The past few summers I interned with high school girls at my church. During my senior year of college, I worked at an anti-human trafficking agency. This year, I am working at a counseling agency for families and children. While all of the organizations and agencies were widely different, I found that the youth who I encountered all have similarities. I found that all the youth I encountered in my various agencies were all asking the same questions:
Who am I?
How do I interact with others?
These questions are common among all individuals, and often inform our choices, motivations, relationships, and how we live our day to day lives.
While working with girls at my church, I noticed many conversations that revolved around being in the “in group” or the outskirts, or feeling superior or inferior. When studying preventative measures to being trafficked, I noticed that those that are being targeted are adolescents that are more prone to isolation and low self-esteem. This makes girls an easy target for traffickers to “groom,” or to begin conditioning them to find community and value from their trafficker rather than friends and family. This year, while working with adolescent girls on social anxiety, depression, bullying, truancy, depression, and self-harm, it seems that many of their struggles, behavioral problems, and unhealthy coping mechanisms stem from the hurt caused by isolation and low self-esteem.
No matter what context, it seems that youth, all encounter low self-esteem and isolation, to some extent. These vulnerabilities plague most adolescents, but for those of whom it plays a big role, the consequences seem greater.
This idea is a common thread that I found; self-esteem and group attachment have more impact in both a positive and a negative way than I once understood.
Some of my research for the SERVE project has focused on defining empowerment. I found that in order to define empowerment, it was important to first define powerlessness. Parsons (1991), an academic writer who’s focus is on empowerment in the field of social work, explains that “as individuals experience powerlessness in relation to their environment, that experience is internalized and they see themselves as helpless” (Empowerment: Purpose and Practice Principle in Social Work).
To add to this idea of powerlessness and helplessness that individuals feel, Swenson (1997) in Clinical Practice and the decline of Community describes those who feel powerless as the “walking wounded.” Adolescent girls, because of their age, experiences, and stage of life, often feel the helplessness and powerlessness that the research suggests. Digging deeper, the two common threads of this hopelessness and powerlessness appear to be isolation and low self-esteem.
Wiseman (2009), a therapist and group worker with teenage girls writes that,“the girls see social cruelty by exclusion and inclusion based on things such as looks, money, skin, weight, style, promiscuity, popularity, confidence, boys, and so on” (Owning Up Curriculum: Empowering Adolescents to Confront Social Cruelty, Bullying, and Injustice).
Social cruelty and inclusion and exclusion based on looks, skin, weight, and so on point to how isolation and low self-esteem co-exist in the lives of adolescents and can create a cycle: exclusion can make you feel inferior, and feeling inferior can keep you excluded.
Parsons (1991) explains that empowerment is directly connected to one’s own self esteem. The way we view ourselves has a huge impact on our ability to take positive steps forwards in life. Breaking the cycle requires either the ability to find community or the ability to view yourself in a better light. These two vulnerabilities of low self-esteem and isolation work together to contribute to the growing numbers of “walking wounded” that Swenson describes in his research on empowerment.
Specht (1990) is a community practitioner who advocates for deepening the public’s understanding of community. He explains that…
“our mission must be to build a meaning, a purpose, and a sense of obligation for the community, not one by one. It is only by creating a community that we establish a basis for commitment, obligation, and social support… Communities that change people, communities that give a purpose and a meaning to people’s lives, and, most important, communities that enable us to care about and love one another” (Clinical Practice and the decline of Community).
Specht’s (1990) claim is that individuals become the walking wounded in isolation, and that community is a force that brings positive change for individual powerlessness.
In working with adolescent girls in any capacity or setting, this research highlights the importance of combatting low self-esteem and isolation. “Empowering adolescent girls” sounds like a daunting task, but in reality, it all comes down to building community and self-esteem, which is possible for all of us. Empowering adolescent girls is done through walking alongside them as they answer the fundamental questions “who am I and how do I interact with others?”
Whether you work at a school, church, agency, or you are a mother, father, brother, sister, or friend, this is possible for all of us. We can all be a safe place for an adolescent girl, someone to befriend and to affirm. Positive relationships act as preventive measures to future pitfalls that youth are susceptible to. Each of us, in our own environment and in our own way, can promote community and self-esteem to the adolescents in our lives.
Parsons, Ruth J. 1989. “Empowerment for role alternative for low income minority girls: a Group work approach.” In Judith A.B. Lee, ed., Group work with the poor and oppressed, pp. 27-46. new York: Haworth.
Parson, Ruth J. 1991, “Empowerment: Purpose and Practice Principle in Social Work”, Social Work with Groups, Vol. 14(2) 1991, new York: Haworth Press.
Swenson, Carol R. 1992. “Clinical Practice and the decline of Community” Paper presented at the counsel on social work education annual program meeting, Kansas City, Missouri.
Wiseman, R. (2009). Owning Up Curriculum: Empowering Adolescents to Confront Social Cruelty, Bullying, and Injustice. Champaign, IL: Research Press, 439 pp., $64.95 (paperback).