"How Do I Evolve From Confusion and Chaos to a Capable, Strong, Compassionate Woman?" Age 15

For a complex set of reasons, most of what is known about adolescent girls focuses on the problems they face. The fact that many adolescent girls are showing remarkable strength, resiliency, and "hardiness" during the stressful time of adolescence needs to be explored. Instead of focusing on the storm and stress of adolescence, a new understanding of adolescent girls that affirms their strength and resilience needs to be developed. Although the current day risks and stresses in the lives of adolescent girls must be understood, they should not be the defining factors in discussions of adolescent girls. There must be a focus on what is working for adolescent girls, and why to assist adolescent girls in navigating these risks during their development.

To this end, the American Psychological Association's (APA's) Presidential Task Force on Adolescent Girls: Strengths and Stresses was created by Dorothy W. Cantor during her presidential year (1996). The task force's mission statement is as follows:

The mission of the APA Presidential Task Force on Adolescent Girls: Strengths and Stresses is to integrate current knowledge regarding adolescent girls in order to focus on the strengths, challenges, and choices of adolescent girls today. The task force will also identify gaps and inconsistencies in research, education, practice, and public policy. In this endeavor, the task force is committed to the inclusion of the voices and lives of a range of adolescent girls in terms of age, racial and ethnic diversity, socioeconomic status, geographic area, and sexual orientation. The task force will work to raise public and professional consciousness in regard to adolescent girls with a particular focus on those who impact their lives including parents, educators, health care professionals, and policymakers. Through its activities, the task force will chart directions into the new frontiers of the next century through a critical examination of the policy issues, current knowledge, and research approaches to understanding adolescent girls.

The following work is excerpted from Beyond Appearance: A New Look at Adolescent Girls , a book written by psychologists across the country whose work focuses on adolescent girls, including psychologists serving on the APA task force on adolescent girls.

The authors set out to assemble and review the psychology and related research and literature for the past 10 years, with special attention to strengths, challenges, and choices within the contexts of girls' lives. Challenged to consider and move beyond an exploration of girls' psychological losses and to focus on those aspects of relationship and culture that support and engage girls-as well as girls' collective attempts to resist the negative impact of the media and other powerful, societal forces-the authors attempted to answer questions such as the following:

  • What is important to help girls thrive during adolescence?

  • Are there different positive influences at different developmental stages?

  • What does the research say about girls with high self-esteem?

  • Why is it important to include diversity in research?

  • What are the roles of the educator, parent, psychologist, health care system, and policymakers in providing an environment that enriches the strengths adolescent girls bring to our society?

  • How can adolescent girls best be prepared for the roles they will play in the future?

  • How do adolescent girls influence the world around them?

In developing this book, the authors focused on several cross-cutting themes: strengths, development, ethnicity, class, risks, resilience, and research implications. To make the rich, diverse voices of actual girls in the United States heard above the statistics, questions from a research survey conducted by the task force on adolescent girls are included in this research agenda. A summary of the survey, "The State of the Hearts of Adolescent Girls," is found at the end of this research agenda.

The adolescent population in the United States is growing rapidly and will continue to grow into the next millennium. Approximately 18.5 million adolescent girls, ages 10 to 18 years, were living in the United States at the last census in 1990. The lives of these girls are complex, affected by their gender, race, ethnicity, class, differing abilities, and sexual orientation. Only by examining each of these complicated layers can the rich diversity of the lives of adolescent girls be understood.


"Why Do Parents Treat Girls Differently Than Boys?" Age 14

Gender is a psychological and cultural term that refers to the meanings attached to being female or male in a particular culture. It is distinct from sex, which refers to the biological aspects of being female or male. Across the United States, expectations for gender roles vary according to culture, socioeconomic class, and sexual orientation. These expectations present a variety of pressures for adolescent girls as they develop into womanhood.

Between the ages of 8 and 11 years, girls tend to be androgynous. They view themselves as strong and confident and are not afraid to say what they think. However, as they cross over into adolescence, girls begin to experience pressure toward more rigid conceptions of gender roles; they become more concerned with how women are ``supposed to behave'' and with their physical and sexual attractiveness. Although research shows that self-esteem decreases for both sexes after elementary school, the drop is more dramatic for girls. Compared with boys of the same age, adolescent girls are more anxious and stressed, experience diminished academic achievement, suffer from increased depression and lower self-esteem, experience more body dissatisfaction and distress over their looks, suffer from greater numbers of eating disorders, and attempt suicide more frequently.

And yet, across cultural groups, adolescent girls hold more flexible and liberal attitudes than boys about the rights and roles of women. White adolescent girls who hold traditional attitudes toward women's roles tend to have lower self-esteem than do girls who hold more liberal views.

Important sources of resistance to and liberation from negative cultural messages for adolescent girls include the following: a strong ethnic identity, close connections to family, learning positive messages about oneself, trusting oneself as a source of knowledge, speaking one's mind, participation in athletics, non-traditional sex typing, feminist ideas, and assertive female role models.

Research Agenda: Gender

  • What factors contribute to resilience in adolescent girls who resist stereotyped and negative cultural messages about women?

  • What factors support adolescent girls' formation of positive and optimistic perspectives on their developing womanhood and future roles?

  • In what ways are adolescent expectations about gender roles influenced by racial and ethnic identities, socioeconomic status, religious values, health, and sexual orientation?

Across adolescent girls' group status (ethnic and racial, sexual orientation, socioeconomic, and religious), how do gender-related biological, psychological, and cultural factors interact during adolescence?

Gender and Self-Esteem

"What Can I Do to Make Myself More Confident in Sports?'' Age 17

Many aspects of girls' self-perceptions and mental health do not decline during adolescence; on most measures, the variations among girls are much larger than the differences between girls and boys. Girls' self-concepts of ability and self-esteem vary significantly across domains and ethnic groups. Competence beliefs for both girls and boys are related to the gender stereotyping of the activity. Girls have higher expectations of success than boys in their general academic abilities across domains and in their social skills, whereas boys are more confident about their math and sports abilities.

High school senior girls and boys are equally confident of their success in business and law and in their leadership, independence, intellectual, and computer skills. Girls and boys are equally invested in future careers, but girls place less emphasis on money and job status. Their career preferences show differences related to traditional gender expectations. Many adolescent girls still believe there is an inherent conflict between feminine goals and values and competitive achievement activities. This belief does limit their future opportunities. For many adolescent girls, sensitivity to failure limits their willingness to take risks for higher rewards or more demanding opportunities.

Declines in self-esteem during adolescence are not inevitable consequences of either pubertal or school changes. Both girls' and boys' self-esteem decreases during the high school years; but girls' self-esteem tends to drop more over time. African American girls' self-esteem does not decrease over the high school years and tends to be higher than both White and African American boys.

It is important to note that these gendered patterns have been observed to decrease over time. Young women today are more likely to aspire to traditional male-stereotyped fields. In addition, young women today are much more involved in athletic activities than both their mothers and grandmothers.

Research Agenda: Gender and Self-Esteem

  • What factors account for the cultural and ethnic differences in patterns of adolescent girls' self-esteem?

  • How can adolescent girls be encouraged to resist traditional gender role expectations in considering academic pursuits and future careers?

  • How can adolescent girls be encouraged to attribute their academic success to their ability as well as to their effort and hard work?

Body Image Concerns and Disordered Eating

"Why Am I Always Concerned About How I Appear to People and How Much I Weigh?" Age 13

During adolescence, girls are challenged to come to terms with the physical changes of puberty, including considerable weight gain. As adolescent girls attempt to reconcile the reality of their bodies with the unrealistic and unattainable cultural demands for female thinness, large numbers of girls experience intense body image dissatisfaction. For a small group of girls, negative feelings about their bodies and their efforts to achieve or maintain thinness contribute to the development of disordered eating. This may include binge eating, restrictive dieting, or induced vomiting and over eating, leading to more serious disorders such as anorexia or bulimia.

Research efforts have neglected the fact that disordered eating typically begins during early adolescence. A complex set of cultural, social, familial, personal, and biological factors contribute to the development of disordered eating. The negative impact of experiences that threaten a girl's healthy psychological development, such as physical or sexual abuse, increase her risk of disordered eating.

Although factors that protect adolescent girls from disordered eating have not been adequately researched, environments that enhance girls' self-esteem in general and body esteem specifically and that protect girls from risk factors such as physical and sexual abuse appear to increase resiliency against unhealthy eating patterns. In addition, certain cultural contexts and expectations that promote acceptance of a broad range of appearances provide support for individuality and healthy development and play an instrumental role in protecting adolescent girls from the development of eating and weight-related concerns.

Research Agenda: Body Concerns and Disordered Eating

  • What factors help adolescent girls resist cultural messages that lead them to be dissatisfied with their bodies and their appearance to others?

  • How can prevention and health promotion programs be developed that build personal resilience, interpersonal competence, and general self-valuing for adolescent girls?

  • How can adolescent girls be assisted in defining themselves in positive terms, apart from their physical appearance?

Adolescent Girls of Color

"Why Do People Act Differently to People With a Different Skin Color?" Age 12

During the last few decades, the collective efforts of women psychologists and the feminist movement have established and legitimized the psychological study of women and girls, and have created an intellectual climate in which it is now commonplace to conceptualize gender as a social construction of enormous influence in individual psychology and female self-definition.

Within these movements, however, there has been a marginalization of women of color. One third of the 18.5 million girls between the ages of 10 and 18 living in the United States are Black, Hispanic, Asian/Pacific Islander, Native American, Eskimo, or Aleut. They remain virtually invisible in the psychological literature on adolescent girl development.

In examining recent research studies, the lack of data and information about the psychological development and lives in general of adolescent girls of color is of great concern. Major studies on adolescent development are flawed by the presence and absence of certain groups of girls of color, a lack of reliable data on the economic status of the households of some groups of adolescent girls of color, a failure to address the roles of race and gender, and a lack of information regarding the racial-ethnic identity of research participants.

Just as the notion that males and females differ in their development toward self-definition has become accepted, professionals and others who work with adolescent girls must move toward the fuller recognition of the contribution of race, ethnicity, culture, class, and sexual orientation to development in general and to the understanding of adolescents in particular.

Research Agenda: Adolescent Girls of Color

  • What components of racial-ethnic culture are critical for the development of positive identities in girls of color? Do the components vary across racial-ethnic groups?

  • What is the impact of economic status on the development of adolescent girls of color in terms of education, motivation, and behavior? Is the impact the same or different across racial-ethnic groups?

  • Do race-ethnicity and social class have the same impact for adolescent girls and adolescent boys of color? Do the differences, if any, suggest different intervention strategies?

  • What factors explain the drop in self-esteem in Black and Hispanic adolescent girls? What is the role of context in the examination of self-esteem for these two groups of girls?

  • Do Asian American and American Indian girls experience changes in self-esteem during adolescence? What factors may contribute to this change, if any, within the subgroups of these two large "racial" categories?

  • What are the direct and indirect effects of the oppressive and exploitative historical legacies on the identities, attitudes, and aspirations of adolescent girls of color?

Immigrant Adolescent Girls of Color

"How Can I Not Change Myself Just to Fit in?" Age 15

For immigrant girls of color, their status as immigrants and the major changes they experience as a result of immigration further complicate and intensify the challenges they face as adolescent girls in American society. In addition to the newness of their physical surroundings, adolescent immigrant girls are psychologically at risk from a myriad of factors: loss and loneliness resulting from a lack of shared experiences with peers; strain and fatigue from their efforts to adapt and cope; feelings of rejection from a new culture that may affect self-esteem; confusion in terms of role expectations, values, and identity; and a sense of impotency from their inability to function as effectively in the new culture as in their home culture.

Although immigration presents challenges for people of all ages, adolescents face the particular challenge of having lost peers and a familiar culture that would have served and assisted them in their identity development. The stress brought about by their attempts to assimilate into a new culture can result in relatively more psychological and social problems, including disordered eating, lower self-esteem, and higher depression. Increased parent-child conflicts can result from the fact that children and adolescents learn the language of their new culture more quickly and often adapt to the new culture at a much faster rate than their parents. In many cases, their resulting emerging identities are at odds with the traditions and rituals of their native culture. Generational conflicts about sex roles, peer relations with the other sex, dating, and marriage may occur within immigrant families. In addition, parental loss of power and the parent's inability to function as effectively in the new society may leave adolescents feeling unsafe and unable to rely on their parents for protection.

What then is working for these immigrant girls of color? What factors foster their ability to adapt to the particular changes brought about by immigration and their development as adolescent girls? Just as immigrant girls confront the same barriers as all racial and ethnic minorities, namely racism and discrimination, the solutions to their difficulties are very similar. In many cases, strong families able to convey warmth, affection, emotional support, and clear-cut, reasonable structure and limits are able to minimize the negative impact of the stress associated with immigration. Strong adherence to traditional family values, a strong commitment to a work ethic, and a high degree of involvement in the ethnic community can serve as protective factors for immigrant adolescent girls. Indeed, the most successful family strategy seems to be maintaining a close connection to the family's cultural roots and strong family relationships.

In addition, for some groups, English language proficiency has been shown to enhance self-esteem and to lower depression, thereby reducing stress levels associated with immigrant status. The availability of community resources and ethnic social support networks are also key factors in developing positive coping mechanisms for immigrant adolescents and their families.

Research Agenda: Immigrant Adolescent Girls of Color

  • What is healthy functioning for immigrant adolescent girls of color? Is there any agreement between parents and other involved adults (e.g., school personnel)? Is this negotiable?

  • What resilience factors, effective adaptation strategies, and coping mechanisms work for adolescent girls of color and their families?

  • What are the particular psychological risks for adolescent girls of color, especially related to trauma?

American-Born Asian, African, Latina, and American Indian Adolescent Girls

"Why Can't People Just Put Prejudice Behind Them?" Age 14

Very little research has been conducted on the unique lives of adolescent girls of color. Given the challenges and experiences of ethnic minorities in the United States, ethnic minority adolescent girls are differentially affected by the socialization process. An adolescent's ethnicity has intense influence on her development, as it effects her sense of belonging in a world that often determines inclusion and exclusion on the basis of skin color. For psychologists to understand these experiences, it is important for them to assess the interplay of what occurs within families and what occurs in the political, economic, social, and racial climates in which young girls are challenged.

Perhaps the most resilient factor common to all ethnic minority groups is identification with family and community. The bonding and sharing of values for families of people of color can provide strength and resources for adolescent girls of color. Strong, persistent families "inoculate" adolescent girls against the ravages of ethnic and gender discrimination. The degree to which families have incorporated the positive messages of their culture and heritage despite a history of poor treatment is a predictor in the healthy development of an adolescent girl of color. Research must continue to focus on diversity and especially the intersection of gender and ethnicity.

Relationships with Significant Adults: Cultivating Hardiness Zones

"Do You Think Most Girls Today Will Have Good Futures?" Age 11

Although the research on resilience and protective factors suggests that connection to parents, significant adults, school and, perhaps, some greater sense of purpose or perspective fosters resilience or "odds-defying" behavior, it is often precisely a dilemma of connection, a forced choice between competing loyalties, that faces girls. Girls' struggles are rooted in systemic problems-such as poverty, racism, and sexism - that require a collective, rather than an individual, response. This suggests a need for a new concept of health and stress resistance that locates the struggle between the girl and her world, not within the individual girl, and that holds the adults in girls' environments accountable for providing girls with experiences and opportunities for them to understand, engage with, and potentially transform what limits and harms them.

Within health psychology, the concept of "hardiness" describes the stance of an individual in relation to a stressful context and, thus, points to developmental experiences girls may need to resist the long-term harm of institutionalized racism and sexism. Considering relationships with significant adults in girls' lives as potential "hardiness zones"-that is, spaces of real engagement and opportunities for girls to experience control, commitment, and challenge-one moves the focus from the individual girl to the network of relationships that create girls' social worlds and environments, allowing girls access to skills, relationships, and possibilities that enable them to experience power and meaning. Through this perspective, the relational and educational contexts, in both schools and other community organizations, in which girls find themselves can be assessed in terms of their capacity to facilitate hardiness.

Mothers, women teachers, and "othermothers" hold the possibility of providing relational hardiness zones for adolescent girls. Listening and fostering meaningful participation in school and community life, as well as providing the opportunity for self-development through effective sociocultural critique, are means by which adults can support the strengths of girls. Schools and communities that engage girls in social critique and in activist experiences appear to be particularly effective, as do adults who demonstrate commitment, respect for youth, and a willingness to involve them in making change within their communities.

Research Agenda: Relationships With Significant Adults

  • What are the defining features of the individuals, institutions, and agencies that give rise to hardiness and strength in adolescent girls?

  • What protective factors do "hardiness zones" offer adolescent girls? How can significant adults in girls' lives provide relational and environmental contexts that foster adolescent girls' strengths, support them in ways that are health promoting, and allow them to experience their potency in the world around them?

  • How can adults help adolescent girls-particularly those who struggle with the effects of poverty, racism, homophobia, immigrant or refugee status-negotiate cultural conflicts and competing loyalties, especially in those cases in which they develop new possibilities and life choices different from their families and communities?

  • What developmental and relational experiences do adolescent girls need to resist the long-term harm of institutionalized racism and sexism?

  • What roles do "othermothers," such as aunts, grandmothers, adult friends, teachers, or community members, play in supporting adolescent girls and creating relational hardiness zones?

  • What are the positive and protective aspects of mother-daughter relationships?

  • What benefits and possibilities for support exist within girls' relationships with their fathers or other significant adult men in their lives?

Friendships and Peer Relationships

"Why Is Popularity so Important to Most Girls?" Age 15

For psychologists to understand the way in which adolescent girls develop in relation to the world around them, it is important to examine adolescent girls' friendships. Close friendships, considered by many social scientists to be the "most rewarding and satisfying of all human relationships" are clearly important for the social and emotional health of all adolescents, regardless of ethnicity, race, or socioeconomic status.

What is known about girls' friendships and peer relations is based primarily on studies ing girls with boys. Although these studies provide important information, they offer little understanding of the diversity of experiences and perceptions of friendships among girls, including the important distinction girls make among types of friends and the nature and quality of these relationships. There has also been little attention given to the ways in which class, culture, race, ethnicity, and sexual identity shape adolescent girls' friendships groupings and even less attention to the ways in which racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia influence the environments in which girls' friendships are nurtured.

Early adolescence appears to be especially stressful on adolescent girls' friendships and peer relations, signified by a sharp increase in indirect relational aggression. More typical of girls and more distressful to girls than to boys, relational aggression, characterized by such behaviors as spreading rumors or threatening withdrawal of affiliation, appears to emerge as girls' attempt to negotiate current power relations and affirm or resist conventional constructions of femininity. More research is needed to understand the nature and quality of this negotiation and the role popularity and attractiveness play in the development and configuration of adolescent girls' peer groupings.

Friendships can be a source of both knowledge and strength for adolescent girls. They can also be a source of struggle, hurt, and confusion, particularly as girls move into adolescence and begin to negotiate dominant cultural views of sexual relationships, femininity, and appearance. Directly engaging adolescent girls in conversations about such issues and encouraging them to explore together how current power relations are played out in the context of their relationships with other girls and women can provide support as well as opportunities to resist social separations.

Research Agenda: Friendships

  • How do girls' friendships and peer relations mitigate or exacerbate the psychological and social struggles of adolescence? What possibilities for support and protective factors exist within girls' friendships?

  • How does social location-that is, class, race, ethnicity, and sexual identity-affect the nature of adolescent girls' friendships and peer groupings and influence the forms and meanings of communication among girls, including the formation of cliques, aggressive behavior, bullying, and teasing?

  • How do school environments and neighborhood contexts influence peer groupings and friendship patterns?

  • How do changing relationships with boys affect relationships between girlfriends?

  • How are expressions of closeness and intimacy between girls affected by conventional notions of femininity and codes of sexual and gender "normalcy"?

  • What are the strengths and stresses of girls' friendships forged across lines of class and culture?

Sexuality and Sexual Decision Making

"Does the Woman Have the Right to Say No to a Man?" Age 12

Much of the literature on female adolescent sexuality focuses exclusively on the problems or negative consequences associated with individual girls' sexual behavior and narrowly defines sexual decision making as individual risk-taking behavior. Unfortunately, these studies often use samples of girls of color and poor girls, adolescents who are considered most at risk for being "bad" sexual decision makers; middle-class suburban girls or disabled girls, who are not considered at risk in part because their sexuality is less scrutinized or visible, are thus not often the focus of such studies. In addition, there exists a tendency to study girls primarily, even though sexual decisions, especially those that have negative consequences, are made by both partners.

In the United States, the timeworn adage that "boys want sex, girls want relationships" has permeated beliefs about adolescent sexuality. Only recently, as psychologists began to challenge these previous assumptions about male and female adolescent sexuality and intimacy, has girls' sexual desire been acknowledged as a factor in their sexual decision making.

Recent research attempts focus on understanding how adolescent girls experience their sexuality to determine effective means for empowering girls to develop responsible sexual subjectivities. Such research has generated new avenues for exploration, such as understanding if and how girls from different social and material locations negotiate the following:

  • Make active and safe choices about sexual behaviors and about the relationships within which they engage in these expressions of their sexuality.

  • Develop a sense of entitlement to their own pleasure and desire.

  • Identify and learn to negotiate the often unequal power distribution typical of male-female relationships. 

The centrality of relationships in girl's psychological development suggests the importance of relationships in girls' sexuality development, including girls' decisions about sexual behavior. Taking girls' relational contexts seriously in both research and practice demands a focus on the meanings of sexuality and sexual decisions and the processes by which girls develop their sexuality beyond their choice to have sexual intercourse.

Research Agenda: Sexuality and Sexual Decision Making

  • How do adolescent girls experience and voice sexual desire?

  • How do girls negotiate and make decisions about the dangers, responsibilities, and pleasures of sexual activity?

  • How do girls' relationships with their own bodies, with specific people in their lives, and with the larger cultural ideals regulating "normal" and "moral" female sexual identities shape their sexuality?

  • How do a girl's different relationships with peers, close friends, intimate partners, and significant adults in her life inform her about the development of her sexuality and about the pleasures and risks of sexual exploration and sexual intercourse?

  • How do positive relational possibilities associated with sexuality and desire, such as intensified intimacy with a loved partner, the sense of well-being that can come from connection with oneself through one's body, or the ability to experience pleasure in sexual relationships affect adolescent girls' decisions to engage in sexual behavior?

  • What effects do negative relational risks, such as being hurt, disappointed, or regretful about the choice to have sexual intercourse or to explore a range of sexual behaviors have on adolescent girls?

  • How do White, middle-class suburban girls experience and express their sexuality?

  • How do conventional notions of femininity and idealized relationships (i.e., compulsory heterosexuality or the traditional romance story) affect girls' sexual identities, sexual experiences, and expressions of desire?

School and Community

"Today We Know the World for Adolescent Girls Is a Scary Place. Why Aren't Teachers Required to Gain a Certain Amount of Knowledge in This Area? Kids Spend a Lot of Time in School." Age 15

In an attempt to understand how to ensure success in schools for female students, the task force has identified several classroom environment and teacher factors:

  • Students' liking the teacher.

  • Teacher's use of inclusive (nonsexist and nonracist) materials.

  • Teacher's paying attention to students.

  • Girls' connecting with caring adults.

  • Classrooms in which there are lower levels of competitiveness and higher levels of innovative learning. Teacher's use of gender-fair instructional techniques, especially those that support girls' participation and success.

  • Teacher's recognition of girls as key players in their own lives.

For many students, and for female students in particular, schools are not safe places. A high degree of sexual harassment has been reported by female students in U.S. high schools. In recent research, lesbian, gay, and bisexual adolescents reported a wide range of verbal and physical violence directed toward them in a variety of settings, such as home, school, work, and the general community.

In response to greater public awareness of harassment, there has been an increase in the number of junior high and high schools that have developed policies against sexual harassment. In addition, some schools are implementing programs that address harassment as a serious matter, while focusing on building a school community that supports more appropriate and inclusive behavior. Government initiatives have begun to provide incentive and support for addressing sexual harassment concerns. Such initiatives are critically important and should continue.

Community Organizations

"How Can I Get People to Stop Looking at Me as Not Part of Their Group and as Not Important?" Age 13  

Adolescent girls today have access to an array of community-based youth organizations, despite the fact that there are a smaller number of these programs serving young women than young men. Many of these programs aimed at young women provide support for personal development and the development of social skills and encourage physical activity. Research findings recommend that organizations established to meet the needs of adolescent girls should practice the following:

  • Provide positive, caring, and consistent adult role models of both sexes. Promote high, yet realistic, expectations in skill development.

  • Promote the development of relationships across class, gender, race, and ethnicity.

  • Offer a range of experiences and topics that are of interest to girls and foster equality for girls.
    Encourage community involvement.

  • Involve the girls in settings in which they can be themselves, speak their truths, and find their own sources of power.

Many of these factors have not been adequately addressed in current youth program research. Access to and the function of these community-based organizations have been found to vary across social class and racial and ethnic lines. In many studies, several groups, including at-risk youth, youth from various ethnic groups, and lesbian and bisexual adolescents, are consistently underrepresented.

Religious Organizations

"Is God Someone I Should Believe in?" Age

Adolescent females, when compared with their male counterparts, are more actively religious. They participate in religious services and youth organizations and maintain their beliefs over longer periods of time. Such religiosity may have long-term benefits. Research has found that turning to religion and friends as a means of coping during adolescence is a significant indicator of healthy emotional development as a woman.

Not surprising, much of the literature in the area of religiosity and female adolescents focuses on factors related to girls' sexual behaviors, coping, social competence, self-esteem, and identity issues. Unmarried teen mothers' religious values have been found to influence decision-making related to the choice to have and keep a child, waiting to have first intercourse, and use of contraception. For African American girls, researchers have found a positive relationship between self-esteem and spiritual support.

Research Agenda: School and Community

  • What formal and informal mechanisms facilitate adolescent girls' opportunities to be heard regarding their experiences, wants, needs, and expectations in schools and communities?

  • What barriers exist within theses formal and informal mechanisms?

  • How do we become more responsive to girls' expressed needs within the context of these institutions?

  • What must be done in collaboration with, and on behalf of, young women to enhance already existing systems?

  • What are the particular experiences of lesbian and female bisexual adolescents in school and community settings? What issues do they share with their heterosexual peers and which are different? How do we meet their needs? What are the experiences of lesbian and female bisexual adolescents across race and ethnicity? Which community resources are responsive to lesbian and bisexual adolescents?

  • How do we work with adolescent girls in school and community settings over the long term as they construct norms and roles for themselves and as they find the source and strength of their own power?

  • Across all of these questions, what are the ethnic, religious, ability, socioeconomic, and other contextual factors that need to be considered?

  • How successful are sexual harassment programs in schools?

  • How do access to and function of social networks in schools and communities vary across social class and racial and ethnic lines?

  • What is the impact of community youth programs, both secular and religious, on girls' competence? Do these programs perpetuate stereotypic socialization practices?

Dating Violence

"Why DO Men Rape Girls?" Age 11

Pervasive violence is affecting adolescent girls everywhere. Occurring in homes, schools, job settings, and on the streets, violence against girls is seen in verbal, physical, and sexual abuse. Girls may be assaulted by gangs, by friends, or by romantic partners or sexually exploited by family members, acquaintances, or strangers.

Adolescents are considered to be at a higher risk for sexual assault than any other group. Over half of these reported sexual assaults occurred in dating situations. Dating violence includes physical injuries, verbal assaults, and threats of violence in the context of a dating relationship. Dating violence has been reported to affect 10% of high school students and 22% of college students.

It is believed that the incidence of date rape is underreported because most victims of date rape do not think the assault fits the definition of rape, so they do not report the rape to the police. Because of the dating situation, a girl may also feel guilt or responsibility for being in the company of the attacker and view the occurrence as normal or deserved. Other reasons girls give for not reporting date rape include fear of their parents' reactions to the rape and their peers' learning of the incident.

Dating violence has serious consequences. Young women are three times more likely to report severe emotional trauma when a violent episode occurs in a dating situation. Women raped by someone they know have more severe psychological problems than women raped by a stranger. Girls and women can suffer long-term effects from date rape, including sexual dysfunction, flashbacks, a delayed stress reaction, and other symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. A young woman may also have to deal with sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), pregnancy, and, in some groups, the social stigma of the loss of virginity.

Victims of dating violence must receive immediate intervention to counteract the traumatic effects of experiencing a breach in trust by someone they know. Counseling services at high schools and colleges should be made more widely available to these young women to minimize immediate and long-term consequences. Programs emphasizing prevention are extremely important. Teaching skills such as negotiation, interpersonal communication, anger management, problem solving, and coping strategies to girls and boys would be useful.

Teen Prostitution

"Why Do All the Cute Guys Date Sluts?" Age 14 

Some adolescent girls enter prostitution as a means of survival on the streets. Some prostitutes trade sex for drugs. Other young prostitutes are actually recruited by those who will exploit them. Those who prey upon them are able to pick out the girls who fit the pattern of vulnerability they seek. When the histories of adolescent prostitutes are examined, it is clear that they had been on paths of exploitation and victimization with roots in their childhood. Running away and, ultimately, teen prostitution, can be seen as the result of a struggle that adolescent girls experience between themselves and others. It is through their attempt to maintain connection with others as well as with their own thoughts and feelings that girls may find themselves runaways and teen prostitutes.

Transitioning from prostitution to a more traditional socially acceptable life is a difficult developmental process. Outreach programs to assist young women in leaving prostitution have developed in a few cities, although there is no evaluation mechanism for these programs. A recent study cites intelligence, temperament, cognitive appraisal, and a relationship with a significant person as protective factors enabling at-risk girls to resist the temptations of exploiters.

Research Agenda: Interpersonal Violence and Teen Prostitution

  • How prevalent is dating violence and date rape among adolescents from various ethnic groups?

  • Why do male adolescents batter or rape?

  • What is the motivation of young women who are the recipients of these behaviors?

  • What is the connection between early sexual victimization and later adolescent prostitution?

Health Care for Teens

"Can My Parents Find Out if I Go to Clinics for Information or Treatment?" Age 18

Although adolescent girls can be considered healthy relative to other populations, they are indeed affected by numerous health problems. Adolescent girls do use health services; however, these health services need to be improved.

The health problems of adolescent girls range from common illnesses and injuries of childhood and adolescence (e.g., colds, flu, and sports and play-related injuries) to concerns about the changes accompanying puberty (e.g., breast development and menstruation) to living with chronic disorders (e.g., cancer) and disabilities (e.g., learning disabilities and cerebral palsy) to behavioral or psychosocial problems (e.g., depression, suicide attempts, substance abuse, conduct disorder, violent victimization, and premature and unsafe sexuality).

Adolescents and providers often have different perceptions of what should be discussed in a health care visit. Most studies report unsatisfactory communication between providers and adolescent patients. Fear that confidentiality will be breached has been found to be the leading reason why adolescents do not seek health care. Training for providers of adolescent medical services must be improved. A growing body of research supports the idea that a communicative patient-provider relationship is essential for patient satisfaction, adherence to prescribed health regimens, and even health outcomes.

Parents can be integral partners in adolescent girls' health and health care. A number of factors that may interfere with the involvement of parents in adolescent girls' health issues must be addressed: adolescents' desire for privacy, fear of parents' reactions to certain health issues, and lack of parental knowledge and parental fears.

What additional changes need to occur for adolescent girls to fully use the resources within the American health care system? The Society for Adolescent Medicine argues that health services for adolescents need to be not only accessible in the traditional sense but also visible within the adolescent community as well, so that adolescents know which services are available to them and how to access these services. The advent and growth in the number of school-based health centers has positively changed the picture of adolescent health care somewhat, but there are still only an estimated 1,000 school-based health centers in the United States, and not all school-based health centers work predominantly with adolescents.

Research Agenda: Health Care

  • To what extent do clinical services (i.e., anticipatory guidance, counseling, or screening for behavioral problems or disease) make a difference in terms of adolescent health?

  • Which services that could be or are being provided now to adolescent girls are effective for which girls and under what conditions?

  • Are current methods of screening and counseling for development, reproductive health issues, mental health issues (including, but beyond, depression and suicide), violence (victimization and perpetration), and substance abuse working for adolescent girls?

  • What overall preventive strategies or combinations of strategies work best for adolescent girls-when and why?

  • How effective is the health care received by adolescent girls in real world settings, such as offices of all kinds of practitioners, school-based health centers, family planning and STD clinics, and emergency rooms and hospitals?

  • Which new technologies and techniques for prevention and treatment of current problems (e.g., teen pregnancy, drug use, violence, certain chronic illnesses, and disabilities) look promising for the future?

  • How can research be developed that employs new models of thinking (i.e., an emphasis on health rather than pathology)?

  • What is the importance of a participatory patient-provider relationship to patient satisfaction, adherence to prescribed health regimens, and health outcomes for adolescent patients?

Public Policy and Adolescent Sexuality

"If a Teen Decides to Have Sex, What Should They Do About Their Parents? Should They Tell Them or What?" Age 15

It is interesting to note that most of the policymaking action that relates to adolescent girls has focused on issues directly or tangentially related to their sexual behavior. The focus has been on such policies as those intended (a) to provide reproductive health services and prevent teen pregnancy, (b) to provide children and youth with sexuality education, (c) to promote sexual abstinence among adolescents, (d) to limit adolescents' autonomy regarding reproductive health decisions, and (e) to create disincentives for teen pregnancy and childbearing. If, as many observers argue, Americans have extremely ambivalent or conflicting feelings about human sexuality, this holds especially true for attitudes regarding the emerging sexuality and sexual behavior of adolescent girls. Clearly, policymaking in the United States has embodied a primarily hostile approach to sexuality and sexual expression among the young, and this is particularly so for adolescent girls. Rather than attempt to restrict adolescent's access to information and services, policymakers should pursue policy mechanisms to enhance adolescents' sexual health. The failure of existing policies is evident in the persistently high rates of teen pregnancies and STDs among adolescents.

Reproductive Rights

"If You Have Your Tubes Tied, Can You Still Have a Baby if You Have Sex?"

In 1970, the Family Planning Services and Population Research Act, among other things, established Title X of the Public Health Services Act. The effectiveness of the Title X program in serving adolescents is attributable to two key features of the program. First, the program largely eliminates financial barriers for adolescent girls seeking reproductive health care services, including pregnancy prevention and testing for and treatment of STDs. Publicly financed contraceptive services allow many adolescents who lack both health insurance of any kind and adequate financial resources of their own to obtain preventive care. Second, the program provides adolescents with confidential access to reproductive health care. Confidentiality is widely regarded as integral to the Title X program's effectiveness in reaching sexually active adolescents.

Sexuality Education

"Why Are Parents So Uptight About the 'Sex Talks'?" Age 18

Most American adolescents receive some form of sexuality education that includes information on sex and contraceptive use. Comprehensive reviews of studies examining the relationship between participation in sex education and early sexual activity conclude that the likelihood that an adolescent will become sexually active is not affected positively or negatively by participation in sex education. During the last 16 years, there have been major conflicts between supporters of abstinence-only approaches to sexuality education and supporters of comprehensive sexuality education. The growth of federal support for abstinence-only programs is remarkable when the amount of funds dedicated to these programs is compared with the amount allocated for past federally supported adolescent pregnancy prevention efforts. Over the next 5 years, the federal government will spend more on abstinence education that it has on adolescent health services and pregnancy prevention legislation over the past 20 years.


"Can You Get an Abortion if You Are Pregnant Without Your Parents?" Age 13

In the years following the Supreme Court's decision in Roe v. Wade (1973), the rate of abortions among adolescent girls climbed, a fact that precipitated the action in many states to restrict adolescents' access to abortion services, typically through the establishment of parental consent or parental notification requirements. Although parental consent and notification laws have been enacted, a number of Supreme Court decisions have refrained from allowing states to give parents complete veto power over their minor daughters' abortion decisions. Still, abortion remains the only reproductive health care service for which states require parental consent or notification. These parental consent and notification laws have been built around the assumptions that adolescents lack the ability to make reasonable, rational abortion decisions and that parental involvement in these decisions will benefit the adolescent. It is still too early to determine the effects of these consent laws, but one recent study suggests that these laws increase the likelihood that adolescents will travel to nearby states without parental involvement laws to seek abortion services.

Research Agenda: Sexuality and Sexual Decision Making

  • How do adolescent girls experience and voice sexual desire?

  • How do girls negotiate and make decisions about the dangers, responsibilities, and pleasures of sexual activity?

  • How do girls' relationships with their own bodies, with specific people in their lives, and with the larger cultural ideals regulating "normal" and "moral" female sexual identities shape their sexuality?

  • How does a girl's different relationships with peers, close friends, intimate partners, and significant adults in her life inform her about the development of her sexuality and about the pleasures and risks of sexual exploration and sexual intercourse?

  • How do positive relational possibilities associated with sexuality and desire, such as intensified intimacy with a loved partner, the sense of well-being that can come from connection with oneself through one's body, or the ability to experience pleasure in sexual relationships affect adolescent girls' decisions to engage in sexual behavior?

  • What effects do negative relational risks, such as being hurt, disappointed, or regretful about the choice to have sexual intercourse or to explore a range of sexual behaviors have on adolescent girls?

  • How do White middle-class suburban girls experience and express their sexuality?
    How do conventional notions of femininity and idealized relationships (i.e., compulsory heterosexuality or the traditional romance story) affect girls' sexual identities, sexual experiences, and expressions of desire?

Psychologist Education and Practice Issues

"When You Feel Like You Don't Know Which Way to Solve a Problem What Kinds of Steps Do You Take?" Age 16

For adolescent girls to thrive, they must be assisted in navigating the challenges that face them by mental health professionals who can both protect and strengthen them. Psychology, as a discipline and as a profession, is in an excellent position to respond on both counts, using research, practice, teaching, and consulting expertise. Indeed, given this broad base of knowledge and understanding, psychologists have a responsibility to respond to the needs of adolescent girls. Specifically, they can support the acquisition and maintenance of girls' strengths and can address the many stresses and related problems adolescent girls face. Because competent practice relies on relevant and comprehensive education and training, educators of psychologists must offer training programs with specially designed curricula, covering courses as well as applied training, that address these special needs and problems. The sheer range of problems is challenging, and the number of adolescents needing mental health treatment plus those who require some support in their journey through "normal" adolescence is large.

Each year in this country, thousands of teen girls find themselves in psychological distress associated with problems so pervasive in our society that they have come to be known as public health issues. The types of psychological problems reflecting the greatest distress among today's adolescent girls include the following:

  • Major adjustment and developmental problems, including personal identity and family issues, such as separation from parents and family, sexual identity issues, or concerns about one's sexual orientation and behaviors. Major psychological disorders, such as schizophrenia, eating disorders and mood disorders.

  • Major psychosocially and culturally induced problems, including reactions to violence, drug use, and other abuse.

These have psychological as well as physical health ramifications. To focus on the psychological needs and problems of adolescent girls, psychologists have developed a wide array of different treatment approaches and services that have emerged in recent years; yet, there is an urgent need for greater understanding and more effective support of girls' strengths and interventions to address their emotional distress and disorders. The complexity of the world in which today's adolescent girl lives challenges psychology to devote its best efforts in their behalf in practice and in preparation for practice.

What needs to be done? Past arguments and current demands for education and training specifically focused on adolescent girls or on adolescents in general remain largely unheeded. The value of thorough assessment and appropriate intervention must be emphasized. Mental health care professionals must be prepared to provide competent service for adolescent girls. Comprehensive programs must be established. The profession needs to guide the education and training of psychologists specifically to advance competencies in providing services for adolescent girls.

Research Agenda: Mental Health Care

  • What are the psychological needs and problems of adolescent girls?How successful are current treatment approaches and services?

  • How successful are current adolescent addiction treatments?

  • How effective are mental health and substance abuse treatment services, including the talking therapies, psychopharmacotherapies, and milieu therapies?

  • What are effective strategies for coping with social and psychological stressors?

Vision for the Future

"Will I Achieve My Dreams?" Age 12

As demonstrated by the content of this research agenda and the comprehensive volume Beyond Appearance: A New Look at Adolescent Girls, adolescence represents a significant transition in a young woman's life, a time of exploration with greater freedom to try new things, and a growing independence and increasing self-awareness. For many adolescents, this period poses some challenges and difficulties. Today's adolescents appear to be better off than past cohorts in many ways, yet they are not in other ways. Although not enough is known, increased research and knowledge has provided society with a greater understanding of the adolescent experience.

Adolescent girls today are faced with a unique predicament. Although progress related to gaining equal rights for women and girls has considerably broadened the range of choices girls have in living their lives, adolescent girls lack precise rules and expectations as they consider the variety of roles now open to them in contrast with more generally accepted expectations for girls in the past. Although these girls are expected to "have it all," few role models or guidelines exist. Interventions with adolescent girls must address this predicament, for it is an important factor of adolescent girls' transition.

Historically, American society has generally lacked an appreciation or respect for female development. With dramatic social, economic, and technological changes reshaping the world, adolescents shape an unknown future replete with possibilities for improvement. Any view of the future world of today's adolescent girls must be a realistic yet hopeful one, not necessarily idealistic. The social, economic, and technological changes reshaping the world offer great possibilities for improvement.

In the past and present, adolescent girls have learned that their needs for closeness and relatedness conflict with the competitive attitudes that drive success, yet they are expected to achieve in this society, in effect, being forced to choose between being true to themselves or realizing their goals. The increasing political interest for adolescent girls is a positive sign for the future. The advent of women into politics is a step that can improve their situation, and encouragement to do this must take place at the formative adolescent level.

The Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development concluded in its final report Great Transitions: Preparing Adolescents for a New Century that the American institutions of family, schools, youth-serving social organizations, and the media "have fallen behind in their vital functions and must now be strengthened in their respective roles and linked in a mutually reinforcing system of support for adolescents" (Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, p. 11)1    Although disheartening to see that the myriad of policies and programs often do not meet the needs of adolescent girls, there is always hope that new developments and new looks can produce positive change. Psychology has a great deal to contribute in fostering such change through its theoretical and applied conceptualizations, research methodology, service delivery system and development, content knowledge base, and potentially large cadre of active and involved professionals.

Research Agenda: Overall Questions

  • How do race, ethnicity, culture, class, and sexual orientation affect the experiences of adolescent girls?

  • What helps adolescent girls of different ethnicities, races, cultures, classes, and sexual orientations to build strengths during different developmental stages of adolescence?

  • How can we develop relational and community "hardiness zones" for girls (i.e., places within kinship networks and families and in schools, churches, and neighborhoods where there are opportunities for control, commitment, and challenge)?

  • What would adolescent girls of different ethnicities, races, cultures, classes, and sexual orientations define as strengths they would like to possess?

1 Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development. (1995). Great Transitions: Preparing Adolescents for a New Century. New York: Carnegie Corporation of New York.

The State of the Hearts of Adolescent Girls

Currently in development, members of the APA Adolescent Girls Task Force: Strengths and Stresses are preparing a book for adolescent girls that seeks to stimulate relevant dialogue between and among them, their peers, their parents, and others who interact and work with them. Tentatively titled The State of the Hearts of Adolescent Girls, this book reflects what is on the minds of adolescent girls today through a series of questions to be used in a broad survey of adolescent girls.

The survey was given to a large sample of groups of adolescents in schools and community agencies. Each respondent was asked to indicate his or her gender and age. The survey asked the following question:

"If you had the chance to have a private and confidential conversation with an expert with a great deal of knowledge and understanding about the concerns of adolescent girls today what would you ask them? Please write down six questions about anything that is on your mind. Remember, do not put your name on the paper."

At its conclusion, the survey generated over 6,000 questions from and about adolescent girls. The survey responses are representative of White, Latin American, Black, Native American, and Asian populations. They represent adolescents from lower- to upper-class socioeconomic groups as well as urban, suburban, small town, and rural populations.

The survey responses are being used as a guide to formulate the questions that are on the minds of adolescent girls, their parents, and others who live and work with them. Once the questions were selected, they were forwarded to a panel of experts, each of whom provided a brief response to the question. The experts chosen for each of the questions were carefully selected for their expertise in the particular area. Particular attention was paid to ensure that the experts who responded to each of the questions reflect diversity of race and ethnic background. By providing several responses to each of the questions in the book, the editors sought to provide a catalyst for the consideration and understanding of multiple perspectives on the issues facing adolescent girls today.


Bonnie Barber, PhD
Susan A. Basow, PhD
Geraldine Kearse Brookins, PhD
Lyn Mikel Brown, EdD
Fary M. Cachelin, PhD
Joanne E. Callan, PhD
Dorothy W. Cantor, PsyD
Jessica Henderson Daniel, PhD
Elizabeth Debold, EdD
Cynthia de las Fuentes, PhD
Florence L. Denmark, PhD
Denise M. DeZolt, PhD
Denise M. Dougherty, PhD
Julia L. Duff, PhD
Jacquelynne Eccles, PhD
Michele Harway, PhD
 Mary Henning-Stout, PhD
Norine G. Johnson, PhD
Deborah Jozefowicz, PhD
Marsha Liss, PhD, JD
Oksana Malenchuk, PhD
Bonnie Y. Ohye, PhD
Michael C. Roberts, PhD
Lisa R. Rubin, PhD
Ruth H. Striegel-Moore, PhD
Deborah L. Tolman, EdD
Melba J. T. Vasquez, PhD
Niobe Way, EdD
Susan Weseen, PhD
Brian L.Wilcox, PhD
Judith Worell, PhD


Norine G. Johnson, PhD, Co-Chair
Karen Zager, PhD, Co-Chair
Lyn Mikel Brown, EdD
Dorothy W. Cantor, PsyD
Jessica Henderson Daniel, PhD
 Denise M. DeZolt, PhD
Michael C. Roberts, PhD
Alice K. Rubenstein, EdD
Judith Worell, PhD