How to help your daughter remain healthy and confident throughout her teen years

Guest contributor Michael Strong is a co-founder of innovative schools throughout the country, including the Khabele Strong Incubator in Austin. He is a thought leader in educational innovation, Socratic practice, and conscious entrepreneurship. Here he discusses the ways in which a carefully designed school culture can help prevent or reverse some of the common traumas of adolescence, particularly for girls.

Mary Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia, published twenty years ago, described teen culture in the United States as “girl destroying.”

She documented how happy, confident preteen girls often became diffident, depressed, and prey to self-harm, eating disorders, low academic performance, and suicidal thoughts. It is one of the most depressing books a parent of a girl can read.

Yet, sadly, if anything conditions for adolescent girls have gotten worse. For instance, a 2012 study found that the incidence of eating disorders among 15–19-year-old girls had gotten worse. Teen depression has increased five-fold since the early 20th century. Between 1990 and 2010 depression replaced asthma as the leading cause of disability among teens. By numerous metrics, we are seeing a public health crisis in adolescents, with girls being hit especially badly.

What can you do to protect your daughter?

Judith Rich Harris, in The Nurture Assumption, documented the impact that peers had on teens. While this is something we have all known intuitively, Harris showed that for a broad range of behaviors, including smoking, teen pregnancy, and academic performance, teen culture was more influential than were parents.

There are two general approaches to ensuring that your daughter is immersed in a positive peer culture:

  1. Be highly selective about the peers she spends time with, both in and out of school.
  2. Select a school that takes a proactive approach to improving peer culture.

The first is relatively widely recognized and can be approached by talking openly with teens and discussing their peer groups with them. Because the second is less familiar, as well as a domain in which I specialize, I’ll focus on that for the remainder of this article.

I began my life as an educator leading Socratic discussions in public schools in Chicago and Alaska. Although at first I perceived my work as a form of pedagogy, I soon came to realize that I was primarily focused on changing classroom culture. Most public school classrooms are not places in which students are intellectually engaged. My goal as an educator was focused on transforming classroom culture to an environment in which it became socially acceptable to discuss ideas thoughtfully and authentically.

Over time I realized that an explicit focus on group process was essential to improving the peer culture. As a consequence of my focus on group process, I often found that adolescent girls became leaders in the group. They were typically more socially mature and sophisticated than were the boys. At one site in Anchorage, minority girls in my classes achieved larger test score gains in four months than the average American student gains in four years (on the Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking Assessment, which correlates with IQ and SAT scores). One of the authors of Women's Ways of Knowing praised my work for its particular efficacy with teenage girls.

But the real insight for me was that it was possible for an educator to work with students deliberately to create a more positive and supportive classroom culture. However, because of the constraints put on educators in the public schools, I was not able to develop my work in that context. Since then I’ve primarily worked in private schools where I have more freedom to have a positive impact on peer culture.

Most recently, I’ve partnered with Khotso Khabele, co-founder of the Khabele School, to create the Khabele Strong Incubator. One of our primary themes is the deliberate design of healthy culture, including a culture designed to ensure that teen girls are healthy and confident. We’ve had teenage girls who were previously traumatized by their experiences at public schools come to us and, over time, become transformed into happy, confident young women once again.

KSI_TeenGirls_2 (800x533).jpg

How do we do it? We have three core themes in our program: Personal Development, Authentic Leadership, and Autodidacticism. Each of these is implemented primarily by means of peer coaching rather than by means of didactic teaching. Thus instead of having our students listen to lectures and fill out worksheets, we engage our students in active learning with their peers—and then coach them on how to become ever more effective leaders. For instance, a class might include the following exchange:

Teacher: Julie, would you mind leading class today?

(Julie leads a discussion on her own while the teacher observes quietly.)

Teacher: What worked best for you?

Julie: I was able to keep my peers engaged most of the time with my questions, but I had a hard time getting James to engage.

Teacher: What if you were to stop the conversation, ask him to make eye contact, and then ask him what it means for him to be part of this community? Do you think he would respect you if you put him on the spot and essentially demanded that he decide if he is really part of this community or not?

Julie: I can do that. I think he needs to be put on the spot like that. I'll do it tomorrow.

Obviously these sorts of interactions can be sensitive and delicate for a variety of reasons. The right behaviors in the right situations are highly contextual and personalized. But by means of this sort of very direct coaching of leadership, we've seen young people become dramatically more capable and confident leaders—while transforming peer culture for the better.

Michael Strong


The S-E-X talk

Alt Ed Austin is proud to welcome adolescent development expert Karen Rayne as a guest contributor. Karen teaches sexuality education to middle school and high school students as well as parents locally through Unhushed. She also teaches at the college level and lectures nationally. You may reach her at karen (at) or 512-662-1862.

When something goes un-talked-about, it’s easy for young people to pick up misconceptions. I teach sex education and get a heavy dose of misconception stories. Sometimes they’re funny (“Girls have two butts!”), and sometimes they’re not (“I started my first period, never having heard anything about a period, alone in a Schlitterbahn bathroom with only my friend’s father waiting outside for me. A kindly stranger explained to me that I wasn’t dying.”).

Parents often aren’t sure of how or when to start teaching their children about sex, and they come to me with this question: When should we have The Talk?

But when we “should” start teaching about sex isn’t the right question—because we DO start teaching our children about sexuality from infancy. We teach them whether or not it’s okay to touch their genitals. We teach them what a gentle touch feels like and what it feels like to be loved and held. These are critical parts of learning about safe human interactions, about touch, and about feeling good in our bodies.

As they get older, we teach our toddlers how to be gentle with other people’s bodies, and we teach them how to make sure that their peers treat their bodies gently. We teach them the names of their body parts and the names of everyone else’s body parts, too. We also teach toddlers to understand their own desires and to know that sometimes they can’t immediately have what they want. These are often natural parts of parenting and they are always critical parts of sexuality education.

We teach our children how to be a good friend, how to share, and how to reconcile disagreements graciously and with love. We teach them how to be patient, to know that there are choices to be made, and that sometimes putting off a good thing is the best choice. We teach our children how to understand and engage in verbal and nonverbal communication with their friends and family. We teach them how to judge situations and to pay attention to safety. We teach them what is beautiful, not through our words but through our responses to our own bodies and selves and our responses to other people’s bodies and selves. We teach them how (and how not) to interact with the media based on how we do it. Children learn through imitation, and there is no one else they love to imitate more than their parents. You continually teach your child about sexuality and relationships in the ways that you live your own life.

All of these are necessary skills and knowledge that lead to good choices about sex, sexual relationships, and love. All of this is sexuality education.

Some misconceptions about sex are based in misrepresentations of these early approaches to sexuality. But often misconceptions are more about what is left out of sexuality education than what is included—like not giving complete information about body parts. This empty space without information is where best guesses and peers’ influence can rush in and do more harm than good.

There is a need for some level of explicit conversation in these childhood years. Most children are talking about sex with their friends by the time they turn eight. If you want to be the first one to talk with your child about sex (and you should want this), you should talk with them before they are eight. When you start the conversation about sex, rather than allowing it to be started by peers, you teach your child that conversations about sex are allowed and encouraged in the home. This will do wonders for your conversations about sexuality with your child in the long run!

And then comes early adolescence, or middle school. This is the age when young people start looking with increasing clarity and interest toward the reality (sometimes the far-off reality) of romantic and sexual relationships. However, young people are generally not deeply engaged in these activities yet. This rather delicate balance of interest but little actual involvement creates a perfect environment for young people to learn about sexuality more fully through a comprehensive sexuality class and growing conversations in the home. They are able to take in the specifics of sexuality and good practices in regard to decision making without judging (or feeling judged) based on a prior sexual history.

During high school is when most youth have their first romantic relationships and about half have their first sexual experiences. This is another time when extended conversations about sexuality are important. Across the adolescent years, youth contextualize information differently as they have increasing personal knowledge of and exposure to sexual relationships, through either their own experiences or those of their peers. While sexuality should be a conversation that starts at birth and never really stops, it is the adolescent years when the heaviest-hitting and most explicit parent/child conversations should take place.

The two biggest factors determining whether family-based conversations about sex will be easy or hard are: (1) you and (2) your child. You only have control over the first of those factors. Getting yourself into a clear headspace about your own sexuality (both current and past) will get you off to the best start possible. If you aren’t ready to engage openly and meaningfully, how can you expect your child to?

So when should you have The Talk? You should have it tonight and tomorrow and again in a few weeks. You should have it about big things and little things. And you should remember that regardless of whether you’re talking, your child is listening and learning.

If you’re looking for books, here are a few of my favorites:

  • S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-to-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and College by Heather Corinna
  • Body Drama by Nancy Amanda Redd
  • What Every 21st-Century Parent Needs to Know by Debra W. Haffner
  • How To Talk So Kids Will Listen And Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish
  • How To Talk So Teens Will Listen And Listen So Teens Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish

If you’re looking for classes, here are a few Austin resources:

  • Unhushed. Offers classes for middle and high school students and parents of preteens and teenagers. karen (at), 512-662-1862
  • Dr. Laura Hancock. Offers classes for parents of infants, toddlers, and young children. drlaurahancock (at), 646.801.6842

Karen Rayne, PhD