Recently, our Grade 9s participated in the first of six workshops designed to help them explore the important questions of adolescence: Who am I? What is my value? How can I make an impact? Facilitated by leadership coach, Shauna Barnes, M.Ed., these workshops are the first part of a four-year journey of self-discovery that will support each girl as she gets ready for post-secondary studies and life beyond the Castle. These workshops reflect our new Strategic Plan’s commitment to prepare our girls for life by challenging them with innovative programming.
The first workshop explored the concept of “the leader within,” and encouraged each girl to consider the impact she has through her actions, words and intentions. It set the stage for deeper conversations that we will design to help each girl identify her strengths and discover the ways in which she is “respond-able” to the world around her, with courage and compassion.
What motivated us to develop these workshops? How does knowing oneself impact future readiness? Why is the ability to be “respond-able” so important for today’s teens? We are using these workshops to develop our girls’ self-understanding and their ability to demonstrate self-care because we are worried. Worried about the degree to which time for introspection and time away from the social mayhem that is adolescence appear to be in short supply for this generation of young people – a generation that seems continuously connected via a virtual social network.
Back in the good ‘ol days – I never thought I’d use that phrase but there it is – friends got together sometimes without us, our peers gossiped and hurtful things were said. But we weren’t privy to it all in near real time and were somewhat spared from prolonged pain caused by hurtful rumours because anything that was said in the halls or after school tended not to travel very far and certainly wasn’t enshrined in text. We were certainly blessed by a smaller sphere of influence, but perhaps the biggest blessing of all was the time we enjoyed away from the daily drama. Way back when (as they say), we had a chance to emotionally recuperate at home every evening because we weren’t virtually connected 24/7 to every person in our peer group. Remember being told to hang up the phone after school because your mother needed to make a call? Remember spending time in your bedroom alone, listening to music, reading or simply daydreaming? Remember feeling upset by a small friendship slight during the school day but forgetting it by the time you woke up the next morning, refreshed by the gift of sleep and the passage of time? This is not the reality for today’s teens.
We know it’s normal for girls to struggle to discover who they are and who they want to be. Middle adolescence is a developmental stage typically fraught with emotional turmoil as the push for independence and the growing importance of peers coincides with the young teen’s changing self-concept and desire for acceptance. But increasingly we’re seeing girls struggle with the added challenge of virtual comparison – the downside of 24/7 unrestricted access to unrealistic online ideals. In a world of “Insta-perfection,” the idea of being less than perfect weighs heavily on girls’ developing self-identity and undermines their confidence. TikTok videos showing mere seconds of “besties having fun” leave teens feeling excluded, left on the outside looking in. What should be a “that looks like fun” reaction becomes a “now everyone in the world knows I wasn’t invited” moment of hurt, particularly when fatigue, a bad day or a normal friendship spat clouds a teen’s perception of her world and her worth.
Our girls are bombarded by messages and moments that undermine their confidence, and when tweens and teens, in particular, feel “lesser than” or set apart from their peers, feelings of insecurity and hurt emerge (but not in a way that is maturely handled). The still-developing adolescent brain lacks the ability to control the runaway amygdala and whatever self-regulation was present quickly falls by the wayside. Negative emotions flood the body and tears or reactive lashing out against others act as an unconscious release valve for the pressure that has built up within. Feelings are hurt on all sides and then to make matters worse, everyone jumps onto social media after school to replay each comment or slight (perceived or real), sharing unfiltered thoughts and emotions in a stream of consciousness dump. The drama gets etched deeper and deeper with every text, and so it goes, on and on.
I’ve come to the realization that with all the powers invested in me as Head of School, I still can’t change the outside world in which our girls live. I can’t roll back the clock to a time before social media when we talked face to face and made actual eye contact. And although we limit access to personal devices during the school day, much of what happens between our girls occurs after school and on weekends. This means that our days are often spent trying to sort out the tangled web of miscommunications, hurt feelings, damaged friendships and painful exclusion. And most challenging is the fact that our girls’ difficulty pausing, reflecting and perspective taking often results in both sides believing they are “right.”
This isn’t a problem unique to our school. In many ways, our girls are lucky. They are somewhat buffered by our efforts to restrict social media during the school day and are blessed with many caring adults and an abundance of resources. But the fact exists that today’s teens have a problem, and it’s a problem we are trying to address.
We are tackling a generational phenomenon, the future implications of which are only just emerging. Imagine a work culture where younger employees don’t know how to professionally articulate disagreement but turn instead to online rants, where weak self-regulation results in impulsive emails that lack tact, or where poorly-developed perspective taking undermines conflict resolution and problem solving. And imagine a workplace where people believe they should only have to work with people they personally like! Teamwork, innovation, collaboration, productivity – all the skills we know our girls will need in the future will be weakened, not strengthened, if we don’t tackle the challenges this generation is facing.
How can we respond as a community that cares? What can we do to effect change for this next generation? I would argue that self-compassion and forgiveness are key to helping our girls manage the maelstrom of early adolescence in a virtually-connected world. Self-compassion and forgiveness are essential tools that foster resilience and kindness, and will make them stronger as individuals, better prepared for the world outside our Castle walls.
First, let’s talk about self-compassion. Self-compassion is important because how we see ourselves impacts how we see others. If we believe we are worthy, if we value ourselves and accept our own shortcomings with grace, then we are more likely to treat others with kindness and compassion. By contrast, when we are filled with negative self-talk or feelings of insecurity, we are more likely to reflect this anger or hurt in what we say to others. So, learning to accept that we are good enough, that we matter, that we have value – these things are essential to our happiness and impact how we treat others.
Second, we have forgiveness. Forgiveness matters because, let’s face it, we are all fallible and we all make mistakes. Showing forgiveness doesn’t mean we act as a door mat and always turn the other cheek. It means we learn how to say, “I feel hurt by what happened. Can we talk about it so we can move on?” Forgiveness is a choice that puts us (and no one else) in charge of our own well-being and happiness. Forgiveness is a gift we give ourselves because it allows us to move on and leave hurt behind. Sometimes we try to hold back forgiveness, thinking that we are punishing the person who caused us pain. But the reality is, we are only punishing ourselves. Without forgiveness, we carry a burden of anger and resentment that displaces positive emotions while placing limits on our happiness.
So back to our workshops. What do we want to achieve? And how is this work related to our mission statement?
Through student-centered programming, we are trying to help our girls move away from feelings of self-doubt. We are teaching them to reject constructing social conflict as perpetrator and victim – clearly defined roles that are easy to understand but rarely represent the complexity of life. Instead, we are giving our girls the tools to be “respond-able” – in touch with their emotions, able to manage difficult situations and conflict with calmness and courage, and capable of choosing to respond to anger with kindness and compassion. If we can do this, we will be well on our way to realizing our School’s mission: Challenge her mind, strengthen her voice, and nurture her heart.