The recent story of NFL player Ray Rice hitting his girlfriend really bothered me. I work with so many teenage girls and women in their 20’s that it sickens me to think about how many of them might suffer the same fate. Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention bear out my fears. And, prom night approaches, where a combination of alcohol and hormones can prove disastrous.
About 1/3 US adolescents are victims of physical, sexual, emotional, or verbal abuse from a dating partner, with 1/4 high school girls being victims of physical or sexual abuse. Girls between the ages of 16-24 have the highest rate of partner violence, and 70% of college students say they have been sexually coerced. And victims of dating violence are at a higher risk for substance abuse, risky sexual behaviors, eating disorders, and further domestic violence. It’s a huge problem that seems to fly under our radar.
One of an adolescent girl’s best protections vs. dating violence has to do with trusting their gut and intuition. Girls tell me that when a guy walks into a party, their radar goes off telling them that he either feels safe or that he seems like a creep. I strongly encourage them to trust that internal alarm. But in order to trust their gut, they have to have the awareness of how it feels when their alarms are going off, notice it, and then respond to it by taking some sort of action to take care of themselves. This is where I worry that girls have ‘lost their guts’. And by the way, girls know that when they enter a party, boys radar tells them immediately if the girl has good boundaries or if she’s easy. That’s another blog for another time.
When I asked a group of adolescent girls on a recent weekend retreat how many of them take some time regularly to be alone and quiet, the answer I received matched what I have heard from young women in the past 4-5 years; none. Zero. And when I ask them why not, the answer is always the same: “There’s no time.” There is no time any more for solitude, reflection, soul-searching, or self-discovery. Particularly during their transformative adolescent years, girls need to go inward to know what you are feeling, know what they need, and to connect with that inner voice or inner knowing that knows the answers to their questions and what is right for them. I want every girl to make decisions out of that place instead of being swayed by external pressures.
Adolescent girls also need awareness of what mutes their alarms: alcohol is the biggest culprit, but desperately needing a boyfriend, really wanting a boy to like them, poor self-esteem, and a low sense of worthiness will also sway their better judgment. Ideally, every girl would handle these issues before they ever went out on a date, so that decisions about dating and sexuality would be on their terms, not the boys. I have high school girls on my retreats make a list of their criteria for a dating relationship, including sexual behavior. Creating their own standards and expectations while quiet and clear-headed is a much better proposition than trying to make good decisions in the heat of the moment with hormones and impulsivity flying around the back seat of a car.
We have a responsibility to teach girls these skills, and it’s best to begin by middle school age, when many of them start to “date”. Girls haven’t “lost” their guts; they just don’t know how to tune into it. Make sure that in addition to the dress, corsage, heels, and hair-do to include discussions about knowing and trusting your gut intuition when it comes to boys. The back seat of a car is not the place to learn this skill.