In the Trenches: Working with Challenging Groups of Girls

In the Trenches

by Bob Ditter


We have operated a girls resident camp in the Northeast for more than forty
years. Recently, the behavior of many of our girls has become much more challenging.
While we have many wonderful moments of friendship, steward-ship, and closeness
in our camp community, we see girls who are mean and hostile toward one another
with much in-fighting and clique-like behavior.

Our greatest concern is when a bunk has trouble getting along because
of jealousies, competition, and fighting. Girls seem to exclude one another,
struggle with issues of loyalty, and often act resentful toward adults
who intervene. What thoughts do you have about how to work with groups
of girls like this?

- Listening in Earnest

Dear Listening,

Over the past few years, more camps have reported groups of girls who
seem less able to get along. Several thoughts as to why this seems to
be generally true exist. Some observers think girls today have been greatly
influenced by ubiquitous advertisements in the media depicting young
women as seductive, slim "objects," subservient to the needs of men.
These same experts see girls mimicking the rude, aggressive, and inappropriate
behavior depicted on TV soaps. Others feel that fewer caring adult women
are present at significant times in the lives of girls to help them sort
through just what it means to be a woman. Still others feel that girls
reflect the trend in our culture where a premium value is placed on power
(money, position, and status) and where loyalty to friends and true community
are neither practiced nor held in high regard. Whatever the causes, the
question becomes: What can you do about it?

Issues That Influence Girls

Let me acknowledge that this is a far-too-complicated topic for me to
do justice here. However, let me review what I think are some of the
core issues that may form an undercurrent in the groups you describe:
the caretaking role of women, self-sacrifice, and relationship.

Female culture mandates

Girls often find their own aspirations at odds with the way our culture portrays
women to be beholden to the needs of others. Popular culture frequently depicts
females as caretakers, sacrificing themselves for family and friends. In
real life, this caring for others can evolve into a kind of over dependence,
where a girl abandons or forgoes her own dreams, desires, or ambitions in
order to serve others at the exclusion of herself. Women I have interviewed
recognize this cultural influence in their own lives and have even commented
that their orientation to serve others was so strong that it operated at
the expense of truly knowing themselves.

Two conflicting voices

For years, girls have learned to have two voices: one that is fashioned for
the public and fits with what girls believe is culturally acceptable, ladylike,
or feminine; and another that is private and more representative of a girl's
true self. The public voice stifles the direct expression of anger and is
loyal at all costs. The "inner voice" often becomes lost or faint unless
it is echoed or encouraged by a caring adult female. Indeed, many girls I
talk with are keenly aware that they hold back some of their true thoughts
and feelings if they sense they might upset or hurt others.

Many girls get caught between the worlds these voices represent. For
example, girls tell me that they feel compelled to go along with what
the popular girls do and say, even if it is at odds with their own values
or beliefs, or risk losing their connection to others. One girl at camp
confessed, "I hate some of the things my 'friends' do, like picking on
other girls and doing risky things. But if I speak up, I'll find myself
all alone - on the outside."

Indeed, a girl's greatest concern may be staying in relationships with
other girls. "Relationship," says Carol Gilligan, noted Harvard researcher
and author of the ground-breaking book In a Different Voice, "is the
central organizing force in female development." Girls who are considered
a threat or who do not go along with the dictates of the most popular
girls are often dealt the worst possible punishment they can imagine:
the loss of connection to or relationship with others in the group.

This is a painful time for girls. Some struggle to be true to themselves
and are conflicted about just how much they have to give up to fit in.
Others are genuinely confused about whether being a loyal friend means
having to agree on everything, even when you secretly don't. Many girls
between eleven and fourteen rebel against what they perceive as the subservient
role culture is handing them, resulting in defiant, quarrelsome behavior.
All these girls need help and guidance.

Change by Challenge

One way to address the social dysphoria (e.g., cliques, exclusive behavior,
and gossip) among girls in the bunk is to shift the action to activities.
Until recently, a girl who pursued her own interests was often considered
selfish, unladylike (a tomboy), or unattractively aggressive. Today,
many camps provide a wonderful set of expanded options for girls, promoting
appropriate risk-taking and modeling a wide range of activities and balanced

Take things one step further and challenge girls in a supportive way
to reach beyond their comfort zones to try something new. Such a program
must, however, provide plenty of opportunity to talk about the resulting
experiences. The challenge can be tackling a ropes course element, taming
a sail board, or conditioning for a hike. Present this as a camp-wide,
public challenge and be prepared for initial resistance! Most girls do
not wish to stray too far from the popular images (What about make-up,
getting dirty, being assertive, and trying something other girls disapprove
of? What if boys saw us?)

Role Models are Key

A key to the success of these programs is the presence of credible adult
female role models. Often, counselors regarded as "way out experimenters" are
too extreme for the girls to identify with. Likewise, female adult leaders
who are apathetic or themselves caught up in the chase for boys cannot
provide the guidance and answers necessary. The most effective adult
female leaders are people who the girls can identify with and who encourage
the healthy risk-taking just described.

Straight talk

Adults who talk with girls need to be non-shaming, non-accusatory, and understand
the struggle the girls are having getting along. Female bunk counselors often
require the support and coaching of the community's elders to provide a calm,
but strong and guiding hand to help girls navigate their foray into the adult

Girls also need more informal time to talk about their feelings with
credible adult females. Many of these conversations happen informally
during rest hour and evening free play. It is important that each counselor
demonstrates a personal interest in helping the girls. Also, framing
the issue of getting along in terms of what it means to be a good friend
can be very helpful. For example, saying, "Part of living together means
deciding what kind of friend you are." Counselors can talk with campers
about such things as follows:

  • Girls can be loyal friends and still have feelings and opinions that
    differ from their friends (it's OK to disagree).
  • There are ways to express angry feelings without keeping score, holding
    grudges, or involving all your other friends (loyalty does not mean
    everyone has to take a side).
  • Each of you is strong in your own way. It takes courage to find out
    ways you are strong that you haven't discovered yet (taking healthy
    risks at camp is part of that discovery).
  • Being a true friend means encouraging others to discover how they
    are strong or talented, even if their ways are different from your
  • True friends don't ask friends to join them in doing mean things
    to others.
  • There are times for make-up and dressing up, and there are times
    to get dirty. Being healthy means having a balance of both.
  • Having disagreements is normal, but girls can figure out how to "fight" better.
    Tell them you are there for them, that you know they can do this, and
    that you will not give up on them (this is important to girls, even
    if they do not show it outwardly).
  • It's great to like boys; it's even better to know and like yourself

Girls are "women in training," and they take their cues from the behavior
of significant women in their world. Camp is the ideal place for strong
female role models to have this positive impact on girls.

Bob Ditter is a licensed clinical social worker specializing
in child, adolescent, and family therapy. He supervises content for and can be reached via e-mail at or
by fax at 617-572-3373. "In the Trenches" is sponsored by American
Income Life Insurance.

Originally published in the 1999 November/December
issue of Camping Magazine.