by Helene Timpone, LCSW
We make the commonly stated truth of, “Teenage girls, today are different from when I grew-up.” This blueprint that has been acknowledged by each generation prior to the last, leaving within us an overwhelming feeling of helplessness. However, what we have recently learned about our teens and their hormones, particularly one called oxytocin, explains some of the difference as well as provides the evidence that we need to change the way in which we will parent, teach and work with our teen girls.
Oxytocin is a chemical produced by the hypothalamus within our brain. What is important to understand about this chemical is that it is a learned response, it defends against stress, assists in bonding and attachment, and creates the feeling of being calm. To illustrate just how powerful this chemical can be think of how you feel while you are having an orgasm, that is the power of oxytocin.
Today our tween girls begin their hormonal changes as early as age 9 opposed to age 16 two generations earlier. Her physical maturity now proceeds her emotional maturity. In an executive study done by The Girls Scout Assoc, called Girls Speak Out: Teens Before their time (2000) emphasized that girls in the 3rd and 4th grade are experiencing feelings powerlessness to boys touching them inappropriately, begin crushing on boys and compare their looks and dress to their peers. Louann Brisendine, MD, Author of The Female Brain explains that some of the driving force behind the above is the chemical changes happening within her brain. At the onset of her menstruation she will receive a new chemical called progesterone and combined with her now increasing estrogen levels she will produce higher levels of oxytocin. Oxytocin is also mother nature’s way of driving women into relationship for the benefit of reproduction.
There is some reprieve as Dr Brisendine further explains, that the intensity of her drive to be in relationship with boys is delayed until she is approximately 2 years into her menstruation. As this chemical change begins, we will see signs of a stronger drive to be in relationship. She begin to will place more importance on her friends, she will begin gossiping and head to the restroom with 3 of her friends.
What we need to understand, especially as the parent of a teen girl who has attachment challenges and past trauma is the danger behind the oxytocin boost. If I am not connected with my parents and I am biologically driven into relationship from my increase of oxytocin, I will find that relationship elsewhere. Susan Kuckinsas, the author of the chemistry of Connection drives this point home as she explains that when she has sex, a bond will be created due to the large amount of oxytocin excreted in the brain. The combination limited parental connection and sex with a partner, can lead her into a biologically driven relationship that she may believe is true love.
It is my belief that limited oxytocin production common in girls with traumatic histories and attachment challenges will explain many of the serious behaviors we are concerned with. This is again my opinion based on the experiences I have had in working with many challenging teen girls. Which are:
- At the onset of menstruation there is an escalation in physical aggression towards parents and relational or physical aggression towards peers. If my estrogen and progesterone amps up and I am unable to produce the oxytocin necessary to get back to calm, it makes sense for my level of reactivity to increase.
- The drive towards, what I call the “I’ll fix it Myself behaviors” such as, Lying, self-mutilation, stealing, violence, bulimic tendencies and starvation. All of these behaviors will release endorphins, the body’s natural opiate. Perhaps, this is the subconscious compensation for my limited oxytocin release.
- **Most important, My friend and colleague, Bryan Post, taught me the following 2 rules when dealing with a tween or teen both of which drives all of my own decisions as a parent, the treatment I provide as a professional and has NEVER failed:
- When they become teens we only have the ability to influence them. If we try to control we lose our relationship (oxytocin) with them and the ability to influence. So the next time her behaviors undesirable, create some time-in and avoid sending her to her room.
- In creating rules and limits, don’t explain the “why or say because I said so”. Let her know “this is the best I know how to do as your parent or ……. to keep you safe” This really isw the one thing they cannot argue.
- Gwen Light states that a 20 second hug can create biological comfort. It meets the drive for connection that oxytocin creates.
- FOR MOM: find the time to fall in love with her again, just as she was that precious little baby you could hold in your arms, for the first time or all over again. Always speak to her honorable self even if you forgot it exists.
- FOR DAD: Your relationship with your daughter is the foundation for her future intimate relationships. What you show her in your ability to be intimate with her will determine who she will choose as a life partner.
Furthermore, I believe, these findings to contribute the outcomes of studies such as the one put out by Margret Blythe, MD with Indiana University Medical Center. In Interviewing teen girls ages 14-17 and asking questions such as “Would he break up with you if you didn’t act as if you would have sex with him?” and “would he get mad if he found out you didn’t want to have sex”. Of the 279 teens 40.9 percent reported having unwanted sex at least once. Of them 10% reported being forced, 37.6% reported having unwanted sex form fear that their partner would get mad. Unwanted sex was more likely to occur in long-term relationships.
In conclusion, as our future generations of daughters grow into their tween and teen years we will often allow them more freedoms and independence with each year. This comes as a result of our judgment that they can handle more responsibility and perhaps, sometimes motivated by the sting we feel as they slam a door in our face to fulfill their developmental need to assert their independence. Regardless of reason, the compounding evidence dictates the need to bring our tweens and teens closer. Here are a few things we can do to keep our teens more connected:
Helene is an internationally recognized, therapist, lecturer, and coach, specializing in tween & teen girls. You can contact her by Email: firstname.lastname@example.org