Why Girls Talk And What They Are Really Saying
In the words of the parents of a teenage daughter and son: “When our son, David, has a problem, we have to pry the details out of him with a crowbar, but every issue with our daughter, Amy, becomes a four-act melodrama that goes on and on.” Unlike boys, who tend not to talk much with their parents, teenage girls provide an almost excessive amount of information about their daily lives. We have written Why Girls Talk—and What They’re Really Saying to help you understand the complexities of teenage girls’ lives.
Our girls’ words as well as their behaviors reveal much about their inner lives. By providing insight into the culture of adolescence, we hope to help you to better understand your daughter so you can help her more accurately decipher and address her inner feelings. You may be able to prevent your daughter from spending her adult life sorting out childhood misconceptions and trauma. As one mother expressed it, “I want my daughter to figure it out earlier than I did.”
Adolescence is a time of great stress for parents and children. To parent girls effectively during this period, you must deal with several complex matters, such as sources of girls’ emotional vulnerabilities, the damaging impact of the media portrayal of beauty as the defining element of personal worth, the factors that influence girls’ self-esteem, and the impact of friendships and peer pressure. We provide effective techniques for you to address these issues.
Although our society encourages boys and girls to be autonomous and to pursue individual accomplishments, girls also are taught that forming and sustaining relationships is of major importance. More than boys, girls are expected to reconcile these two—often conflicting— definitions of success. We discuss psychological theory and popular literature to explore these issues, and we identify a road map for parenting teenage girls. As quoted in Jo Ann Deak’s, Girls Will Be Girls, one mother describes her difficulty in developing an effective game plan: “I’m not saying that being a parent has ever been easy, but my parents had much more clarity about the world . . . and society supported them. There’s just no script anymore.”
The Paradox of Aggression
Girls’ behavior is driven primarily by the expectation that they must behave cooperatively. Their behavior reflects a strong emphasis on collaboration and acceptance by their family, other adults, and, especially, their peers. They are also motivated by their fear of rejection and isolation. Girls’ culture is based on both cooperation and social manipulation. It does not permit them to be in touch with and/or display how they really feel, e.g., angry, disappointed, proud, or frustrated. The resulting unexpressed and unprocessed feelings can create inner rage.
We used focus groups of teenage girls and their parents to conduct our primary research. We learned about two critical factors of teenage girls’ development: the tremendous power of peer groups and the reluctance of girls to express anger (or their true feelings) in a direct manner. Whereas boys tend to display their teenage angst through overt acts of physical aggression, girls tend to express this same painful struggle in ways that are subtle, masked, and difficult to identify or interpret.
Our observations confirmed those of others. According to Phyllis Chesler in Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman, social manipulation is an “indirect aggression [that] is carried out in order to harm the opponent, while avoiding being identified as aggressive. . . . Indirect aggression is akin to a voodoo hex, an anonymous but obsessive act in which the antagonist’s soul, more than her body, must be got at, must be penetrated, must be nullified.”
Girls don’t lash out to be malicious; it’s the only acceptable tool they have to process their aggression. They lash out to protect themselves because girls don’t feel that they have permission to say what they really want, especially if this is different from what they think is expected of them. By molding their personality to fit the group, girls internalize the social pressure to be cooperative.
Girls use social manipulation to try to control their universe. Generally, this involves complex interactions to indirectly control events. These practices are based on the belief that to be assertive is to be forward or pushy; fear that self-assertion may result in being labeled as not a team player; and worry of appearing emotional and/or hysterical. Girls’ manipulation practices take many forms, including covert behaviors to get back at someone, such as talking behind her back, being passive-aggressive, and playing the peacemaker.
Anyone who has ever worked or lived with teenage girls knows how much drama exists in their everyday lives. In addition to reacting to their raging hormones, this drama is the result of their need for validation. Girls need feedback from others before they can internalize a sense of well-being. The drama is really a girl’s verbalization of her feelings in a manner that she believes will produce a validating reaction.
We have to work to understand the message behind the drama. In most instances, girls are wrestling with the difficult problems of defining themselves and their relation to others. Is it OK to step out of the group? Is it OK to disagree with the group’s consensus? Can I stand out as an individual and still be a member of the group? Girls must answer these questions to develop their own identity.
Girls suffer from a constant tug-of-war between their need to individualize and their need to establish group identification. In contrast, boys define themselves independently, often by rejecting anything they perceive to be “feminine” or “soft.” Boys don’t talk about their feelings because they think it’s safer not to talk. Boys think they are cool by appearing to disengage. Girls hope to be cool by being engaged and accepted by the group. We all know girls talk, but the words may not match who they really are.
You have an opportunity to influence your daughter’s development. Take time to listen through the noise, with caution and care, and focus on your daughter’s real needs. This can help you to gain greater clarity and purpose when addressing your daughter’s identity issues. Your insight will help to establish her sense of self. Your daughter’s accurate self-knowledge can protect her from subsuming herself into the girl she thinks she is supposed to be or what her friends think she should be. We need to teach our daughters how to identify the underlying issues of self-definition that drive their emotions, just as we teach our sons to understand and articulate the language of feelings. Without these skills, boys and girls struggle with knowing themselves and using their own voices.
By helping your daughter to sort out the wheat from the chaff, you enable her to interpret what the real issues are. “I hate you” may really mean “I’m scared that if I don’t have a later curfew my friends may think I’m a baby.” When you first begin to suggest what’s really going on, your daughter may protest because th concept is new to her and it may make her uncomfortable. For example, she may not want to go to a particular party but may feel she has to go or lose face. Helping your daughter to figure out what she wants, rather than going along with the group, is essential to her developing effective decision-making skills.
Patience is essential. Planning a Friday evening with a teenage girl is more difficult than planning the invasion of Normandy. Between the time she gets home from school and “show time,” your daughter’s plans can change countless times. One mother of a 15 year-old daughter remarked, “I never say yes or no to the first requests. I used to take each request seriously, until I realized that I could avoid numerous battles if I just waited until the last moment to give permission for or against.”
Strong emotions often mask underlying pain and confusion. In the midst of such chaos, try to figure out what is really important to your daughter, what she wants to do versus what she thinks she should do, and what she really feels about herself, school, family, and friends.
Amy, the mother of 15-year-old Nicky, commented, “Sometimes I see Nicky acting silly so she can feel a sense of belonging to her group. I know she doesn’t care about some of the things they discuss . . . yesterday she pretended to like the Dixie Chicks, when she doesn’t. I think she subjugates her own ideas and thoughts to belong.” As a result of the inaccurate messages our daughters give out, much of what we hear doesn’t give us the information we need to make good parenting decisions. We often are presented with a puzzle that we must work to translate.
Once they become adolescents, girls think we parents become dumber by the minute. At the same time, they want our approval. Even though adolescents perceive their parents to be Neanderthals, we must persevere. As Mark Twain reminds us, “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”