A New Look at Adolescent Girls

Introduction

"How Do I Evolve From Confusion and Chaos to a Capable, Strong, Compassionate Woman?" Age 15

For a complex set of reasons, most of what is known about adolescent girls focuses on the problems they face. The fact that many adolescent girls are showing remarkable strength, resiliency, and "hardiness" during the stressful time of adolescence needs to be explored. Instead of focusing on the storm and stress of adolescence, a new understanding of adolescent girls that affirms their strength and resilience needs to be developed. Although the current day risks and stresses in the lives of adolescent girls must be understood, they should not be the defining factors in discussions of adolescent girls. There must be a focus on what is working for adolescent girls, and why to assist adolescent girls in navigating these risks during their development.

To this end, the American Psychological Association's (APA's) Presidential Task Force on Adolescent Girls: Strengths and Stresses was created by Dorothy W. Cantor during her presidential year (1996). The task force's mission statement is as follows:

The mission of the APA Presidential Task Force on Adolescent Girls: Strengths and Stresses is to integrate current knowledge regarding adolescent girls in order to focus on the strengths, challenges, and choices of adolescent girls today. The task force will also identify gaps and inconsistencies in research, education, practice, and public policy. In this endeavor, the task force is committed to the inclusion of the voices and lives of a range of adolescent girls in terms of age, racial and ethnic diversity, socioeconomic status, geographic area, and sexual orientation. The task force will work to raise public and professional consciousness in regard to adolescent girls with a particular focus on those who impact their lives including parents, educators, health care professionals, and policymakers. Through its activities, the task force will chart directions into the new frontiers of the next century through a critical examination of the policy issues, current knowledge, and research approaches to understanding adolescent girls.

The following work is excerpted from Beyond Appearance: A New Look at Adolescent Girls , a book written by psychologists across the country whose work focuses on adolescent girls, including psychologists serving on the APA task force on adolescent girls.

The authors set out to assemble and review the psychology and related research and literature for the past 10 years, with special attention to strengths, challenges, and choices within the contexts of girls' lives. Challenged to consider and move beyond an exploration of girls' psychological losses and to focus on those aspects of relationship and culture that support and engage girls-as well as girls' collective attempts to resist the negative impact of the media and other powerful, societal forces-the authors attempted to answer questions such as the following:

  • What is important to help girls thrive during adolescence?

  • Are there different positive influences at different developmental stages?

  • What does the research say about girls with high self-esteem?

  • Why is it important to include diversity in research?

  • What are the roles of the educator, parent, psychologist, health care system, and policymakers in providing an environment that enriches the strengths adolescent girls bring to our society?

  • How can adolescent girls best be prepared for the roles they will play in the future?

  • How do adolescent girls influence the world around them?

 
In developing this book, the authors focused on several cross-cutting themes: strengths, development, ethnicity, class, risks, resilience, and research implications. To make the rich, diverse voices of actual girls in the United States heard above the statistics, questions from a research survey conducted by the task force on adolescent girls are included in this research agenda. A summary of the survey, "The State of the Hearts of Adolescent Girls," is found at the end of this research agenda.

The adolescent population in the United States is growing rapidly and will continue to grow into the next millennium. Approximately 18.5 million adolescent girls, ages 10 to 18 years, were living in the United States at the last census in 1990. The lives of these girls are complex, affected by their gender, race, ethnicity, class, differing abilities, and sexual orientation. Only by examining each of these complicated layers can the rich diversity of the lives of adolescent girls be understood.