Teaching Thirteen-Year-Old Girls a Whole New Way of Life

by Jeffrey Leiken, M.A.

There is arguably no more challenging or unsettling a life stage than that of the budding adolescent girl growing up in our culture in modern times.

Adolescent girls are inundated with messages of how their self-worth and place in the pecking order is based on their bodies — and how their bodies compare not just to their peers but to the top supermodels on earth. They are overloaded with messages that what they wear can make or break their access to the next level of social acceptance. Whether they are "in" or "out" is often determined by other girls, usually without them knowing anything was wrong.

They are much crueler to one another than most boys will ever be to them. The worst is when we learn how cruel they can be to themselves.

There is also a myth that they are taught at a young age — a myth that dominates their psyche as they awaken to their budding sexuality. It is perhaps best called the "Cinderella Myth." It is the story that someday their prince will come; that someday a man will come and find in them their true beauty which was held captive by their competitors (always other girls or women!) or which they never knew they possessed. Then it is his love, his kiss, which will awaken them and set them free . . . which will complete them.

How many times has the story been told? How often is this plot line played out in movies, books, and television shows? How often is it reinforced in school, at home and, yes, even in camp — from their counselors who spend an hour primping in the mirror every night off and from the peers and counselors who make a big deal of looking just right for the big dance! It all sends and reinforces the message.

Thus they fight amongst themselves, lie to one another, say hurtful things to one another as they scramble to be at the top of the pack — the right pack, the "popular crowd" — to be attractive to the right boys and to attract to them their Prince Charming.

Being so dependent upon external validation and so vulnerable to peer attacks leads most girls to be massively insecure. We joke about their inability to go to the bathroom alone — to go anywhere alone! They can't make decisions without first taking into account the opinions of others and the social consequences that might come upon them. By thirteen most of them have begun to create and fortify a secret world from their parents, knowing their parents would never understand nor approve of some of the choices they make to fit in and stay with the pack — especially regarding how "far" they'll go sexually with boys. Recent movies like "13" (a true story written by one of the film's stars) reveals the startling truth of how sexually active they are. Camp directors wince at the thought of their campers engaging in this dangerous behavior and deny that it's possible. At the end of the season they have to admit they were wrong.

Of the many recent books written about the "mean girl" phenomena, few offer resolution to this pattern of behaviors. Many suggest support groups for adult women who survived the horrors of their adolescent girlhood and are still haunted by the insecurity. Therapy groups for girls with eating disorders are popping up everywhere. Camps regularly receive notes from the psychologists who are working with them at younger and younger ages. So much of this takes such a defeatist, reactive approach!

It Doesn't Have to Be This Way!

Young women can find a new direction — a totally different way of approaching their lives. When they do, the results are stunning.

To accomplish this, we must first and foremost define what that new way of living is. We must essentially recreate a reality for girls in which they wake up each morning and feel good about themselves and are filled with an abundant sense of possibilities. We must teach them the skills, the mind-set, the awareness they'll need to make the choices to make this new reality, become their reality.

In retreats at camp with girls of this age, I begin, "Imagine what it would be like if you knew in all certainty that:

  • You could trust fully and completely every girl sitting with you today — for as long as you live.
  • You knew in all certainty they would never do or say anything to hurt you intentionally.
  • If they ever had a problem with you they would come to you directly and resolve it.
  • They would never spread rumors about you and in fact would make an effort to squash any rumors they hear about you before it became gossip.
  • They would stick up for you.
  • They would always be honest with you.
  • They would never make comments about how fat your butt looks in those pants or say anything which pushes buttons where you are insecure!
  • They would encourage you and support you to be yourself, to take risks and accept you unconditionally for any ways this meant you needed to be different.
  • You would never again have the experience of walking into a room and having everyone get quiet because they had been talking about you — if it did happen you could trust they only got quiet because they were planning a surprise party for you!

What would that be like?
Typically I am met with a stunned silence. Some think I'm crazy, and they tell me so (after all they are thirteen!). Some don't know how to respond. Some have questions about "How . . . . "

All listen, intently. All fully realize I mean what I say when I say that it is possible.

You must create reference experiences for them — experiences that once they've had them, they now know what's possible and thus can no longer say "it can't be done." Then girls can begin to choose to do what it takes to make their lives this way, all the time, even — especially — at home.

You must act with great intention to offer your campers a whole different kind of learning than they get in traditional culture. It takes role models who live it and demonstrate it consistently. It takes a willingness to put the time in to teach them how to communicate — positively and cleanly with one another. It takes the willingness to put in the time to teach them how to use this new approach each time the old stimulus comes up, reminding them constantly that they have a choice. It takes a willingness to ban any negative comments about each other's bodies. It takes a willingness to intervene each time they say something negative about their own bodies.

Nowhere can this be more easily or effectively done than in camps, but it requires going the distance. Camps cannot be content thinking that because the girls are happier at camp than at home things at camp must be great. The camps that are having success in moving girls effectively in this new direction are using a multifaceted approach.

Some of the things these camps do in common are:

  • Intervene immediately and consistently when incidents happen between girls and make certain the issue is processed and resolved. Many camps think they do this, but in reality, many counselors let many comments and small incidents go by without intervention. Sometimes this is because it is just so exhausting as each one can demand so much time and energy! "I train my counselors in the skills to resolve conflicts and process through personal issues," says Ann Batley, owner and director of Camp Mont Shenandoah in Virginia. "Then I insist that they intervene every time something comes up. They must be consistent and persistent about this. We don't always have the answers but our campers know that they will not slip through the cracks and that here it is never okay to be hurtful to another girl."
  • Empower by making ongoing comments that point to strengths and what is working. "We have built into our activity program a series of achievable goals that our girls aspire to. In fact they come back to camp to work on these goals." says Louise Johnson, co-director of Camp Arcadia in Casco, Maine. "We celebrate each of their successes — many times this is done publicly — and encourage our older campers to support our younger ones. This has become our culture. It is not that the girls don't ever have issues, but they are so much more oriented toward the positive and what they can do while at camp, that these negative issues do not come up nearly as often."
  • Encourage laughter of the most innocent nature. There is massive research supporting the positive impact of laughter and the subsequent release of endorphins. These are exactly the endorphins that the popular culture inhibits being present in girl's lives. "When they laugh," says Jani Brokaw, owner and director of Campus Kids Minisink in New York, "their problems go away — they simply can't exist simultaneously. I only hire counselors who are positive, and we build silly, playful fun into their schedule every day." As a result of this and Brokaw's numerous other intentional efforts, many girls who struggle at home and even who struggled at other less intentional camps, thrive at Minisink.
  • Select, train, and support the right counselors with the right personality type. "We looked at this age group over several years and recognized the difference between the amount of issues that happened with different counselors on duty," says Marc Honigfeld, co-owner and director of Trails End Camp in Pennsylvania. Trails End has perhaps one of the most proactive programs for girls this age of any camp in the country — beginning each summer with an overnight retreat for their thirteen-year-old girls the very first night of camp, where they address these issues with their campers and lead them to commit to creating their ideal culture. "We identified certain personality traits in counselors which this age group responded better to — and we knew we needed strong assertive young women who would be willing to intervene without hesitation the moment things went off track." They now are uncompromising about placing only strong, positive, confident role models as counselors for this age — not young women with many unresolved issues of their own sense of security and self-confidence. In addition to placing the right counselors with this age group, they provide these counselors intensive extra support and guidance, including special training during orientation, from specialists who help lead them through the challenges of this age group.

The Key to Success

The key to this whole process is to be uncompromisingly intentional about how we work with girls of this age and to believe it is totally possible for them to learn what it takes to become happy, healthy, and centered young women. With this attitude and this approach, success — though it may take time and much effort — is guaranteed.

Jeffrey Leiken, M.A., is a professional counselor who travels internationally training organizations who work with children and has worked with over one hundred summer camps. For more information, visit his Web site, www.MentorCounselor.com, or contact him at 415-441-8218 or by e-mail at Jleiken@MentorCounselor.com.

Originally published in the 2005 May/June issue of Camping Magazine.