Teenage girls and relationships: sometimes talking it out with a mentor, someone who has been there, can make all the difference in the world.
THE 9 A.M. BUZZER SIGNALS THE START OF CLASSES at the Chemainus First Nation’s Stu” Ate Lelum Secondary School. Two girls chat as they enter a classroom where they’re about to start their weekly participation in a university research project. The UVic Centre for Youth and Society calls it the Adolescent Girls’ Mentorship Study. The students here call it “girls’ group.”
Another girl shifts tables, dragging them together for the group. Her hardcover notebook for journal writing—each girls’ group participant has one—is out and she seems eager to start.
But there is no easy feeling of camaraderie as the group’s six 15- and 16-year-old girls settle in. Maybe it’s a reaction to the momentary presence of a square-looking white guy who’s writing about them for a university magazine, but between most group members there is only a guarded acknowledgement. Not all of these girls were friends before the group started meeting four weeks ago, but that is changing.
“Some of the girls were so closed in,” says the group’s mentor, Samantha Sam. “They didn’t talk to anyone or try to befriend anybody who was a stranger to them.” But the girls in the group, which focuses on their dating relationships, are becoming more open and comfortable with each other as the weeks go by.
Sam, 30 years old, lived through many of the same issues as the girls she is mentoring. She grew up poor, on reserve and in foster homes. At 15, she got into an abusive relationship that took five years to escape. She dropped out of high school to have a baby when she was 18.
“I’ve learned that when I open up more myself, that helps the girls open up during the session. I say my life experiences and my regrets. Then I’ll go on to all the goals I’ve achieved, and they’re really listening. I can talk to the girls about that.”
The Stu” Ate Lelum group is the latest in a series that focuses on teenage girls’ intimate relationships. In 1997, a Victoria community health clinic asked Elizabeth Banister, a professor in the School of Nursing, to research the most pressing health concerns of adolescent girls. Through focus groups and forums, she found that girls linked many of their health concerns, including unprotected sex and dating violence, to their relationships with boys.
“When you talk about health issues with them, it always comes back to relationships. Their relationship concerns end up becoming a thread through most (of their) health issues.”
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