When family therapist Beth Hossfeld noticed that her 8th grade daughter’s friends were struggling over body image, boy, and friendship issues, she had a bright idea. Why not start a group for the girls? She did, and soon after met up with Giovanna Taormina, who’d done the same for her daughters. The two of them formed the Girls’ Circle Association, which has since sparked the creation of well over 500 Girls’ Circles. The simple act of letting girls talk together creates change, say the parents, teachers, therapists, and youth group leaders who’ve used the Circle technique. We talked recently about the power of girls groups with Beth Hossfeld at her home in Mill Valley, California.
The special power of a group
Parents have a very powerful influence on girls as they go through adolescence. But tweens and adolescents are much more open to hearing responses from their own peers than from adults. Plus, we know as adults that it is fun and rewarding to talk with friends, and so do girls. A special group can give girls a safe way to talk to each other, instead of gossiping, which is a destructive way for females to talk.
Girls say things in a group that I never hear them say when they’re just talking to me. They talk about their changing feelings because of puberty and about getting confusing responses from teachers, boys, and the world. These responses make them feel nervous, uncomfortable, and just “weirded out.” The group gives them a comfortable place to talk about these things. In a facilitated group, girls are more likely to talk about all their experiences and that’s very powerful.
Every girls’ circle is unique, but they share a common format. They start with a short opening ritual, and the adult facilitator introduces the meeting’s theme so the girls know what’s going to happen. Then there’s check-in time, when everyone has a chance to talk about how they’re feeling. Next is an activity, which can be a creative individual project or an interactive group exercise or game.
Girls’ circles can benefit girls from ages nine to eighteen. One of the greatest things about a mid-elementary-aged group is that it creates a safe, respectful space for dealing with the friendship issues that are so painful at that age. I tell the girls that they don’t have to become good friends with anyone in the group or even like them, but the group is a friendly place. Often, girls who haven’t hung out with certain other girls start talking and realize that the other person is nice.
Younger girls like to talk about what happens in their family or community. One predominantly Latina group enjoyed talking about their traditions. At our ‘cultural celebration,’ they asked me to bring horchata [a sweet drink made with rice, almonds, or chufa root]. I didn’t know what it was and they loved being able to teach me something. Most importantly, the goal is that the group is the girls’ place, to be who they truly are.
For older girls, there’s more talk about all kinds of relationships, sex, and conflicts about parents’ rules. I remember a girl in a high school group who talked about how she had gotten drunk and did a number of sexual things with a guy who actually repulsed her. She said, “I just totally blew it,” and no one shamed her. As a therapist, I know that when girls don’t talk about bad sexual experiences, it can be very difficult for them to move forward to healthier relationships. If that girl hadn’t had the circle to talk in, coping with her feelings would have been more difficult.
Recognizing girls’ wisdom
Many well-meaning adults get hooked into trying to ‘teach’ the group and switch into adult lecture mode. With the Girls’ Circle model, facilitation means ensuring that whatever the issue, the focus is on the girls’ feelings and experiences. When girls know that they’re being really listened to, the knowledge comes out of them. They say it, they own it, and change happens.
I’ve seen that happen many times. In one high school circle, a girl was blaming herself for being sexually molested by a teacher. She said, “I don’t know what it is about me; I always attract these guys who just want sex. I thought he was nice to me because he thought I was bright and artistic.” After a while, one of the other girls who was usually very quiet, said, “This is not something you did, or you caused–this is an adult doing something illegal and dangerous.” For me, that was an unforgettable moment. She was saying exactly the right thing. The girl who was abused hadn’t talked to her mom about it yet. But once she talked to her peers, she felt she had the courage and support to talk to her mom. And together we were able to go through the legal process of dealing with the teacher.
Sometimes when girls complain about how strict their parents are, another girl will say something like, “My mom kind of lets me do whatever; I wish she would have some rules because it’s hard sometimes to know if I should or shouldn’t do stuff.” That’s very powerful. And it’s very empowering when girls say something that helps someone else.
Facilitating a circle
The Girls’ Circle Association trains people who want to form groups, whether they’re parents, teachers, therapists, or youth leaders. Getting the training is best, but if that’s not possible, we encourage people to get material about running a group from us or elsewhere. A facilitator can have wonderful plans and content, but group dynamics are likely to emerge, such as someone feels excluded or someone’s always dominating. These dynamics can really sink a group. Better yet, someone who’s interested in facilitating could volunteer to be a co-facilitator with someone already experienced. Or she could just observe a facilitator to learn some strategies.
Facilitating a group well takes practice and support. Enlist adult helpers, even if they’re there just to talk to afterward. You definitely want to line up someone who’s a professional, such as a school counselor or therapist, to consult with if an issue comes up about girls’ safety.
Many people who use our resources already work with girls—schools, youth organizations such as Girls Inc., YWCA, after-school and juvenile justice programs. It’s also great when parents form a group for their daughters and friends. A group of parents whose daughters were bickering decided to meet and talk about how they as a team could support their daughters in better communication. Then they encouraged the girls to help them understand what was happening with the bickering, and that developed into the moms and daughters meeting regularly as a circle.
Facilitators can be creative about when and where to meet. I once did a group during the school lunch hour rather than try to compete with all the time constraints kids have in and outside school. For girls who feel isolated, a lunch hour place to talk is a dream come true. It’s a structured place to go and have a social experience.
Facilitators tell us the group process creates valuable change for girls, and now we have some research to back it up. A study of nine Girls’ Circles across the country showed positive outcomes in better social connections, body image, and self-efficacy.
Creating a talking circle is an ancient and powerful practice, and it’s basically very simple: providing a consistent, safe place to talk. Girls are starving for this.