What makes it so difficult to understand adolescents?

Adolescents have their own language, and it’s not always audible.

She’s so quiet that I can barely hear her when she speaks, which is not often. She looks at me with doe-like eyes, helpless and forlorn. I wonder what she sees.

I see an attractive 15-year-old,* sitting in the corner of the armchair across from me. She looks down at her shoes, past my head, anywhere but at my eyes. I am patient with her. I don’t want this doe to run away.

Sometimes adolescents speak in code.

She* sat up straight and tall, at the edge of the seat. She demanded to hear what I had to say and clearly wanted the session to end as quickly as possible. She responded to every question with a retort: “You tell me;” “I don’t know, you choose;” “I can’t think of an example, you give me one.”

Her aggressiveness was clearly a defense. She did not trust adults, especially someone whom her school requested that she see for therapy. She did not want anyone to get too close.

Other times their actions belie their words.

She* seemed to follow the school rules but, as soon as the teacher walked away, she passed notes and signaled to her girlfriends where to meet during recess. They were going to have some forbidden fun.

Each of these girls has turned away from the mainstream. They confuse us. We try all kinds of strategies to reach them, and we ask:

What causes a child with such potential to invest so much energy in hurting herself? Why does she push us away when we try to help?

The Stumbling Block

I have two rhododendron bushes in my front yard. I saw the pods last year, but they didn’t yield any flowers. The pods emerged this year as well and I wonder whether they will bloom.

Adolescent girls are similar to these flowering bushes. We plant the seeds when they are young and take care of them for years. As preadolescents, they seem well on their way to becoming capable adults. Sometimes, however, this potential is not realized. Something stops them along the way.

As Dr. Mary Pipher points out in her book, Reviving Ophelia,1 “Too much anger, like too much compliance, stops growth (p.139).” When a girl senses that her world is no longer the secure, predictable one of her childhood, she may act out or withdraw. She may test the limits of her family’s acceptable behavior, or her compliance may become extreme and restrictive. Either way, she hurts herself.

What causes this change in a child’s world? There are many possibilities:

• The parents have marital problems, causing tension at home
• One or more siblings has issues that draw the parents’ attention and energy
• The girl bears too much responsibility at home
• Advancement to high school leads to new social pressures
• Diminished self-esteem results from bodily changes
• Personality factors, such as perfectionism or impulsivity, increase vulnerability
• A close friend joins a different group and she feels rejected and lonely
• The girl suffered abuse, either physical, emotional or sexual

When a problem is not dealt with, or it is combined with another stressor, the result will be overload. For example, a 12-year-old may develop scoliosis and have to wear a body brace to school. She feels self-conscious and uncomfortable. Then one of her younger siblings starts to misbehave, and her parents become tense and preoccupied. They are unable to support her as she goes through a difficult adjustment. This girl becomes at risk for psychological problems. What kind of help does she need?

The Research

Recent studies give us clues as to what girls need for healthy development.

The Journal of Adolescent Health describes a study that examined associations between family meal patterns (frequency, priority, atmosphere, and structure of family meals) and disordered eating (unhealthy weight control behaviors, binge eating, and chronic dieting) in adolescent girls and boys.

In general, adolescents who report more frequent family meals, high priority for family meals, a positive atmosphere at family meals, and a more structured family meal environment are less likely to engage in disordered eating. Making family meals a priority, in spite of scheduling difficulties, emerges as the most consistent protective factor for disordered eating.2

These findings suggest that good family relationships, as evidenced during meal times, are a buffer for psychological problems.

In another study, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin found that girls are more influenced by their friends than are boys in choosing whether to take math courses or not. To quote:

More than boys, girls look to their close friends when they make important decisions, such as whether to take math and what math classes to take, confirming how significant peers are during adolescence.3

Girls need close relationships with peers to validate their feelings. Their friends help them decide not only what courses to take in school but also confirm how they feel about themselves, their looks and their clothes. When these relationships are threatened – either by a change in school, the fluidity of group dynamics, or parental disapproval – the result may affect a teenage girl’s fragile equilibrium.

The Answer

Our daughters are like bushes that we’ve planted; they need the right conditions to blossom. Above all, they require rich, healthy relationships to sustain their growth. Then, if something unforeseen happens, girls will have the resilience and the resources to support them.

*All details are fictitious and do not in any way describe any one person. Although this article focuses on girls, the conclusion applies to boys as well.

1Pipher, Mary. Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls. NY: Ballantine Books, 1994.

2 Neumark-Sztainer, Dianne, Are family meal patterns associated with disordered eating behaviors among adolescents? Journal of Adolescent Health, Vol. 35, Issue 5, November 2004, Pages 350-359.

3 Crosnoe, R. et al. Peer Group Contexts of Girls' and Boys' Academic Experiences. Child Development, Vol. 79, Issue 1,

Author's Bio: 

Dr. Mona Spiegel attended Barnard College and then continued on at Columbia University, where she earned two Masters degrees and a Doctorate in Psychology.

Dr. Spiegel settled and still lives in Rockland County, NY. She worked for many years as a diagnostician and therapist, originally in schools and then in full-time private practice. As her children grew up and left home, Dr. Spiegel decided to help people not only resolve their problems but also reach their highest potential. She thus founded MyFamilyCoach to provide professional coaching to women who want assistance and guidance but do not need therapy.

Dr. Spiegel publishes the MFC Newsletter and contributes articles to magazines online and in print. She speaks to women’s groups all over the country, introducing them to the benefits of coaching. Dr. Spiegel is a member of the International Coach Federation and the American Psychological Association. Visit her at