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.

2 thoughts on “Rethinking Resiliency In Relation To Teenage Girls: Part 1

  1. This doesn’t just happen in inner city. I live in a rual area mostly white middle to lower class. Over half my county is on free or reduces lunch program and teen prenancy rate is really high.
    I came across a study done a few years back. It was based on two things- Why some girls choose to wait to be sexually active and away from drugs. The top two answers were shocking. it had nothing to do with goals and dreams even though they made the list.#1 answer was fear of disapointing a there parents #2 answer was there religiouse or moral beleifs.
    So the real answer for this delima isn’t hope or dreams. the thought of doing it on your own and the strength it takes to keep it up by yourself at that age is overwhelming. But, having someone love and believe in you., encourage you, hold you up, expect more, teach you discipline and to value for yourself, weather that be a parent or God, is what keeps you on the right path.
    How many girls get a blessing from there father? The fathers blessing is one of the most important things a girl has. How many of these girls have a mom who will break down the truth about sex and the emotional consequences it takes on them? How many mom’s discipline the girls when they get off track? I don’t beleive in the “what can I do?” “they are going to do what they want anyways”attitude that I see alot of parents(mom’s) have with their un-ruly teens. If you do nothing then don’t be suprised with what you get from them. If you try and pull in the rains and expect more , you will at least have tried. I tell my kids that a train is only free if it is on it tracks. after being derailed a few times they learn real quick how to maintain freedom and self- dicapline.
    one last thing I tell my girls is that ” you have to live what you deserve.” if You think you deserve a life of poverty and enslavement then you will live that life”. I tell them all the time what I believe they deserve. Reitterating their hopes and dreams.I use this in every aspect of their lives. From how we allow people to treat us, to goals , to discipline, and the list goes on.
    I am not bragging about being a good mom. I am just trying to break a cycle in my own family.

    1. Thank you so much for taking the time to read and respond to my post. I really like your advice and if you don’t mind, I’ll share some of them with the teens I work with. I really appreciate you giving another perspective, and I think you are allowed to brag about being a good mom sometimes 🙂 Thank you

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