Washington Area Women's Foundation

The Not-So-Secret Life of the Montgomery County Teenager

Talk With a Teen Girl Today 004Adults like to reminisce about being teens.  We get all nostalgic about high school and social events and old classmates.  And then we shake ourselves out of our nostalgic day dreams and promise current teenagers that, as hard as those transformative years are, they’ll be adults soon enough. That promise of teen age survival was the beginning of a conversation earlier this week that was presented by Crittenton Services of Greater Washington, a Washington Area Women’s Foundation Grantee Partner.  Part of Crittenton’s “Talk With a Teen Girl Today” campaign, the dialogue featured young women from Montgomery County high schools who were discussing the results of a recent survey.

NBC4’s Pat Lawson Muse moderated the conversation and opened it up by telling the young panelists, “good news: you’ll survive your teens.”  It was a reassuring note to start on, but the more I listened to the young women speak, the more I got the impression that they wanted to do more than simply survive being teens; they seemed to view their high school years as an opportunity to build a solid foundation to become thriving adults.

About the Survey

The survey participants (all between the ages of 13 and 19) were given 15 topics and were asked to rate them as being a “very big problem,” “somewhat of a problem,” “not much of a problem,” and “not a problem at all.”  Here are the topics in the order of most problematic to least problematic based on the survey results:

1. Not being able to eat healthy at school
2. Fights among young people
3. Getting pregnant before graduating from high school
4. Not being listened to by adults at home
5. Being considered unattractive unless you look like a supermodel
6. Being thought of as a sexual object
7. Not being valued by adults
8. Teachers not caring about you
9. Getting Sexually Transmitted Infections or HIV
10. Not having anyone to care what happens to you
11. Being labeled or put down because of your race/ethnicity or color
12. Teen dating violence
12. Being frightened at school or on the street
12. Teachers or counselors thinking you are going to be a failure
13. Violence at home

The “Talk With a Teen Girl Today” panelists weren’t able to get to every topic, but they were able to enlighten the audience on some of the points.

On Eating Healthy at School

Some of the young women agreed that the food served in their school cafeteria is worse in quality than fast food restaurants.  They want more salad options at school, although they admitted that they didn’t often eat salad at home.  One teen said that she often eats breakfast and lunch at school, and if both of those meals are “bad,” she feels weak before the school day is over.

On Violence Among Young People

Physical altercations between girls was a major concern for all of the panelists.  They agreed that fighting was not a good way to work out problems, but some said they were lacking opportunities to resolve conflicts before they escalated to fights.  One person said fighting was a way to relieve stress, another said classmates often instigate fights.  They agreed that girls are more likely to fight one another than boys are.

When the moderator asked them about dating violence, the panelists identified it as a major concern and said they needed adults to be more open to explaining how to be a good partner in a relationship.  They told us that many parents don’t talk about relationship problems unless they’re asked, and some won’t answer questions because they don’t think that their daughters should be in relationships.

“Parents aren’t ready to accept that their little girl is dating,” one panelist said.

On Sex, STIs and HIV

One young woman advocated for abstinence, no matter how girls might want boys to feel about them.  “If you wanna be respected, no is the right answer,” she said.  “Boys are always gonna come at you… just say no.”

Another young woman said that, too often, the responsibility for making decisions related to contraception, protection and sex falls on the shoulders of girls.  “I believe it’s better to talk to both sides [about safe sex],” she said.  “Guys play a role in it, too!”

On Pregnancy and Sexuality

In Montgomery County between 2007 and 2010, the birthrate for girls was 40 per 1,000 for Latinas; 15 per 1,000 for African Americans; and 11 per 1,000 for whites.  One panelist worried that not enough young women have access to programs like Crittenton Services.  She believes that similar programs focused on support, enrichment and health would bring the teen pregnancy rate down.

The discussion on pregnancy led to one on sexuality, and the young women had some disheartening things to say about how they’re portrayed by the media, especially in songs and music videos.  “The music industry has a big impact on girls and their sexuality,” one panelist said.

She added: They treat women like sex objects – like we’re property.

The depth and breadth of this conversation are an indication that our community has a lot of work to do. It’s time for adults to learn what it’s like to be a teenager in 2012, and figure out how to support teens so that they can become successful leaders in the coming years.  According to Crittenton Services, we can all help by being “NICE” (Notice her. Interact. Connect. Every day.).

You can learn more about the Talk With a Teen Girl Today campaign by clicking here.

What did you think of the teens’ biggest concerns?  Were you surprised by any of the survey results?  If you’re a teen, what’s your biggest concern?  Let us know in the comments below!

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