I’m often stunned by what adults say to me when they learn that I’m a psychologist who consults to girls’ schools and cares for adolescent girls in my private practice. All too frequently I hear, “Teenage girls? They’re crazy!” or “How do you put up with all of those mean girls?” or “They’re totally obsessed with their phones!” Of course, anyone who works closely with teenage girls can attest that hoary stereotypes don’t begin to describe the dynamic, compelling young women we have the privilege of guiding, and learning from, every day.
Those of us who spend time with adolescents share an obligation to challenge the negative views held about teenagers in general and girls in particular. While conducting research for my book, Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions Into Adulthood (my 280-page attempt to change how adults think and talk about adolescent girls), I developed several handy responses to the derisive things I hear.
“Teenage girls? They’re crazy!”
Adults who make comments along these lines are usually referring to the intense emotionality that sometimes characterizes adolescent girls. Teachers of middle and upper school students know that girls sometimes do get upset, but usually feel better as quickly as they become undone. When confronted with adults who call girls “crazy” or “dramatic” I will often say:
“Yes, it’s true that girls can sometimes be intense and emotional, but being a teenager isn’t easy. A lot of growth and change is packed into a very short period of time, so it’s bound to be stressful.”
If I’ve still got their attention, I’ll add:
“Interestingly, new research tells us that teenagers process feelings differently than kids and adults do. In adolescence, the part of the brain that calms feelings down is easily overridden by the part of the brain that has emotional reactions. Girls are rarely “being dramatic,” and most of the time, they manage their feelings really well.”
“How do you put up with all of those mean girls?”
I have an especially prickly reaction to comments like this because we have mountains of evidence demonstrating that girls are no meaner than boys. This is true regarding both the use of physical aggression and the use of relational aggression (rumor spreading, excluding, etc.) for which girls, specifically, are unfairly infamous. Here’s the response I stand ready to deliver:
“Funny you should say that. For the most part, girls are incredibly good to each other – I regularly watch girls go to bat for friends and lend support to classmates, even the ones they don’t much like. We know from research that girls are actually less aggressive than boys physically, and no more aggressive than boys socially. But when they’re not getting along, girls do become upset, seek peer support, and worry about one another. Adults are probably more likely to hear about it when girls are in conflict, but that doesn’t mean that girls are less kind than boys.”
“They’re totally obsessed with their phones!”
This is a tough one given that it’s pretty accurate. But in my experience, adults deliver this line in a tone suggesting that teenage girls are irrational creatures who cannot possibly be understood. So I say:
“Yes, they do love their phones. But as the researcher Danah Boyd notes, ‘They’re not addicted to their phones. They’re addicted to each other.’ And we were, too! I don’t know about you, but I spent many teenage afternoons pressing a corded phone to my ear, even as I did homework and watched television. If someone had given me better technology for staying in touch with my friends when I was a teenager, I know I would have used it.”
I find that my partners in these conversations are usually open to a more positive view of adolescent girls, especially when I back up my opinions with research. To me, there’s no better work than teaching and caring for teenagers. But if we really want to support girls, we need to advocate for them everywhere we go.
Lisa Damour, Director of Laurel School’s Center for Research on Girls, is a psychologist in private practice and a clinical instructor at Case Western Reserve University, and writes a monthly column for the Motherlode blog at the New York Times. She is the author of Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood (Ballantine, 2016).