She may be a fifteen year old dressed in black who writes dark poetry and wears thick terry cloth bands on her wrists to cover the scratches she made last night with her paper clip. She may be a straight A student who uses her toothbrush to make herself throw up after every meal. She may be the girl in your Sunday School class who acts as if nothing bothers her, but you know is smoking pot on the weekends to forget about the pain in her family. Or she may be the daughter—or student—or granddaughter you see every day who has learned to say with her actions what she is terrified to communicate with her words.
In our counseling offices, if we had to name one word that girls struggle with the most—it would be self-hatred. For many girls, it begins in middle school. Up until then, they lived in a state of glorious naivete. They were unaware, for the most part, of what others thought about them, or how they were "supposed" to look…or talk…or act. Their spirits, and their confidence were unfettered. But, then, seemingly overnight, things changed.
It is almost as if, in early adolescence, their worlds change from black and white to color. But, they would never tell you so. What you notice instead is that they begin to speak in one word answers. They seem angrier, and more sullen than they used to. They are consumed by their peers and making sure they have every opportunity to connect with those peers—whether on the phone, internet, or in person. That is what the change can look like on the outside.
But something much more significant is taking place on the inside. Girls, around the ages of eleven to fourteen are going through a great deal of turmoil. They are overwhelmed by the changes taking place inside of them. They are feeling and thinking and experiencing new things that they don't yet know how to or even have the maturity to process. In our book, Raising Girls, we call these the Narcissistic Years because these girls are thinking about themselves continually—and also believe everyone else is thinking about them continually, also. In addition to that, their brains are growing at such a rate that they have momentary malfunctions, causing these girls to feel horrible about themselves for no apparent reason.
What all of this means is that our daughters are waking up to an entirely new world in early adolescence. In this world, they have a hunger for relationships, for intimacy with friends and boys and God that is stronger than anything they have previously experienced. That hunger can lead to pain as they are often disappointed. In this world, they long to be accepted and delighted in—and often in exaggerated amounts. Again, they are disappointed. In this world, they also begin to notice failure…on their part and from those around them. Disappointment. So, what often happens with girls who are just beginning to experience disappointment is that they turn it onto themselves.
A fourteen year-old's father leaves home, and somehow she believes it is her fault. A thirteen year-old is not invited to a classmate's party…something, in her mind, must be wrong with her. They are old enough to notice that things aren't quite right, but not old enough—or mature enough to begin to understand the residue of a fallen world.
So, what happens to these girls is that they start to fall apart from the outside in. They develop struggles such as eating disorders, self-mutilation, addictions to drugs and alcohol, and other issues as a way to numb—or control this newfound pain that feels so out of their control. Each of these issues warrants a different response, but each comes from the same source—an intense dislike, or self-hatred, of the girls themselves.
How do we help, as adults who love them?
We’ll answer that question in next week’s blog.