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How to Help Teenage Girls Who Are Being Abused at Home

helping oppressed girls overcome abuse

One of the things that frustrates me the most about social work is all the theories and discussions. That’s why I love Cheryl Strayed’s advice – it’s practical and do-able.

It’s not easy to help girls and teenagers who are experiencing abuse or oppression at home, but it is possible if you recognize the power you have.

You may have a lot less power than you’d like, but you may have more power than you know.

Here’s an excerpt of an “anti-oppressive practice” paper I’m writing for one of my social work classes. My job is to write about a Critical Incident that changed how I practice social work. I can’t share what or who I wrote about because I want to protect their privacy, but it doesn’t matter.

You’ll still get an idea how to help teenage girls who are being abused at home from this excerpt:

Helping Girls Who Are Abused or Oppressed

In Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar, Chery Strayed describes her job as a youth advocate for teenage girls. She worked with abused, neglected girls; her job was to help them not get pregnant, not get locked up before they graduate, and secure a job at Taco Bell or WalMart.

Strayed is also the author of Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. It’s her bestselling account of hiking the PCT by herself, and her internal and external struggles. My book club loved it, but I didn’t get a chance to read it. There are 200 holds on the library’s copy, and I’m too frugal to buy a book without knowing if I’ll like it. Plus I’m running out of space on my bookshelf.

Anyway — in Tiny Beautiful Things, Strayed described the “ghastly, horrible, shocking, sad, merciless things” her girls repeatedly experienced. One girl’s grandpa molested her every weekend. Another girl’s mom’s boyfriend held her face under ice-cold running water outside in the back yard in November, and locked her out of the house for hours. Yet another teenage girl slept outside in a falling-down woodshed in the alley while her mother got drunk and raged all night long.

“I called the state’s Child Protection Services every day, and no one did one thing,” writes Strayed. “Not one person. Not one thing. Ever.”

So, Strayed tried something different:

“I told her it was not okay, that it was unacceptable, that it was illegal and that I would call and report this latest horrible thing. But I did not tell her it would stop. I did not promise that anyone would intervene. I told her it would likely go on and she’d have to survive it. That she’d have to find a way within herself to not only escape the shit, but to transcend it, and if she wasn’t able to do that, then her whole life would be shit, forever and ever and ever. I told her that escaping the shit would be hard, but that if she wanted to not make her mother’s life her destiny, she had to be the one to make it happen. She had to do more than hold on. She had to reach. She had to want it more than she’d ever wanted anything. She had to grab like a drowning girl for every good thing that came her way and she had to swim like fuck away from every bad thing.”

Instead of getting the girls out of their horrible situations, Strayed realized it would be more effective and productive to try to teach the girls resilience. She stopped trying to change the system, stop calling Child Protective Services, stop fighting what could not be changed. She started trying to help the girls build internal resources so they could survive their lives.

And, remember that foster care is a solution for girls being abused or oppressed at home – but it’s still a rough row to hoe. Help for Foster Kids – 6 Ways to Overcome Shame and Powerlessness.

Feminist Theories – A Framework for Anti-Oppressive Practice

There are lots of theories that attempt to explain what oppressed girls and women face, and how to fight oppression. But radical feminism – fighting the structures that maintain the oppression of women – didn’t help Strayed help her teens, and it won’t help me help LS. How about Marxist-feminism? It sees the family as a microcosm of wider society, in which women are the exploited and men the exploiters (Thompson, 2012). It fits, but it links personal oppression at home with capitalism and the economy. That is its weakness because non-capitalist societies also see men dominating women. Postmodernist feminism argues that gender identities are social, not biological. That’s true. Gendered power dynamics are socially constructed.

The aim of social work intervention is empowerment, not adjustment (Thompson, 2012). He writes, “The social work task should not be to help women to adjust to their ‘rightful’ place in the family, but rather to assist them in gaining the power to overcome or challenge the oppression they experience. The personal is, after all, political,” (Thompson, p 73).

The problem with this statement is that sometimes adjustment is all we have. Sometimes we don’t have power to challenge oppressive structures and make the changes we want to see in our personal and political worlds. I suppose one could argue that finding ways to survive shitty situations that can’t be changed is “empowering”…but I see it as adjusting.

Sometimes all we can do is adjust to the physical realities of our lives while preparing our brains, heart, soul, and feet for the future. That is how we can help girls or teens who are being abused or oppressed at home. It doesn’t matter if this is called “adjusting” or “empowering” (in fact, I believe we hobble ourselves with endless theoretical arguments)…what matters is that girls feel heard, understood, accepted, and supported.

A New Way of Thinking About My Own Power

How did I survive foster homes, a schizophrenic mother, an absentee father, neglect, poverty, oppression and internalized oppression? Who knows for sure – probably a combination of genetics, personality, good luck, God, speckles of encouragement here and there. My dad is Jewish; maybe I’m blessed with “historical strength” (maybe my not-so-distant ancestors survived the Holocaust and concentration camps, and survival and courage is in my genes!).

One of the things I know empowered me was my own Big Sister. When I was 10 – LS’s age – I was matched with Ilone through Big Sisters Saskatoon for less than a year. Our match ended when my mom moved us to another city. Our relationship is still alive, though – Ilone found me on Facebook about five years ago. She lives in Toronto, and we see each other about once a year.

My Big Sister didn’t change my family dynamics, tell me about oppression and power, or teach my mother parenting skills. She simply showed up every week, listened to me, and cared about me. She changed my life, even though she didn’t try to change “the system” or empower anyone.

I can’t protect girls who are being abused or oppressed from their families or lives. I can’t save them from oppression or abuse or male dominance. But I can show up. I can say, “Sometimes life sucks, even in our own homes. Your brothers and dad are not treating you or your mom right, and you both deserve better. But you have to fight for what you deserve, even though it’s not fair. You have the power and strength to transcend the dirt people try to shovel on you. You are smart, courageous, strong, and healthy – and you have what it takes to be what you want and do what you want with your life.”

Maybe all I need to do is be myself and speak my truth to my family, friends, clients, fellow students, acquaintances. Maybe my assumption that I am helpless and powerless is wrong. Maybe I’m more powerful than I know – and that knowledge alone can empower those around me.


What do you think? How do you help someone who is being abused?

If a sister, daughter, or friend is being abused, read 5 Ways to Help a Friend Get Out of a Bad Relationship.

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