‘Reviving Ophelia’ and Supporting Our Teens: A GoodTherapy.org Review

Cropped photo of young person blowing a dandelion. Bright sunset background with golden lightIn the bestselling book Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, Dr. Mary Pipher discusses the negative impact adolescence can have on young women. She observes that before girls hit adolescence, they are free. Relatively unaffected by the demands society places on them due to their gender, especially the pressure to be attractive, they are not afraid to express their true selves.

But in adolescence, the desire for acceptance can result in an endless struggle to look the “right” way, wear the “right” clothes and be accepted by the “right” crowd. These pursuits may increase the risk that girls lose a large part of their true selves. In fact, Pipher argues that these pressures often lead girls to a dramatic realization: they must make a choice between being themselves and being accepted.

Consider the character Ophelia from Shakespere’s Hamlet. She begins the play as a young girl, happy and free, unaware of the demands she will face as a young woman. When Ophelia hits adolescence, she follows the allure of romantic love and falls for Hamlet. Because of her love for him, she lives to please him. At the same time, she still wants to obey her father. When Hamlet refuses her because of her obedience to her father, grief overwhelms her, and she dies by drowning after falling from a tree.

“Something dramatic happens to girls in early adolescence,” Pipher says, comparing the lost selves of girls to the planes and ships that vanish in the Bermuda Triangle. “They crash and burn in a social and developmental Bermuda Triangle,” Pipher goes on to say, pointing to studies that show girls’ IQ scores to drop in adolescence. Their scores in math and science plummet similarly. “They lose their resiliency and optimism and become less curious and inclined to take risks. They lose their assertive, energetic and “tomboyish” personalities and become more deferential, self-critical and depressed. They report great unhappiness with their own bodies” (Pipher, 1994, p. 19).

It’s essential for girls to understand their value should not be based on their sexual appeal. This awareness can help them hold on to their true selves. Pipher points out that it is during adolescence that girls begin to realize the emphasis on female attractiveness, to the point of objectification. “But girls today are much more oppressed. They are coming of age in a more dangerous, sexualized, and media-saturated culture. They face incredible pressures to be beautiful and sophisticated, which in junior high means using chemicals and being sexual. As they navigate a more dangerous world, girls are less protected” (p. 12). Girls who are aware of this emphasis on beauty, who are attempting to navigate these pressures, may no longer feel like a whole person. Instead, they may feel as if they are merely an object that must be pleasing to others. As a result, they may experience depression, anxiety, and general overwhelm.

How Can Parents Help Their Daughters?

“We can strengthen girls so that they will be ready. We can encourage emotional toughness and self-protection. We can support and guide them.” (p. 13).

The pain of losing their true selves is often too much for many teens to handle. To cope with this pain, they may turn to drugs, alcohol, or other addictions. They may self-harm or act out sexually. Teaching adolescents how to turn to positive coping skills instead of negative ones is key.

Parents play a critical role in the lives of their daughters. Pipher suggests that the most successful teens have parents who enforce rules but maintain a loving relationship. In the absence of a loving relationship, there is often rebellion.

Keeping a solid relationship with a teen girl can be challenging for parents, however. At a time when they may need the most help, teens often turn away from their parents and toward their peers. Though many parents might see this behavior as selfish, it is actually an appropriate part of adolescent development.

The pain of losing their true selves is often too much for many teens to handle. To cope with this pain, they may turn to drugs, alcohol, or other addictions. They may self-harm or act out sexually. Teaching adolescents how to turn to positive coping skills instead of negative ones is key.

This can be as simple as encouraging them to:

  • Engage in physical activities (like sports or self-defense classes)
  • Express their feelings (perhaps through art or journaling)
  • Implement self-reward strategies
  • Consider elements of a healthy relationship and understand aspects of an unhealthy relationship (this includes friendships and romantic relationships)

In addition to teaching adolescent girls how to cope, we must teach them that pain is a part of life. Our ad-saturated culture often socializes girls to believe that pain is abnormal and should be avoided at all costs, Pipher writes. If we are not happy, something must be wrong. But pain is a part of life. Not only does it help build our characters, it can give us the ability to help others in similar situations.

Dealing with mood shifts and distancing can be hard on parents. But understanding this developmental stage can go a long way in maintaining a positive relationship. Also, at this time more than ever, teen girls need other trusted adults in their lives, such as coaches, teachers, youth leaders, or therapists. These people can step in and provide guidance and sound advice to teens who distance themselves from their parents as part of typical development.

“Without some help, the loss of wholeness, self-confidence, and self-direction can last well into adulthood. Many adult clients struggle with the same issues that overwhelmed them as adolescent girls” (p. 25).

The good news is this: adolescence doesn’t last forever. It is a temporary stage that can be handled successfully. In fact, Pipher believes that girls who are able to maintain a sense of wholeness and hold onto their true selves during this time will become healthier and more well-adjusted young adults.

I highly recommend this book to all teen girls and their parents or mentors. If you would like to learn more about therapy for adolescents, or think your daughter needs more help than you can provide, I encourage you to seek support from a trained therapist or counselor.

This page contains at least one affiliate link for the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, which means GoodTherapy.org receives financial compensation if you make a purchase using an Amazon link.

Reference:

Pipher, M. (1994). Reviving Ophelia: Saving the selves of adolescent girls. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.

© Copyright 2018 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Amy Quinn, MA, MS, LMFT, therapist in Newport Beach, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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