Rethinking Resiliency In Relation To Teenage Girls: Part 1

Working with inner-city teenagers, I always want them to defy expectations often put upon them by society, their community and even themselves.

Those expectations usually include:

  • getting pregnant
  • dropping out of school
  • being promiscuous
  • abusing drugs and/or alcohol
  • never getting out of the low social economic status they were born in

Resilience is the strength and stress resistance to defy those expectations and to achieve ones dreams.

These are the things I always try to instill in the youth I work with, after all I have faced many of those same societal expectations growing up as an African American male including:

  • going to jail
  • being violent/angry
  • being on drugs/alcohol
  • fathering multiple children with multiple women
  • being lazy and uneducated

Time and time again, especially when it comes to teenage girls, I seem to be facing an uphill battle when asking them to be resilient. Not that I don’t face the same battle with boys, just that the girls often seem to have it all together and then quickly sabotage themselves.

An example of this comes from a 3 year longitudinal study of poor, inner-city adolescent girls called “Understanding adolescents: A study of urban teens considered to be at risk,” directed by Jill McLean Taylor and Deborah L. Tolman.

“Anita” was an African American girl who who stated that she wanted to be a lawyer, and acknowledged in the 8th grade that the only things that could stand in the way of her dream were “kids, kids, kids”.

It’s amazing, that as early as the 8th grade, she realized that having kids that young was a possibility.

In the 9th grade she is still passionate about her goals and dreams to become a lawyer because she felt that there was a need for good African American lawyers, and states “I ain’t going to let nothing get in the way. The only thing that could probably happen is a baby.”

Once again, despite her passion and determination, she is vividly aware that getting pregnant was a real possibility. After all, she had probably seen some of her friends and family members get pregnant at her age. Her mother also had children in her teens.

In the 10th grade she seems even more determined to be a lawyer, stating “there’s a lot of people that I ¬†know that don’t want a Black kid to be somebody.”

That year she still has concerns that a baby might get in the way of her dream, but seems less worried about it. Unfortunately, she also tells the interviewer at this time she has been sexually active and hasn’t been using protection.

By the fall of her 11th grade year, she becomes pregnant and drops out of school.

How could this happen to a young girl that seemed so determined and resilient?

Well, for one, perhaps asking her (and other poor inner-city teens) to be resilient and defy expectations, was also asking her to be different from and possibly even disconnect from people that mean the world to her, including her mother.

Anita and her mother were very close; “(she) is a part of me and I am a part of her… we have trust in each other and rely on each other… we are not that different.”

Her decision to have a baby brings her closer to her mother, although it moves her farther away from he dreams, even if they were dreams both her and her mother shared.

That’s what makes reaching out to poor inner-city teenagers so difficult.

How can we expect them to make better choices, take positive risks and reach for something different and better when doing so also puts them at risk of disconnecting and alienating themselves from important people in their lives.

It’s all mostly subconscious, but I see it all the time. A motivated, successful student gets pregnant and starts missing school more and more to stay at home with her mother, who is not working and is at home with either her own children or one of her other children’s kids.

It is a complex psychological dilemma. On one hand by reaching for and achieving their goals, they may isolate themselves, and betray cultural and family connections. However, by not following through on their dreams and goals, they will be betraying themselves, and possibly the hope and dreams of their family and community.

Asking them to “break the cycle”, is in some ways asking them to distance themselves from people they most love, admire and identify with.