Reviving Ophelia by Mary Pipher, Ph.D.
A classic of our time, Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, is a must-read for parents of daughters. This honest and open work discusses the growing pains of adolescent girls and their parents in America, as told by Mary Pipher, Ph.D, mother of a daughter and counselor to the daughters of others. Dr. Pipher shares vignettes from her practice that relate to developmental issues, family of origin, mothers, fathers, divorce, sex, drugs and alcohol, violence, depression, and eating disorders. If you’re not a scholar of Shakespeare, the title is derived from Hamlet. Ophelia “grows” from being a carefree, happy young girl, into an adolescent who loses herself in the abyss of approval, first her father, then Hamlet, her lover; who spurns her because she is obedient to her father. Pipher hypothesizes that a similar process occurs in today’s teen-aged girls, who are innocent as little girls, reveling in self-accomplishment and achievements, only to become fragmented, tormented beings, seeking approval of peers, the attention of young men, and alienated from parents, family and former friends.
Dr. Pipher discusses the influence of modern culture on today’s teen girls – the imperative thinness implied by media on television and in fashion magazines, the suggestive sexual promiscuity encouraged by music, music videos, and movies, and the peer pressure to be popular, which requires dumbing down, punking out, and/or becoming “easy” prey to older men and worse. The cascade of emotions that flow within the heart of the adolescent girl is described as “think of them as constantly on LSD. . .People on acid are intense, changeable, internal, often cryptic or uncommunicative, and of course, dealing with a different reality. That’s all true for adolescent girls” (p. 57). Academically, as girls become feminized, they actually lose I.Q. points – intellect is still not a perceived value for girls in America. Classroom analyses show that “boys are more likely to be praised for academics and intellectual work, while girls are more likely to be praised for their clothing, behaving properly and obeying the rules” (p. 62). Girls learn by the end of junior high that being smart just isn’t cool.
Perhaps one of the most challenging components of saving the selves of these girls is the struggle to break away from parents. Parental instincts are to hold tightly to girls during this vulnerable time, when the girls most want to be allowed to grow without tight oversight. According to Pipher, “Much of girls’ behavior is not what parents think. The surface behavior is not all there is. The deep structure is on a quest for an autonomous self. The distancing and hostility are not personal” (p. 66).
My personal philosophy, based on raising a daughter who has grown up to make me very proud- considering the “issues” we dealt with during her tumultuous adolescence (which coincided with my early-onset perimenopause!) is that the best way to allow girls to grow is to give them space, make sure they have a trusting adult female friend (mom, you are not her friend!), and be available, kind, biting the tongue on the “I told you so’s” when they mess up, and kindly brush them off when they fall and help them back into the saddle. It can be very hard and frustrating, but there is an old saying “If you love something, let it go. If it comes back to you, it’s yours; if it doesn’t, it never was.” Although this doesn’t necessarily apply to our children, it’s a good thought to remember. Another favorite analogy of mine is a shiny, slippery pebble. If you squeeze it too hard, it will fly out of your hand and it will be hard to find, because you won’t see where it went. If you hold it gently, let it fall, you will be able to follow its trail.
Dr. Pipher leaves us with several sagely recommendations based on her years of experience in counseling adolescent girls, girls need love from family and friends, meaningful work, respect, challenges and physical and psychological safety. They need identities based on talents or interests rather than appearance, popularity or sexuality. They need good habits for coping with stress, self-nurturing skills and a sense of purpose and perspective (p.283).
Other factors that contribute to the resiliency of girls is encouraging them to think clearly for themselves, and parents who remain calm through rough spots and don’t take things too personally. Parents who stay calm listen more, and this listening and providing positive feedback when our daughters DO think rationally speaks volumes to their realization that we respect them as evolving adults, rather than pointing out every mistake they make.
The good news? Like one of my friends, who has a older daughter, trying to keep me calm and rational when my own daughter was what I considered at the time “out of control” told me, “If you let her live now, in about five years, you guys will actually LIKE each other again – and you won’t go to jail!”
Believe it or not, she was right! Instead of withdrawing and being secretive and deceptive like before, she actually calls me for advice, vents her frustrations about others “doing stupid things”. . .and I’m glad we’re on the phone, so she can’t see the big grin I get when I reminisce about that defiant adolescent who has blossomed into a beautiful, thoughtful, resilient, and successful young woman.