“Reviving Ophelia”: Saving Adolescent Women… Once more

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Source: Rahmani-Kresna / Unsplash

We still live in clinical psychologist Mary Pipher, who called “a girl-poisoning culture” in the 1990s when her book Reviving Ophelia stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for three years. The definition of cultural elements has changed, and the updated 25th anniversary edition addresses the challenges this generation of parents and their teenage girls face.

Young girls are more lonely, despite and because of social media, and many of their difficulties are very different from the drug culture that their peers struggled with in this earlier period. While girls these days are less likely to get into trouble because of their alcohol consumption or sexual behavior, they have a greater chance of becoming depressed, anxious, or suicidal. (Read the details on girls’ mental health, plus the positives for girls and family relationships in 2019, below.)

But I’m going to have co-authors Mary Pipher and their daughter Sara Gilliam, a teenage girl when the original book was published, explain their personal struggles and how this new edition supports problems mother-daughter dyads face today, and good ones at the same time News about the opportunities girls now have.

The Evolution of Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Self of Adolescent Girls – The 25th Anniversary Edition by Mary Pipher and Sara Pipher Gilliam:

In the early 1990s, Mary was a therapist working primarily with teenage girls and their families. Teenagers came into their office with all sorts of problems – truancy, pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, alcohol and drug abuse, and violent conflicts with their families. The parents felt confused, frustrated, and desperate. Girls appeared grumpy, defiant, and angry – especially at their mothers. Meanwhile, their mothers were the people who worked the hardest to understand and help them. At the time, most therapists diagnosed families with children in difficulty as having a dysfunction. But Mary saw something else as well. Girls fell into a toxic culture that neither they nor their parents understood. She wrote Reviving Ophelia to share what she knew about how our culture affects teenage mental health.

A typical high school girl from the nineties, Sara sped around Lincoln, Nebraska in a battered Honda Civic, chatting with friends on landlines every night. Her colleagues experimented with drugs and smoked cigarettes in the back room of the Red and Black Cafe. She loved her parents, but they argued about boundaries and Sara was often grounded for lack of curfew. She couldn’t wait to graduate, move out, and start her real life.

Our relationship was typical of the mother-daughter dynamic of the 1990s. We loved each other and had moments of real closeness, punctuated by a lot of conflict. We argued about boundaries and appropriate behavior. Sara was convinced that she was ready to be independent and resented her mother’s attempts to slow her down and set boundaries. Mary was stunned that Sara didn’t always respect her; As a child, she had never spoken a harsh word to her own mother.

A few months after the revival of Ophelia’s publication, Sara went to college. While working in freshman biology, Reviving Ophelia climbed steadily on the New York Times bestseller list, where she stayed at number one for three years, including 52 weeks. Mary heard from people around the country that the book had inspired mother-daughter reading clubs, parenting groups, and empowerment activities for girls. Schools, therapists, and parents changed their attitudes towards family dynamics and adolescent girls. After 1994, girls’ mental health has steadily improved for more than two decades. Our society seemed to be managing the needs of teenage girls.

With the kind permission of the editor

Source: Courtesy of the editor

Eighteen months ago, we set out to revise and update Reviving Ophelia for a new generation. While much of the original book still felt relevant, we realized that we had to deal with the cultural changes that were redefining the landscape for today’s teenage girls – school shootings, global terrorism and climate change, the 24 Hourly news cycle and the advent of smartphones and social media. Girls today are growing up in an extraordinarily difficult political, social and economic environment. You are stressed out about academics, melting polar ice caps, and refugees around the world. In times of polarization and hateful discourse, girls of color worry about their personal safety. All of these cultural changes have resulted in a dramatic decline in the mental health of adolescents.

After 2007, the girls’ wellbeing steadily declined. By 2016, three times more 12-14 year old girls committed suicide than in 2007. We believe there is a direct and unassailable link between this declining happiness and the introduction of smartphones. Devices and the internet have left girls vulnerable to bullying around the clock and encouraged the development of false selves. Today’s teenage girls are mostly embedded in electronic communities. Outside of school, they tend to have little personal interaction with their peers, and they rarely interact with their neighbors. They shop, socialize, and look for entertainment and validation online. Instead of building relationships, they use their emotional energy to create an attractive and compelling virtual person. Instead of going to dinner or the cinema, text friends from the comfort of their bedroom. This has created a new kind of loneliness in teenage girls. You have 500 followers but no true friends.

Today’s girls are very reactive to any notification they receive from social media websites. Instead of doing the inner work necessary to develop strong self-esteem, many girls rely on likes for validation. They sleep with their phones switched on and describe the pressure of staying connected at all times. Some feel that something is missing in this digitally influenced culture and express nostalgia for the “old days” when you meet up, read novels and chat with friends.

The advent of smartphones also dramatically changed how girls felt about their own independence and agency. You can call or text their parents anytime, anywhere. Parents can use apps to keep track of their daughters location and relationships. This means that girls have limited experience with their own navigation.

This first generation of digital natives is struggling with technologies the effects of which none of us really understand. Parents are concerned but mostly ineffective when dealing with their daughters’ social media use. They know little about girls’ online lives. As one mother put it, “I hold my daughter in place with my fingernails.”

However, there is a lot of good news about contemporary teenage girls. They focus on academics and really accept others. Girls in 2019 are less prone to binge drinking, drug use, or pregnancy. Compared to previous generations, they are less homophobic and racist and more gender specific. Youth activism and political expression are growing rapidly, led by cadres of ambitious and confident young women and at least in part through social media.

Perhaps best of all, the family unit has regained its meaning and closeness. Divorce rates are at a 40-year low. Most girls today love their fathers, whom they describe as warm, goofy, and interested in joining them for morning jogging and movie nights. Unlike girls in 1994, most teenagers today report that they love their mothers. The demonization of mothers, which peaked in the 80s and 90s, has subsided. Many girls in our focus groups referred to their mothers as their best friends. Mothers today are dialed into their daughters’ mental health and strive to make it easier for them to access therapy and other supportive resources. Family harmony is the rule, not the exception. This is partly because girls don’t push the rules back. Also, as the world becomes more difficult, girls increasingly turn to the love and safety of the family.

In the meantime, a lot has happened between mother and daughter over the last 25 years. Sara left Nebraska for a decade, then returned, fell in love, married, and had two children. Mary became a grandmother and published nine other books. Our relationship changed from a conflict relationship to a cooperative relationship. We openly express our affection for one another, which didn’t happen much in 1994.

In many ways, things came full circle as we wrote the 25th anniversary edition of Reviving Ophelia. The “original Ophelia” (Sara’s occasional family nickname) and “America’s Therapist” came together with a common goal: to support a new generation of mothers and daughters. By facilitating focus groups and immersing ourselves in current research, we were repeatedly reminded of the shared story, and made us feel nostalgic and appreciative of our former selves. Over the decades we have not only controlled our own relationship, but also the relationship between culture and girls. On the other hand, we came out satisfied and motivated, inspired to work for a better future. We hope our readers feel the same way.

Mary Pipher is also the author of Women Rowing North: Navigating the Currents of Life and Prospering in Old Age

Connected: Science says girls today are more concerned than ever

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