I recently had the opportunity to interview Haley Kilpatrick, one of Glamour's "20 Amazing Young Women Who Are Already Changing the World," and the author of the new book, which she wrote with journalist Whitney Joiner, The Drama Years: Real Girls Talk About Surviving Middle School—Bullies, Brands, Body Image, and More (Free Press, 2012).
The book confronts head-on the anxieties many girls experience during middle school and offers advice for how adults can help "tween" girls navigate the "drama" of these years. Based in large part upon anecdotes and advice gleaned from interviews with middle and high school girls, The Drama Years shows respect for the girls' thoughts and opinions, which is really nice to see.
I interviewed Ms. Kilpatrick (who is just 26 years old) about her research and her thoughts on how girls can help themselves—and how teachers can help their students—during the emotional time that is adolescence.
Why did you decide to write The Drama Years?
After 10 years of running the Girl Talk program and traveling around the country speaking to groups of middle school girls, I can't tell you how many times a parent, teacher, coach, or counselor has asked for Girl Talk's help. Parents, especially, constantly come to us, saying: "We don't know what to do or say about situation X, Y, or Z—How can we help our girl get through this?"
That's why I wrote The Drama Years. I wanted to share what we've learned and to shed some light on these key years. After three years of research and more than 2,000 hours of interviews, we share the information you need to help the middle school girl in your life grow up healthy, happy, and whole. I wanted to create an accessible and comprehensive guide to the issues middle school girls face, filled with the voices of girls themselves.
What is Girl Talk, and how did it begin?
Girl Talk is a free national, nonprofit, peer-to-peer mentoring program in which high school girls mentor middle school girls, advising and inspiring them from a "just-been-there" perspective. I started Girl Talk in 2002, and in 10 years we've grown to reach more than 40,000 girls in 43 states and seven countries.
I was 15 years old when I started Girl Talk and that was the same year my younger sister, Kelly, started middle school. Middle school was a very hard time for me. I knew that there had to be a way to prevent her from going through the same things I did. I told my favorite teacher that I was frustrated by the way girls were treating each other in middle school and that I had this idea for a program that could help. The idea was to have high school girls be there for middle school girls and tell them that they are not alone by simply talking and participating in community service projects together. I expected five or six girls to show up to the first meeting and to my surprise 80 percent of the middle school girls came. Girl Talk has been growing ever since.
While in college, I worked tirelessly to be sure that it was available to any high school girl who wanted to bring the program to her school. Thanks to creative fundraising, a few key Atlanta businesses, and a lot of in-kind support, Girl Talk was able to grow like wildfire. After graduating college in 2007, I was able to step in and give it my all—full time! It is truly an honor and a dream come true to call this my job.
A few Girl Talk statistics that I am proud of:
• Girl Talk girls and leaders have completed more than 312,000 hours of community service,
• One case study revealed that the girls who participated in Girl Talk showed an academic improvement of 14 percent in math and 24 percent in language arts/English,
• 83 percent of Girl Talk girls (middle school girls) choose to be Girl Talk leaders in high school.
Based on all the research you've done for the book, and your experiences with Girl Talk, how do you think girls can help themselves navigate this time in their lives?
I feel it is most important to talk about what girls can do to help themselves and each other. There are three things girls can incorporate into their lives that don't require too much time or a lot of money, but they help with the challenges girls face. They help keep girls' minds off the drama and also serve a source of confidence and validation. Each of these is invaluable, but when they're used in tandem, they can be transformative:
• An Anchor Activity: This could be a sport, a musical instrument, theater, art classes, babysitting, a school club, environmental activism, etc. It just needs to be something she actively enjoys; that she can throw herself into and that fulfills her creatively, intellectually, and socially; and that takes place outside of school, so she can be free from its social pressures.
• A Helping Hand: A chance to be a part of something larger than herself, to connect to a larger world, to instill gratitude for what she has, and to allow her to see the reality of others' lives. This could be a weekly or monthly volunteer commitment, but the emotional gains that volunteering offers are so much deeper if it's a regular priority in her life—not just a one-time Saturday afternoon activity.
• An "Adopted" Older Sister: A positive role model your middle school girl can look up to. Someone who's recently been in your girl's shoes and can both relate to her, so she doesn't feel as alone, and advise her on how to handle whatever she's going through.
When each of these is a part of a girl's life, she has an outlet to keep her mind off the ups and downs of middle school; she has an opportunity to be of service, to give her perspective about what's really drama and what's not; and she has someone to decipher and decode her experiences, to let her know that she's not alone.
How about in school? What are the book's most salient takeaway points for teachers?
Middle school girls are truly in the middle, they have one foot in the kid world and one foot in the adult world. They still need teachers, but they also need space to start growing up.
We spent thousands of hours spent interviewing girls, and they repeatedly told us they crave teacher support. I know most experts would say communication is most important, and while I agree that it is beyond important, I want to tell teachers that the key thing you can give a middle school girl is your presence, being there both physically and emotionally. Show her that you are one of the few things in her life that is not changing.
Aside from instances of bullying, you do not want to step into her drama because you send a message that you are going to "save" her or that you believe she can't handle it on her own. If you can visualize a middle school girl walking a tightrope, you should be at the bottom cheering her on; if she falls into the net you want to encourage her to get back up and try again, but you can't walk that tightrope for her. The falling down and the getting back up helps her grow. Girls say they still need you as adults, but they also need to their space to grow.
Research has shown that the period between 6th and 8th grades is one of the most critical times in a young person's development: the decisions girls make during these years, and the paths they start to walk down, directly affect and inform who they will become. These are also the years in which peers replace parents and other adults as major influences. This means that it's crucial for parents and other adults who work with middle school girls to understand the situations that will inevitably arise in girls' lives, and to hear, direct from the source, how girls want the adults around them to handle these changes.