Some articles have been appearing lately about an alarming number of teenagers and especially teenage girls who are in despair, struggling to hang on to living. (This has long been true of LGBTQ+ teens. Statistics now showing a dramatic rise in distress and suicidal ideation in teen girls specifically). It’s not news. People have been seeing this and writing about it for a long time. The articles do capture my attention. It’s the numbers of teenage girls citing sexual abuse and rape that is more reported now than ever. The new stressors cited are: the breakdown in social and communal face-to-face interaction; social media definitions of beauty and the ease and the amount that teenagers are looking at it, listening to it, and engaging with it; a pandemic that has wreaked havoc with relationships, physical and mental health; crises of gun violence, rape, sexual abuse, and climate change; all intersecting with racism, sexism, ableism, classism, and heterosexism. There is a crisis of community.
Back in early spring of 2022 I wrote a piece on my blog titled What Year Is It? ( https://slowlysite.com/2022/03/22/what-year-is-it/ ) about the effects of the pandemic on persons living with disabilities and their communities of care. I wrote there:
Throw a global pandemic crisis at an already beleaguered and dysfunctional school system, limited community-based housing and other support services, limited support services and you get crisis on top of crisis, stressing out already fragile gains in accessibility, fair and equal rights for persons with disabilities. Forced isolation of persons who are, because of ableism and discrimination, already marginalized and socially isolated results in even higher anxiety and loneliness, more harmful behaviors, and, in some cases, death.
Now, I can exchange teenage girls for persons with disabilities and say the same: Forced isolation of teenage girls, who are, because of sexism and rape/violence culture, already marginalized and socially isolated results in even higher anxiety and loneliness, more harmful behaviors, and, in some cases, death.
Many years ago I studied and wrote on female identity development in connection, for my Master’s degree in Pastoral Counseling. Developmental Psychology was largely based on studies done in boys and men. The stages of healthy identity development were taught as going from relational/connectional development to individuation/independence. Newer studies comparing identity development in girls and women showed something completely opposite. Girls were shown to move from separation in identity to growth in connection and relationship. Girls and women found their self-identity increasing as they developed in capacity for relationships. This kind of identity development was not encouraged in the culture and yet was expected for girls and women. As the scholar and author Carol Gilligan termed it, “girls are doing good and feeling bad for it.”
In my view a central question remains true; how to encourage and support a strong sense of self within communal relationships. Rather than encourage separation and independence to such an unhealthy degree as to become dominance over others in violence and fear, can we learn how to encourage and support a healthy sense of self within a healthy sense of communal relationships? The amount of needed deep-seated change is staggering. I know what it is to be in rage and despair about all of it. It’s been my view and continues to be my long vocation that this change can, has, and should be taking place in the church, in our community-building/ kin-dom building capacities, where we learn and grow into God who is three-in-one, ultimately God-in-relationship. We must continue teaching and surrounding teenagers and young people with a strong love of self within community, a vital alternative to our culture’s definition of a divisive, over-and-above independent, beautiful, successful person.