Lifestyle

Teen Talking Circles: deepest fears, dearest hopes

By JULIA RINGO

For the Review

Many adults may picture teenage girls as the least likely group of individuals to open up to their peers, cross social boundaries in search of friendship and support, and share intimate secrets with virtual strangers.

Linda Wolf of Bainbridge Island has proven them wrong.

Wolf is the founder and executive director of Teen Talking Circles, a nonprofit organization dedicated to facilitating healthy discussion between teens that she believes helps them form the basis for better relationships in the future.

Though in the era of “Mean Girls” and popular television shows dramatizing teen relationships there may be an image of gossiping, backstabbing teenagers, Wolf believes that TTC has developed from a strong historical precedent.

“It’s been discovered through archaeological findings that there was a time when God was considered a woman, because of our ability to give birth,” she said. “That shifted when the warring invaders from the north came down into the gentle, fertile crescent and started a whole different paradigm. We’ve been living through that dominator paradigm for a long time – the earth to be dominated, the animals to be dominated. These are all speculations and theories that come from research in reevaluating what life has been like for men and women.”

In the process of reevaluating the relationship between the sexes, Wolf said, today “we’re always shifting our perspectives on gender. Every movement has been toward this shift.”

Wolf established the first girls’ group of Teen Talking Circles to provide a comfortable space for her daughters and other high school girls to share their thoughts in a safe environment.

The “talking circles” are, quite simply, weekly meetings of teens – either male or female, but usually segregated by gender. During the course of these meetings, they discuss their lives, problems, joys and hopes. Sometimes they focus on a specific topic, such as body image or self-esteem. Regional groups also meet periodically for “gender talks,” during which young men and women alike respond to questions posed by one another – sometimes as a full group, or beginning separately but gradually melding together.

Under Wolf’s guidance, the circles have flourished on the island for 16 years. This year, the guys’ group restarted after a hiatus, and two girls’ groups, each with seven or eight members, meet regularly. Though a few Bainbridge High School students are aware of the groups’ meetings, one member of an island group, Eliza, 16, said she thinks “everyone should come.”

Other members of Eliza’s group agree that the meetings offer something they can’t find among friends or family members: “In any group of friends, there are expectations,” said Melanie, 17. “You have a certain role to play. Everybody has their position, so I think it’s hard to break out of that; it’s really hard to talk about what you’re going through and it’s easier to just play your part. At group (meetings), you can be every way that you are.”

The girls agree that their friends often misunderstand the purpose of group, thinking it is similar to therapy, and wonder what’s wrong.

“I kind of find myself shying away from people’s questions (about the group), because it’s one of those things where I don’t know how to explain it,” said Mallory, 17.

Group members said that when they get together it is more than just a meeting to complain or seek help. It is a meeting of friends, they said, to relax and enjoy each other’s company. Frustrations and problems will be aired, but the best part is “building relationships,” Eliza said. “I think all of us have good friends, but this is just a special place where you can become closer to people you don’t even see in school.”

When describing the atmosphere at the talking circles, Wolf finds herself repeatedly using the word “sacred,” and the girls echo that sentiment. Many teens may feel uncomfortable talking intimately with relative strangers, but Mallory said that “this group was really quick about opening up and getting deep and being real.”

Melanie agreed: “It’s just so organic. It starts as something and just becomes something totally different. It just develops and gets so fertile. And I don’t know how I got comfortable, but it gets to a point where you can’t not be vulnerable; you just have to share.”

Jean Kilbourne, an internationally recognized producer of films such as “Killing Us Softly: Advertising’s Image of Women” and author of the recent book “So Sexy So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and What Parents Can Do to Protect their Kids,” spoke earlier this month at a Teen Talking Circle fund raiser in Seattle.

Kilbourne believes it is largely the responsibility of the parent to protect their children from advertising’s ill effects, but that talking groups can be wonderful remedies.

“Teen Talking Circles are all about authenticity, about telling the truth. That’s a powerful antidote to the lies we’re told by advertising,” she said. “Also, I think that girls learn to appreciate the wide range of beauty that there is in the world.”

She also emphasized the powerful benefits for teen boys who participate in circles.

“It’s very important for guys to have this opportunity because men are discouraged from talking about their feelings, from being vulnerable, from letting down the veneer of masculinity,” she said. “Many of the images of men are emotionally constricting, more so than for women. Also, I think that the talking circles help create empathy, which is necessary if you’re going to have an intimate relationship. Developing empathy is a crucial step for guys in order to have authentic relationships with women.”

The girls also think that sharing between young men and women is important.

“There’s this kind of wall that guys and girls have between them, said Ella, 15. “We think they don’t think the same way, but at Gender Talks, they brought up the same things we did; they’re not totally different.” Nonetheless, Eliza said that it’s “nice to have just girls” for the purpose of their talking circle.

Ultimately, the talking circles create a rare and powerful experience for participants, full of lessons they believe they’ll be able to bring into other aspects of their lives. In such a private, intimate atmosphere, teens can share their deepest fears and dearest hopes for the future, all while learning to care for one another.

“I feel like this is a place where we’re all on the same level, said Jacqui, 15. “We can just be who we are, and love each other for that.”

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For more information about Teen Talking Circles, see www.teentalkingcircles.org.

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