duties to advertisers because, well… everyone else is doing it. Sound familiar?
Somehow it has also become wildly popular to be “popular” with our children. This dynamic is overwhelmingly evident amongst mothers and daughters. Modern mothers fear their daughters’ disapproval; we attempt to please them at all costs so that they will like us. Whether we avoid conflict to placate our own female insecurities or to simply buffer our little angels from ever feeling pain, in doing so, we fail our girls. Feelings are NORMAL and learning how to express them is paramount to our emotional and psychological development and to the development and maintenance of healthy relationships with other human beings. We are so afraid and avoidant of our budding beauties’ displeasure (or any other negative emotion) that we ignore our innate motherly instincts, we sidestep our sound judgment, we end up questioning ourselves and giving in. Children do as we do, not as we say. Consider what messages are sent, what kind of modeling is present when we focus our discipline strategies on being a “Cool Mom” rather than on being a Mother Worthy of Respect.
We all have and will continue to make mistakes and we will learn from them. It is never too late to talk to our daughters more openly about how they perceive themselves, how they treat others and how they allow themselves to be treated. We have to be willing to ask tough questions that may result in answers we are afraid to hear, but our daughters are worth it! Although they may tell you daily that they don’t need you, they DO! I promise you they do… Now, more than ever.