Mitigating Factors to the Loss of Self-Esteem

Although research paints a rather bleak picture of the adolescent years for young women, it should be noted that there seem to be mitigating factors to this loss of self-esteem. In research done by Michael Resnick, Director of Research at the University of Minnesota Adolescent Health Program, four factors have been identified as key for an adolescent to weather attacks on self-esteem (Flansburg 1991, p. 4). While they apply to all adolescents, they have particular implications for young women when taken with other information known about the female developmental process. Therefore, it becomes the responsibility of the juvenile justice system to build these issues into its established treatment programs for young women.

The first key factor is a connection to at least one adult in a nonexploitive relationship (Flansburg 1991, p. 4). It has been said that relationships are the glue that hold young women's lives together. As Jean Baker Miller explains,

"We all begin life deeply attached to the people around us. Men, or boys, are encourages to move out of this state . . . in which they and their fate are intimately intertwined in the lives and fates of other people. Boys are rewarded for developing other aspects of themselves . . . [that] begin to displace some of the importance of affiliations. There is no question that women develop and change too. In an inner way, however, the development does not displace the value accorded attachments to others. The suggestion is that the parameters of the female's development are not the same as the male's and that the same terms do not apply" (1976, p. 86).

The implication of Baker Miller's statement is that the importance young women place on their relationships often means that service providers have to redefine their basic models of treatment. While it is in the context of a relationship with an adult treatment provider that many young women begin their process of healing and make necessary behavioral changes, the juvenile justice system has historically down-played the role of the adult treatment provider while encouraging the use of peer-based methodologies (Maniglia 1996, p. 98; Maniglia and Albrecht 1995). This critical role for the adult significantly alters the role that staff will play in juvenile justice programs, because in order to build professional, yet personal, relationships with young women, staff need to be open to ongoing dialogue (Maniglia and Albrecht 1995).

A young woman's need for positive relationships also affects her very sense of justice. Typically, young women will place their relationships with others above abstract rules or regulations under which they may find themselves (Gilligan 1982, p. 73). For instance, a young woman on probation will often violate a rule about curfew because she is "needed" or even wanted by a friend, a parent, her child, or a boyfriend. In her mind, she is simply weighing the overall value of a relationship versus an abstract rule placed on her by someone else. When her probation officer responds with questions and concerns about "breaking the rules" and "suffering the consequences," what he or she may not realize is that it is rule and regulation language they are using. This type of dialogue can mean very little to a young woman who feels she has made the correct choice by valuing and, therefore, being loyal to the relationship. It is only when the probation officer or another key treatment provider has a relationship with the young woman and speaks in a language that reflects this relationship -- "I know it isn't easy to see that curfew is important, but I have confidence in your ability to make good choices. I am depending on you and have told others I believe you can do this" -- that the choice the girl is faced with becomes more difficult as she is forced to balance one relationship against another (Maniglia 1996, p. 98; Maniglia and Albrecht 1995).

Finally, the role relationships play in the lives of young women means that service providers must reevaluate what is meant by achieving self-sufficiency and independence. Because of the role relationships play in their lives, young women often see achievement and independence as being synonymous with isolation. Many young women know firsthand that accomplishment in school and in a program often mean jealousy from one's peer or cultural group, and this envy can result in separation and isolation. Furthermore, especially in juvenile justice, the goal of program accomplishment is appropriate social behavior and a healthy dose of self-sufficiency.

The second mitigating factor identified by Resnick is achieving a certain measure of school success (Flansburg 1991, p. 4). For young women this means confronting the environment of gender bias that still exists in many public schools today. It also means being willing to modify traditional juvenile justice school programs to reflect the specific needs of young women. Young women need to see themselves reflected in the materials they study, and in classroom discussions. They need to be encouraged to pursue nontraditional subject matters such as, math, science, and engineering, and need to be allowed to do so in an atmosphere of respect (AAUW 1992; Sadker and Sadker 1994). Classroom teachers and others need to make sure that classroom techniques and teaching methodologies reflect what is known about the relational, in-context learning styles of young women (Belenky et al. 1986). Finally, attention needs to be paid to creating an atmosphere free of sexual bantering and harassment where clear policies exist and enforcement is consistent (AAUW 1993).

Resnick identifies having a personal form of spiritual connectedness as the third mitigating factor (Flansburg 1991, p. 4). Young women need to be involved spiritually, either through contact with organized religion or through other activities that encourage them to develop spiritually. Specifically, for young women placed away from their families and those in long-term secure placements, practitioners need to discover ways to encourage this spiritual connectedness through formal and informal programming. For example, formal programming would allow young women opportunities to participate in worship services of their choice while informal programming would provide alternative forms of spirituality such as gardening, keeping a journal, or meditating (Maniglia and Albrecht 1995).

Finally, the fourth mitigating factor identified by Resnick is living in a family environment where there are low levels of family stress (Flansburg 1991, p. 4). Although this is not usually possible for the young women who come to the attention of the juvenile justice system, it does stress the importance of programming that works with the entire family and not just the individual offender.

In order to incorporate the four mitigating factors mentioned above into juvenile justice treatment programming, it is critical that practitioners educate themselves on the special implications these issues have for young women. Strategies to consider are the following:

  • An effort should be made to design case management and probation systems so that one practitioner can be responsible for one young woman for long periods of time. This will increase the chances of the young woman forming a meaningful relationship with her treatment provider and thus achieving a greater degree of success in the program.

  • When assigning mentors or key treatment staff in residential settings, it is critical that there exist enough flexibility to allow for the formation of meaningful relationships. In other words, young women need a variety of staff options so that they can identify staff with whom they can bond, both personally and culturally.

  • Whenever possible, programming needs to include the family, so that these critical relationships can be part of the treatment process rather than happening peripherally to it. Special attention should be paid to the dynamics of the mother-daughter relationship.

  • Juvenile justice practitioners serving young women who are enrolled in public or alternative schools need to function as advocates for these young women within the school system, particularly around issues of gender bias and appropriate teaching methodologies. Practitioners who operate their own school environments must strive to make these environments as gender fair as possible. (See the resource section in the appendixes for suggested resources.)

  • Practitioners need to create varied opportunities for spiritual connectedness for young women. These might include gardening activities, scheduled times for quiet reflection, keeping a journal, art therapy, daily sessions where young women can discuss their feelings, fears or hopes, and so forth.

Juvenile Female Offenders: A Status of the States Report October 1998