What Today’s Teen Girls Need to Hear From Their Parents
In the 1990s, 'Reviving Ophelia' created a roadmap for raising teenage girls. A new edition of the book offers new paths forward for a new era.
Twenty-five years ago Dr. Mary Pipher’s seminal book Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Our Adolescent Girls was released. The book, which was built on Pipher’s own experiences being a family and child therapist, explores the difficulty of growing into adolescence as a girl, and it was a revelation for parents of the mid-’90s who were wondering where their happy teen girl went the minute she hit puberty. The book offered adults insight into a world that was otherwise closed to them: the emotional lives of their own teenage daughters. Pipher presented problems and solutions around teenage girlhood and reminded readers that the best parent is the one who helps their teenage daughters be their authentic selves. The book has never gone out of print.
A lot has changed in the past quarter-century, which compelled Dr. Pipher and her daughter, Sara Gilliam, to write a new edition of the book, which they updated to include more information about anxiety and about technology — particularly social media and smartphones — and how it shapes teenage girlhood. Fatherly spoke to Pipher and Gilliam about the state of teenage girls in America and how parents can help them be their best selves.
What compelled you to revisit Reviving Ophelia now?
Sara: The Columbine shooting happened in ’99, and launched this era that we live in now where school shootings are a commonplace occurrence. The original book was written before 9/11, before the average American had really heard of Al Qaeda or ISIS, or really put much thought into global terrorism. It came out before there was a really deep and broad understanding of global climate change. The biggest issue, of course, is social media and the advent of smartphones and iPads — the entire online world that teenagers in particular occupy. So, while the book really remained quite relevant and it’s never been out of print in 25 years, it was important to us for it to live on for 25 more years, and feel relevant to a new generation of mothers, daughters, teachers, and therapists.
So global terrorism, social media, climate change, school shootings. Those are all profound cultural shifts that took place after 1994. What else is new in the book?
S: There wasn’t a chapter on anxiety in the original version of Reviving Ophelia. And we’re seeing that it’s a fairly epidemic problem today with adolescent girls. And social media affects every aspect of a girl’s development. Physical, social, emotional, moral development. We wanted to deep dive into that.
Mary: This generation is the first generation of digital natives. Our culture really is an experiment. We don’t know what kind of humans we will produce. One of the things that struck me was that therapists said that they are seeing the deepest levels of loneliness they’ve ever seen. Instead of girls having time alone to think and reflect and develop a sense of self, and then, develop a sense of self in real relationships, face-to-face, through conversation, instead, what’s happening is all the energy of girls of this generation tends to go into creating a virtual persona. That’s basically an advertisement for the self. If that persona becomes more attractive and more interesting and more popular and happier than the real girl, that true self inside, that true self really withers away.
One of the issues with girls is that their identities tend to be really shallow and reactive to whatever the next instant message is.
It is clear though, that in the mid-’90s, you were also seeing that girls’ personalities were shallow and reactive. You said that yourself. So is this part of being an adolescent, being shallow and reactive, just worsened by social media, then?
M: Absolutely. Women have always had trouble developing an authentic self. That’s historically been a long-term problem, and it has to do with misogyny. The fact that women tend to be the object of another’s gaze versus the subject of their own lives, is, of course, a long battle.
But, what happens with the internet is that there’s so much focus on looking good and presenting a persona that is attractive and personable, that the real girl is not actually building a true sense of self with a sense of efficacy and confidence. The skills and abilities to navigate the real world.
One of the recommendations in the book is the idea that it’s really good to actually have young women together, talking to each other. It’s good to have situations such as part-time work, where the girls are out actually interacting with the public and learning how to deal with all kinds of people. The world of work, as you know, is a place where you learn a lot. You learn a lot about yourself and about the world and about other people.
So, what’s the best way to parent a teenage daughter?
M: The answer, of course, is that it depends. As I see it, the responsibility of good parents is to protect their children from what’s noxious in the culture, and to connect their children with what’s good and beautiful in the culture. A good parent is focused on both of those things. For example, a good parent isn’t letting their children watch brutal television shows when they’re young, and on the other hand, they’re taking them to the library and on nature walks. With teenagers, it’s a little different, but a good parent works very hard at that point to have the teenager connected with real people. One of the most important things right now is just finding ways to nudge this age group out into the world, and to take a few chances.
What’s the biggest difference between your generation, Sara’s generation, and teenagers today?
My generation, I would say, was pretty confident. We came of age in ’65. I went off to Berkeley. We thought we could change the world. We were pretty confident about that — we worked in high school and grew up at a time when we were out and navigating the world on our own as children.
And then, Sara’s generation, which is born in ’77, I would describe as a rebellious generation. There was a lot of at-risk behavior.
This generation is very cautious. One of the goals of parents is to nudge this generation to take risks, and then make sure those risks are calibrated to the point where girls can have successful experiences with them. Because if they’re too risky, they’re overwhelmed and will withdraw to the safety at home. One of the big differences is that this generation of girls has never not been able to text their parents when they were in trouble. That’s not something Sara had or I had.
S: What the family looks like today is actually quite different than in 1994, when the original Reviving Ophelia came out. Divorce rates are at a 40-year-low, so there are significantly fewer families where the parents are divorced. Fathers are much more engaged and are spending a lot more quality time with their children than in past generations. One of our biggest and most pleasant surprises in our research is that mother-and-daughter relationships are much stronger now than they were. The ’80s and ’90s were the zenith of the term “dysfunctional family.” Therapists and popular culture were blaming families, and blaming moms for their children’s problems, moms were shrill and shrewish and nags and all these things.
Today, there’s a lot less conflict reported by girls, between mothers and daughters. Middle school definitely continues to be the toughest era for that — there is still some conflict for that and it is, frankly, developmentally appropriate. But by high school, the girls that we talked to are saying, “I love my mom, she’s my best friend; I feel like I can tell her about my personal life.” The mothers that we talked to are very dialed in to their daughters’ happiness and mental health. They don’t always know how to support their daughters. They sometimes feel like they are flying blind in our current culture and in this online world. But, they are very invested in having a close and confidante kind of relationship with their daughters.
So is a 13-year-old girl today worse-off than a 13-year-old in the ’60s or the ’90s?
S: I think it’s different and it’s complicated. We’ve seen a lot of positive changes. Gay marriage is legal, divorce rates are low, we’ve seen a rise in youth activism. Sexual violence has diminished, although the numbers are still nothing to write home about. Violent crime has come down. A lot of the behaviors that girls were in trouble with in the ’90s — binge drinking, drug use, running away from home — there’s been a significant decline in a lot of those things. In that sense, and with the strengthening of the family unit, I think you can make an argument that a lot of things have improved.
M: It depends on which way you look at it. I agree with Sara, but I also think that we’re creating a new kind of human being, of digital natives. We already know that teenage girls aren’t out in the world as much, navigating the world on their own. They are less likely to get driver’s licenses, to see their friends, even in school, at one time, the halls of the school between classes were so loud you could hardly hear. Now the halls in schools where phones are allowed, there’s no talking in the halls between classes. Everyone is looking at their phone. So things are very different in that sense.
I think that there’s a loneliness. When you think about it, for almost the entire history, going back to hominids, people interacted with other people. They shared words, stories, meals. They traveled together, joked together. Everybody learned the tasks required to survive.
Now, girls sleep with their phones, and they look at them first thing in the morning. And some girls are up in the night looking at their phones. So there’s a sense in which they’re never alone — but there’s also a sense in which they are never together. Because they rarely sit down without devices, having a conversation. That’s just a new kind of person. We really don’t make judgments about that. We just said: Here are some of the strengths and vulnerabilities of girls in this generation.
When you were doing the research for this edition, was there anything that really surprised you that you found?
S: Rising rates of anxiety in adolescence, we, to a point, anticipated. We asked our focus groups, “Are you anxious about school shootings?” And when we got to that question, every single girl raised their hand. In fact, it’s not a minor anxiety. This is the Lockdown Generation. They’ve been doing active shooter drills since elementary school. And, you know, again, as Mary was saying this is all sort of an experiment. What we’re doing, what our culture looks like now, we have no idea how that’s going to play out. What does it do to a young person to have their entire school experience full of active shooter drills and conversations about safety? The girls we talked to knew all of their school’s vulnerabilities. They knew which door didn’t have a guard. Which door was unlocked in the afternoons. The amount of mental space and energy that that fear of violence, of violence in the schools, occupied in these girls’ minds, was very surprising and staggering to us. That was one of the biggest surprises, in the research.
M: We were impressed by youth activism. There’s a real interest in changing the world right now. That’s one great, positive thing to see right now. Another thing that was very surprising to me — less so to Sara, I think — is that there’s so much gender fluidity. I was raised to see sexuality, like everyone in my generation, as binary. This generation does not think in binary terms. Even the most Christian, small-town girls we interviewed do not think of sexuality in binary terms.
S: There’s been a cultural broadening of minds. The adolescents are talking about race, the environment, gender, and sexuality. When I was a high school student in the early ’90s, we formed the earliest iteration of a gay-straight-alliance. In my school of 2,500 students, there were maybe five or six “out” gay kids. And I had never heard the word transgender. So if you compare that to this current generation, I feel a lot of hope, because of the openness and flexibility that just seems to be part and parcel of today’s teenagers. It’s not even a unique facet — it’s just who they are.
We bash on social media a lot because there are a lot of significant problems and drawbacks that come with it, but something amazing that has come with social media, is activism. We have the strong sense that adolescents today are angry at adults, are frustrated and don’t feel like policymakers and politicians speak for them, and for their values. They feel empowered to do something about it. Of course, the most high-profile examples would be some of the Parkland students in the March for Our Lives movement.
M: Does what we are saying fit your own experience, too?
I think it’s complicated being a teenager — but it probably always was, I guess. It’s just that the ways that it is complicated will always be different for every generation.
S: You really touched on what I would say is the core theme of this book. The needs of adolescent girls have not changed across time, but the culture has changed. So, with each generation, we would argue that there need to be new discussions and approaches to supporting adolescent girls, because our culture is changing so quickly.
Did you think at all about the way college pressures have changed for American teenage girls? I imagine that the college admissions process was way different in 1994, even than it is today.
M: The American College Health Association reported that 62 percent of young women are reporting anxiety and panic attacks in college freshman year. Part of that has to do with not having had the experience of taking care of themselves when they were younger. For the first time in their lives, they are in a situation where they are making decisions on their own and having to do some navigating and problem-solving without a parent to help them.
But I think also, it definitely has to do with college stress. Getting in [to college], academic stress, and financial stress. You know, everybody is very focused right now on: “How can I make a living in America?” Housing aside, there are a lot of people with degrees in English that are working as baristas. Teens feel, “I need to get in a good career; borrow money; and get a job that allows me to pay back my loans.” In the ’90s, when Reviving was written, it was a very prosperous era. There wasn’t nearly this level of financial or academic stress that there is now.
We tell teenagers that ‘this is it’ — and they work toward this one goal, that they can have a launching pad to the rest of their careers, and getting into college is an extremely high bar to clear. I think I’m most worried about that: How do teenagers cope when their plans don’t pan out?
S: You’re very perceptive. When we did our focus groups, we spent a huge amount of time talking about academics and academic pressure. There are weighted grades, AP, and differentiated or IB programs. They’re doing four and five hours of homework a night. When I think back to being a student, I was a good student. I did homework. I did theatre, and I did environmental club, and I spent a lot of time with my friends. Being social was probably my number one priority. For a lot of the girls that we talked to, they are eyes-on-the-prize focused on getting into the right college.
What can parents take away from this book? What can they do to support their teenage daughters?
S: I think it’s really important that parents demystify themselves around social media and the online world. If they have a 14-year-old girl, they need to sit with their daughter and say, “Show me what you’re doing when you’re looking at your phone. Show me how Snapchat works.” That might be awkward at first. Kids might be reticent. But the more information parents have about what their children are up to, the more that can foster good conversations and critical thinking about what you’ve seen. Especially because we spend so much time talking about the harmful effects of social media, it’s really important that parents actually know what that term means, and what their children are exposed to.
M: The main thing I would go back to is that business of connecting. There are so many disconnections now if you’re online a lot — from the natural world; from your own body; from books, music, creativity. So I like anything that connects teenagers to real life. Not virtual life. Real life. For example, yoga classes are great. Meditation is great for developing a sense of self. Family reunions are great. I like the idea of making sure that girls are learning the living skills that they need to learn on their own. That’s just about teaching them basic things: cooking, gardening, driving, how to open a bank account.