As we continue to unpack the recent Youth Risk Behavior Survey from the CDC, evidence that “America’s teen girls are engulfed in a growing wave of sadness, violence and trauma,” I believe the most meaningful thing we can do is to continue the inquiry in our own communities. Now more than ever, we need to listen to teenage girls—and trust in their exceptional insight.
Girls today are struggling, but not because they’re weak. Girls are struggling because they’re so much stronger than we let them be, because they are deep-feeling, deep-thinking, truth-seeking human beings—the most perceptive, intuitive, insightful, emotionally intelligent and spiritually-aware group of people I’ve ever had the honor to know—and society, as a whole, has not been listening to them. Rather than pathologize girls, seeing them as broken or in need of rescue, I’d like to suggest that their emotional vulnerability is, in fact, proof of their incredible emotional power, a power that deserves our respect.
As a creative writing teacher who’s been listening to girls’ stories for over ten years, the CDC report validates what I have always felt to be true, that teenage girls are our most empathetic and intelligent cultural bellwethers. Girls feel everything first—and they feel it intensely—in every issue from the climate crisis to social injustice and gun violence, where teens are already standing up as activists and leaders. That is why the health or imbalance of a society is reflected in the psyche of teenage girls. If you want to know what needs to change, ask a girl. And if you want to support a girl, all you need to do is listen to her, really listen, respecting her thoughts and trusting in her ability to find her own answers. For example, if a girl comes to you asking for advice, consider asking her what advice she’d give to her best friend in the same situation. Then watch how quickly and brilliantly she will solve her own problem. The same thing happens when girls write their story.
The very act of writing helps us to access a deeper part of our psyche, something I call our intuitive wisdom. In research from the social psychologist Dr. James W. Pennebaker, studies show that writing is the single most healing form of creative expression. There are many reasons for this, but the primary benefit is that writing creates order out of chaos. It transforms otherwise overwhelming experiences into empowering stories. Not surprisingly, the very people who most need to talk, connect and process their experiences—teenage girls—just happen to be the most skilled at articulating their experiences on paper.
Girls are highly attuned to the suffering, dysfunction and injustice that is happening around them. Painful though it is, this attunement is a good thing. They just need a place to “put” it, a place to speak their truth and have it validated. They also need us, as a society, to ease off the insane-making pressure for them to be “successful” and “perfect” in all things, all the time, two impossible quests that invariably drive girls down dark rabbit holes of stress and self-loathing. More than anything, teenage girls need to be free to be teenage girls.
While adolescence has never been easy, “in the old days” there was time to decompress. Now everything is speeded up, at the very moment that girls most need things to slow down, slow enough to be able to process their experiences. Depression, afterall, is partly the result of de-pressing the anger and pain that is most urgently needing expression. When female anger and pain can’t be processed, it is inevitably turned inward, obliging girls to blame and attack themselves. And yet, as I have seen again and again, the moment girls are given a chance to write and speak their truth, the floodgates open—and everything changes.
When girls write, they express the truth of who they really are and they learn that who they are matters. When you know that your voice matters, you cultivate the courage to advocate for yourself and others, to be resilient and defiant in the face of adversity, and to work with those around you to create a more just and caring world.
What teenage girls need most is not our micromanagement, but our trust and support. In the words of Gloria Steinem, “When people say to me, ‘What should I tell my daughter?’ I always say, ‘The most important thing is to listen. This is how she learns she has something to say.’”
Teenage girls need the love and respect of everyday people like you and me—their parents, teachers, coaches and mentors—to simply listen to them and give them the time and space they need to tell their story and find their voice.
Writing prompt/conversation starter: ask your daughter or student to write an open letter to the world, starting with the words “Dear World” and then writing about everything she wishes the world would understand. Prepare to be amazed.