By Leah Froehle Bloom Intern and MPH Student at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health
Do you ever feel like it’s hard to connect with the teenage girls in your life? As we take on careers, relationships, families, and other responsibilities we often feel very out of touch with with them. it seem like adult women often forget how to talk to teenage girls? How do we pull from our experiences to carve out safe spaces where girls can share their worlds with us?
In her recent podcast interview on Third Space with Jen Cort, Dr. Stephanie Akoumany tell us, “First things first, make eye contact. Match the other person’s body. Align yourself physically and relax.” These basic tenets of effective communication extend beyond the world of adulthood. Above all else, helping teenage girls feel comfortable should be one’s priority and being mindful of body language is always the first step. However, teenage girls also tell us a lot with their own body language.
As adults we should be very aware of what we perpetuate in the next generation. It’s our duty to stop pushing when a girl’s body language says “stop”. Girls live lifetimes internalizing the world around them. They are constantly told how to act, how to speak, how to look, how to dress, and how to be. If a girl doesn’t want to talk, we should never force her to talk. Teenage girls aren’t to be worn down. They aren’t to be coerced into speaking. They aren’t to be taught to shrink themselves or force themselves into discomfort for others. All forms of communication are valid-- verbal or non-verbal. Let’s start showing our girls we’re listening and give them the space, and thereby the strength to say, “I don’t owe you anything.”
So if we manage to start a conversation, what’s next? Dr. Akoumany’s advice is simple: “Meet the person where they are.” In every sense. Physically. Emotionally. Spiritually. Sit on the floor if a girl is on the floor, read the energy in your shared space, match that energy, and actively listen. As adults, we often see interactions with teenage girls as moments to teach or lend advice. But we should never listen for the sole purpose of responding. Girls want to be heard, not lectured. A good strategy to avoid an accidental three-hour long lecture on the importance of good grades is to earnestly repeat what she tells you. Avoiding long-winded orations is the first step in dissolving the power dynamics that prevent us from truly meeting a girl where she is. We can retain our wisdom as adults without holding power over others, so let’s sit on that beanbag and listen.
If we manage to make our way through these initial conversations, growing the relationship deeper will eventually require vulnerability on both ends. Girlhood can be a swirling universe of chaos, harmony, sadness, and triumph all at once. What do we remember of girlhood? Sharing our lives is powerful without necessarily being allegorical. Sharing a story without expectation is vulnerability. Share your challenges. Share the wrong turns you took. Share how you survived it all. Shine light on the path that led you to your identity as a woman. This is what it is to speak to a girl: remembering girlhood, remembering what came before us, and remembering who we needed when we were her. As Dr. Akoumany puts it: “I am a black girl and was a black girl.” We are girls. We were girls.