A Letter to My Teenage Daughter
My love, I am writing because you are on your way to becoming a woman. It is my job, as your mother, to teach you some of the life lessons you may need when you are out in the world. A woman of any age can be victimized, but you are at an especially vulnerable time of life when an adult could take advantage of some of the issues that every adolescent girl has to face. Knowing what those issues are may help you to protect yourself better.
In an all-encompassing way, you have to separate from your father and me. First, you have to discover and assert your own set of values, which may be different from ours. You will want to begin to experience adults as fallible human beings who are equals. You will dislike pretense and condescension in adults, welcoming those who are friendly and treat you as if you were grown. In that way, you will be more susceptible to an authority figure who confides in you, who asks you to call him/her by a first name, who asks about your life, who tears down hierarchical barriers. Although some of the teachers, coaches, and clergy who become students’ friends are gifted teachers and are loving people, others may use your desire for equality as a way to exploit you, promising to view you as a grown-up but really using you to satisfy their own needs.
Second, part of separating is discovering that there are people outside the family who can care about you, that you are a worthwhile person in your own right. You will have to test your competence, your ability to manage finances, to get a driver’s license, to do your schoolwork on time. You will practice handling responsibilities and will want people to admire your achievements. This is another area in which a dishonest person may exploit your natural desire to succeed on your own. Flattery works best in situations where a person has not yet completely mastered a skill and is insecure, and that state characterizes adolescence.
In addition, your hormones are going wild at this age. You will want to discover if and how to be a sexual person. Normally, you should be able to flirt safely with an adult, tease and play with your father or uncle, and know that nothing bad will happen, that you will eventually meet a partner of roughly your own age with whom you can learn about your own sexuality. This time of play and experimentation leaves you vulnerable, again, to flattery, to a bad person who says, “You are beautiful and sexual. I prefer you to other women.” Because all girls are uncertain at your age about their sexual desirability, that person can lure you into doing things you might otherwise not do. And because status and reputation are so vital in adolescent groups, the prospect of being the chosen one is especially alluring. It is easy to feel triumphant at having captured the attention of the coach, as though it is proof that you are more desirable than your friends.
Another key question you will need to address is how to have power in the world. You have to discover a way to be independent and leave home without hurting your parents too much, and that transition requires both strength and gentleness. Unfortunately, predatory people often enjoy feisty kids, since they get pleasure from their own exercise of power over you. Your spunk and energy can be alluring to a bad person who feeds on your normal rebellious spirit to feel stronger him- or her-self. Also, you will be practicing compassion and learning empathy, and predators can capitalize on your urge to be kind and caretaking.
Then how do you tell a good adult from a bad one? There are so many areas of vulnerability that all adolescents have to deal with to come out the other side into adulthood. How do you stay safe?
You have had the experience, in your theatre teacher, of the way an adult should behave. The students called him by his first name, you knew the details of his life, and he was involved in helping students with problems at school and at home. He was beloved for his caring and sense of humor. However, he was clearly in charge, had an appropriate reserve about his own personal problems, and was always respectful of students’ privacy. His integrity was clear. There was never an intimation of his using students to help him with his own life, never an inappropriate touch. Boundaries were established and maintained; it was clear that he enjoyed the students but was always the adult. Sexual or physical contact with students was never an option, except for the warm, congratulatory hug after a good performance.
Any adult who touches you in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable, or asks you to help with a personal problem, or singles you out for special flattery or praise should make you consult with a trusted adult. You should never, ever be asked by an adult to keep secret the fact of his or her contact with you. Openness is key in avoiding exploitation. Most important, you must trust your own feelings that some behavior is “not right,” and then take some action to distance yourself from that behavior.
It is also important that you know that you WILL make mistakes as part of learning. When you do, you need to practice compassion towards yourself, knowing that no one can be omnipotent or omniscient, that we all have regrets in our histories. The achievement of strength and compassion is a lifelong task. Stay as safe as you can without sacrificing your wonderfully adventurous spirit.
Susan Kerman, M.D.
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