My senior year of college I mentored a group of teen girls at an alternative high school outside of Portland, and it was one of the most powerful and moving experiences I’ve ever had. Not only did I meet my best friend in the process (she was my co-mentor), I saw what an amazing impact we can have on the lives of teens if we just give them a safe space to express themselves. The 5 young women in the group didn’t know each other that well, and they didn’t know my friend and me at all, but when we gathered around a table and asked them to tell us about their lives, the results were absolutely magical. I’ve always believed that since I made it out of adolescence relatively unscathed, the least I can do is offer other young women a little guidance and support along the way. Whether you’re an aunt, a big sister, or a family friend of a teenage girl, you can make a huge difference in that young woman’s life, so I encourage you to reach out and try.
Here are a few lessons I’ve learned in my years of mentoring. Every girl’s communication style is unique, and every interaction might not be perfect, but remember: every conversation is valuable, and every effort really does make a difference.
Don’t Talk, Listen. Teenagers spend so much of their lives being talked at, talked about, and talked to, it’s a rare occurrence for someone to simply listen to what they have to say, without judgment or agenda. Listen to their ideas and feelings, then ask, “What else?” and listen more. The greatest gift you can give a teenage girl, especially if she’s going through a rough time, is a safe space to express herself.
Ask About Who They Are. All the strife and drama of the teenage years arises in pursuit of one goal: to figure out who you are. We all went through it, and it’s really, really hard. Teenage girls are bombarded by messages telling them what kind of girls they should be (thinner, prettier, simultaneously pure virgins and sex goddesses, etc); the most powerful message you can give them is that you value who they are at this very moment and want to get to know them better. Ask them what makes them unique, what they believe in, what they stand for. Ask them about the things that make them mad, or the last time they laughed so hard they cried. Ask them about their dreams and career goals. Ask them who they admire, and most importantly, ask them why.
Show Them Their Power. When I was a teenager I came across this quote from Calista Flockhart (random, I know) that resonated so deeply with me that I wrote it out in big letters and pasted it above my bed: “The way the world underestimates me will be my greatest weapon.” Teenagers are constantly underestimated and misunderstood. They are coming into their own as powerful, independent women but in a lot of ways they’re not allowed to use their power yet. Remind them that the fiery rebellion they feel inside–the one that gets them into trouble now–will come in handy one day. Tell them about a time you were underestimated or undervalued and how you proved everyone wrong. Give them a little hint of the amazing and wonderful sisterhood of adult women they will be joining soon. The world needs strong, powerful women–don’t ever let a teenage girl forget that.
Acknowledge Them For More Than Their Looks. I firmly believe that fashion is a powerful tool for self-expression, so by all means, give teenagers props on their hair, makeup, and clothing choices, but never leave it at that. Ask them why they chose a particular style, or what fashion means to them. Ask them about what makes them feel beautiful, and why. And then, as Lisa Bloom recommended in her article about talking to little girls, ask them what book they’re reading.
Be Real. Teenagers will know instantly if you’re being authentic or if you’re putting on airs. If you approach a conversation with a specific goal in mind, or if you treat her like a child, you will never achieve a meaningful connection. There’s not one specific secret to talking to teenage girls, but be open, honest, and genuine and I guarantee she will too. It might take awhile, but trust me, she will.