Adolescent Girls in Crisis: Intervention and Hope

“In our self-doubt we lose sight of the most vital contribution we have to make: a willingness to be fully and emphatically present with a girl who needs us. We must always remember that through the relationships we have with adolescent girls in crisis, the nurturing connections we form and sustain are ultimately the most important therapeutic intervention of all,” concludes Martha Straus in her fascinating and important new book, Adolescent Girls In Crisis: Intervention and Hope. This book has just been published (2007) by W.W. Norton & Company.

Adolescence is a time of tremendous transitions, for both teens and the adults who love and work with them. The most well-adjusted child can change, seemingly overnight, from a sweet and pleasant helper, eager to please, into a mysterious, often angry, and confusing stranger.

Professor Straus has worked with, and written about, adolescents for many years Currently, she teaches in the Department of Clinical Psychology and is an adjunct instructor in psychology at Dartmouth Medical School. She received her doctorate from the University of Maryland, College Park and did specialized postdoctoral training at Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School in family violence and child forensic psychology. She is also the mother of two daughters, who she recently traveled through adolescence with.

Adolescent Girls in Crisis is a highly readable book that is accessible to the layperson as well as clinician, graduate students and will prove useful, also, to teens themselves. The chapter titles introduce a terrain that is fraught with challenges: “The Secret Lives of Teenage Girls,” “Systems in An Uproar,” “Affective Disorders and Anxiety Disorders,” “Sex, Conduct Disorders and Substance Abuse.” The last chapter, but certainly not least, “Ten Reasons for Hope,” offers guidance and reassurance. And indeed hope permeates this book in deep and convincing ways.

There are teenage girls who starve themselves, cut and mutilate their bodies, pound drugs and alcohol into vulnerable and still developing brains, run away again and again, and cry themselves to sleep each night and glare defiantly by day. There are also teens that excel in each and every class, are editors of school newspapers, hold demanding part-time jobs, and are accepted to top-flight schools that are also in unrelenting pain. The disguises of anger, rage and despair are varied and, at times, difficult to penetrate or to understand.

Professor Straus cogently describes how to recognize destructive behavior in girls, and examines the complex emotions that lay beneath actions. With sensitivity and honesty Straus details how to reach out, what to offer, and how to determine the best actions to take. There are no simplistic answers or finger-snapping solutions. However, to stay the course with consistency, respect, dignity, and compassion can make all the difference.

According to Straus, teens need to know the important adults in their lives are present and listening, “Attachment, attachment, attachment. Girls do better when they have strong connections with stable, nurturing, consistent adults who can look at them with “adoring eyes.”

Marti Straus and her daughters

As a teen who experienced anger at not being adequately heard and acknowledged, and who was sent to therapy, Straus has been profoundly motivated throughout her life by a desire to understand, to communicate, and to heal, “To be in a room for hours with passion and intensity has always held a magnetic attraction for me. I realized that I had a capacity to hold all these big feelings and thoughts in the therapy room, not be overwhelmed or frightened or blown away too often, and that this ability was helpful to kids and families, and really exciting for me.”

There is no easy course in becoming a woman, according to Professor Straus. There are many things that hinder healthy development, “We live in a culture that keeps us all in a protracted adolescence; it’s not like teens have great models or roadmaps for how to get through, and can know with any certainty what they’ll do when they are 18 or 21 or 25—this lack of clarity about how to become an adult and what it means to be one makes the challenges even more pronounced.”

Adolescent Girls in Crisis: Intervention and Hope is, in the last analysis, about humility, determination, and dogged perseverance. This book suggests the ways in which development, family, and culture intertwine and offers pathways of hope, for kids and adults, in the face of tough situations. It encourages parents to walk next to their girls and to never lose sight of the love and interconnectedness that hovers in each moment.

—Christine Holderness

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