Connecting with Teen Girls: A Safe Haven for their Inner Voice

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Julissa Pagán-Peña, M.A., Psychology Doctoral Intern
By Julissa Pagán-Peña, M.A., Psychology Doctoral Intern May 21, 2018

At Momentous Institute, we are fortunate to be able to form therapeutic groups when we see a need arise. For example, if many clients are presenting with similar concerns, we may form a group that allows them to interact with others who share the same experience and they can process through it together.

One of my colleagues who manages our intake process shared that many teen girls coming in for therapy with their families were struggling with their identity. They were presenting typical female adolescent struggles, such as body image, making sense of their place in the world, bullying, social pressure, and family dynamics.

In light of this information, I decided to create a new therapeutic group called “S.E.L.F.I.E.” It stands for “Self-Reflection Leading to Formation of Identity Expression.” Our group has 12-15 year old girls, some who have participated in individual or group therapy in the past, and some who have not.

To be completely honest, this process was new for me. I was both nervous and excited to start this therapeutic group and learn with these teens about what was going on in their lives. I prepared by researching relationship-based, culturally-appropriate curricula and activities that might be a fit, and then adapted them to work with our group. We continue to use these activities, but I’ve also found that much of our group is focused on conversations and connection.

Many common themes have emerged over the six weeks that I’ve been leading this group, among them:

Coping Skills

Girls in the group have discussed what coping skills are appropriate and inappropriate, and have had conversations around what helps them cope during difficult times. The most common coping skill for this particular group? Music.

Family Pressure

While each girl’s family dynamic is different, many share that they struggle with certain family issues. One girl has a brother who is struggling, so she works hard to be very well behaved and not cause further stress to her family. Another wants to have a quinceañera but her father doesn’t. One shared about  being teased by her older cousins. Not every girl has these exact dilemmas, but they can relate to the concept. Some girls share that they also struggle with complying with their parent’s vision for their lives.

Social Pressure

Pressure doesn’t just come from family. Many girls struggle with what others say or think about them. Some have been teased. Some of have struggled with body image. The girls have discussed how to not let the messages that others think about them become their inner story, and how to create a filter that lets these comments roll past them.

Sense of Belonging

The most powerful thing to come out of this group is that it provides these girls a safe place where they feel that they belong. It may be the only place in their lives where they hear messages such as, “I hear you. I can relate. I have been in a similar situation.” The girls are eager to connect with other people who understand them.

While this group is therapeutic in nature, I think a similar group could take place with any population of teen girls. Through this process, I have learned that teen girls are in search of these opportunities for meaningful connection with peers. If anyone reading this is interested in forming a similar group, therapeutic or not, at a school, church, agency or other setting, I have a few tips on what has made our group work.

Acceptance

The most important thing when working with teen girls is to accept them where they are and to not try to change them. They are receiving messages all day, every day that they “should” be something different than they are. These messages become so engrained in them that they start to take over and chisel away at a girl’s sense of identity. Instead, this group provides a space for them to just be. In this group, they are not judged for the thoughts they have or the issues they struggle with. Instead of judgement, I adopt a posture of curiosity. I ask clarifying questions to understand why they feel the way they do, and I accept their answers without judgement. This process gives them the muscles they need to learn self-acceptance.

Vulnerability

An important component of this group is my willingness to be open and vulnerable. I share about my own teen experiences as well as about my cultural background and expectations. This helps the girls feel safe to share about their own issues when they see me as a human being with my own complexity rather than another adult who might criticize them.

Our Successes

I’ll be honest about what has worked well and where we’ve struggled with this group. I truly enjoy each of the girls, and they all have a very strong inner voice. They are definitely on the right path to strong identity formation. I am proud of all of them for their participation and the things they’ve shared with the group.

In a recent session, we focused on body image. The girls cut out pictures from magazines about how society defines beauty. Many of the girls identified themes such as, “Less is more”, referring to dress styles where women who show more skin are valued higher than women who don’t. They also identified themes around weight and beauty. They had thoughts that counteracted these messages, such as “embrace differences” or “love your body.” They talked a lot about makeup and agreed that makeup does not make them more pretty. They decided that some girls may wear makeup to hide their insecurities.


Our Struggles

Despite all of our successes in this group – and there have been many – we’ve also had some struggles. The biggest issue has been willingness to participate. All of the girls seem to be benefiting from the experience and listening to others, but many are hesitant to share. They aren’t 100% comfortable with each other and they’re not sure they’re ready to be vulnerable yet. In this particular group, the teens are part of our clinical program and may have other issues that they’re working on with their family, which could be impacting their ability or interest in connecting. But in any population, I imagine asking teen girls to be vulnerable with a group they don’t know would come with some challenges.

Every session is different, but I have enjoyed getting to know these girls and learning more about their lives. I think the most important thing I have learned through this process is how much these girls are hungry for a sense of belonging. We all want to have deep connections with others and understand how we fit into the world, and these girls are no different. Through this group, we’ve been able to provide a safe place for them to share without judgement. It’s been an incredible learning opportunity and growth experience for me as well, and I look forward to continuing to grow and refine the group over time. 

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