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Featured Team Members: Kirsten Bolt, M.Ed., LMFT

Throughout my experience of working with adolescent girls and boys in wilderness therapy, one theme emerges clearly and repeatedly: girls are so much more complicated! Girls typically communicate and express their emotions, thoughts, wants, and needs in seemingly more layered and complex ways than boys. A simple Google search about differences between men and women will generate countless funny memes, male vs. female jokes, articles about how men are simple and women are complex, etc. While boys typically tell you how they feel and what they want, girls…well, it’s not always that straightforward.

There are fundamental and significant neurological differences in the male and female brains that account for these generalizations. First, the female brain is wired for connection more than the male brain. The right and left hemispheres are more highly interconnected in females, in contrast to the fewer and more forward-to-backward connections in the male brain. In addition, the female brain typically has a larger limbic system making emotional identification and expression more readily accessible in females, and helping them process their experiences at greater depth.

These findings beg the question: If females are stronger emotionally and more connected overall, why can it be so difficult to understand what they think, feel, want, and need? That is a much larger question for another article! It should also be stated that I work with girls who are in wilderness therapy and experiencing emotional struggles, many of whom also have emerging personality disorder issues. Therefore, my anecdotal “research” is perhaps not generalizable to all females. However, I will describe how I commonly train field guides and coach parents to understand what their adolescent girls are trying to communicate. I conceptualize it in four layers:

  • What she shows you in her behavior (words, actions, non-actions)
  • What she wants you to see in her behavior
  • What she wants you to do in response
  • What she needs you to do in response

I offer this framework both with humor and sincerity in trying to unravel the layers of what a girl might be trying to communicate. Let’s explore a few examples using the above guidelines.

Often, girls communicate through their actions (e.g., silent treatment, snide comments or looks, or even self-harm): that is the first layer. The second layer often includes the emotion she is trying to convey, such as: “I’m upset with the consequence you just implemented,” “I’m hurt that you didn’t spend as much time with me,” or, “I feel powerless that I don’t get to make important decisions in my life.” Typically, there is another message embedded in the third layer: “I want you to change your mind and not give me this consequence,” “I want you to spend more time with me,” or “I want you to convince my parents to let me come home soon.” Sometimes that third layer aligns with what these girls need, and often it does not. On the fourth layer, what these girls actually need might be for you to: uphold the consequence because there is an important lesson in it for her; not spend more time with her because she actually needs to be more independent and self-validating; or keep her in the wilderness for as long as it takes to do the work here.

I worked with a girl once who communicated how she felt in very destructive ways. She struggled with self-confidence and with social acceptance, and she communicated as follows:

  • She showed apathy, disinterest, disrespect, and even hostility toward peers.
  • She wanted people to see she was scary and intimidating.
  • She tried to scare people off because she believed she would not be accepted, and she wanted to avoid the pain of rejection.
  • She actually needed acceptance, patience, and kindness from others to break her pattern so that others were able to accept her.

Another common experience: I work with many girls who self-harm and/or have disordered eating. Sometimes the girls act out in those ways to communicate that they need a “safety watch” or “eating watch” (which provides more supervision, structure, and emotional and physical containment). Sometimes, they will also tell me they want to get off the watch, but then follow it up by saying they don’t trust themselves and should probably stay on it. Ultimately that tells me that they need more containment and oversight. The layers might be:

  • Scratching her skin with a fingernail in a place that others will see it and ask about it
  • “I am going to hurt myself if you don’t pay attention because I am overwhelmed.”
  • “I want you to put me on a safety watch …”
  • “… because I need support and connection with others to avoid feeling such shame.”

It can get even more complicated with certain girls – typically highly intelligent girls who can see several steps ahead or girls who will try to get us to focus on a non-issue that looks like a serious issue to distract from and avoid the more serious underlying issues.

In closing, my experience working with girls has led me to develop ways to help field guides, parents, and the girls understand how and what they communicate. In no way do I suggest the above guidelines generalize to every female – nor am I saying that they do not apply to any male. We all know humans are much more complex. The above concepts are simply my anecdotal reflections and musings on why it can be so confusing to relate with our complicated girls!

March 3rd, 2017

Kirsten Bolt, MEd, LMFT | Assistant Clinical Director and Senior Clinical Therapist | Adolescent Girls