The Use of VOICE in Girls

From a paper presented to parents of girls at the Winsor School, Boston, MA, 1999.

The need to protect our children and keep them safe is perhaps the greatest challenge facing parenthood today.  In just a mere generation, the outside world has shifted from being a playground in which to learn life lessons, to one that poses a constant threat to our children’s well-being.  How do we keep our daughters safe in the world without locking them in a bubble?  What are the skills they need to navigate their own lives safely when we’re not there to protect them?

I cannot stress strongly enough that what keeps our daughters safe in this world is her voice: her inner knowledge of, and connection to her needs; her belief and confidence in her right to assert these needs; and her capacity to use her voice in an authentic and effective way.  If she disconnects from her voice, she loses her lifeline and puts herself at risk in both the external world, and in her internal psychological world alike.

Unfortunately, by the time they reach adolescence, a marked (and perhaps developmental) shift occurs in our daughters’ ability to use her voice on her own behalf.   She becomes fearful of asserting herself and instead, uses her voice to “not make waves.” This is why it is so important for these lessons to be soundly integrated into our daughters’ egos well before they reach their teens, and especially as they begin testing the waters during their adolescent years.  The right to express an opinion and disagree is gender and age neutral; it needs to be learned not as a lesson reserved for girls in certain situations only, but one that is a human right belonging to all members of a family – or of a society.  If we don’t incorporate this skill (ego strength) into our daily lifestyle but instead ask our girls to suddenly stick their necks out –just at a time when they are also learning socially that to do so renders them a “bitch” or suffers them rejection and humiliation, then it’s already too late.  They don’t have the tools they need.

Voice as Identity
Many of the qualities of voice have a defining identity associated with them and are in fact used to convey “who I am” / “who I associate with”.  That is, there is a kind of lingo or dialect that marks a sub-culture and serves to define aspects of a girl’s identity, including her age, region, class, ethnicity:  Girls can talk to a stranger on the phone and determine from their voice alone whether or not they are part of the same reference group.  A girl’s voice conveys her very identity, and she uses her voice to reveal, in her manner of presentation, not only what she has to say, but also who she is.

Language and voice, then, betray a girl’s very self-concept along many dimensions.  When she speaks, she not only communicates content, but her very sense of who she is.

Risk of Disconnection
So, when a girl gets the message that what she says is inappropriate or unacceptable and puts her at risk for rejection or censure –whether it be through direct feedback to her, or by observing reactions to others when they speak- she learns to disconnect from her real voice; her authentic self, in order to construct a voice that is more acceptable.  That is, she learns to separate or split off from her true inner feelings.  The result is that sometimes girls consciously exist in two simultaneous realities or on two planes of existence:  their “real self” that they quickly learn to silence and protect from the external world of ridicule or rejection, and the “acceptable” or constructed voice, (which we might in fact call her “front”) that she knows feeds people what they want to hear, and that insures acceptance and inclusion. When asked a personal question, girls will often say, for example, “do you want to know what I think or what I really think?”  -i.e., do you want to know the acceptable answer, or the true answer? The “right” or the “real”?

Why do they do this?  Because protecting and maintaining relationship is of paramount importance and they will mask their voice and alter themselves to avoid the risk of losing their most important connections.  AND THEY WILL PUT THEMSELVES IN DANGER BECAUSE OF THIS:
•    this is when they become afraid to say “NO” to a boy’s advances because they don’t want to hurt his feelings or be ridiculed;
•    this is when they don’t speak up and decline drugs, or refuse to get into a car with drunk drivers;
•    this is when they succumb to using inappropriate language –say on the Internet or at parties-  in order to be included in the dominant culture. 

The trouble is, along with the reward of inclusion go other rules they need to follow to maintain their standing, and the ante goes up.  They need to have an immediate and clear voice that forms a direct lifeline between social input and verbal output; one that does not get short-circuited or derailed by fear.

We must be careful at home to track the messages we give our daughters, including what we model between us as spouses, and how we respond to our girls when they voice their true feelings and ideas.  “Don’t talk back,”  “Don’t ask questions,”  “You’ve got an answer for everything,” “You really don’t believe that,” “You’re just talking to hear yourself talk,” are all ways we tell our daughters that what they really think is not important, will get them punished, or worse, is not what they really think (or should think). What we intend as feedback, perhaps about respecting her parents, may instead be heard and internalized both as an assault to her identity and as a lesson that expressing her viewpoints is unacceptable and risky.

The most dangerous  -but far from uncommon- result of silencing our girls is when girls become so conflicted and internally divided that they learn to cope by silencing their feelings even from themselves: “I don’t know.”  “I don’t care.”  “Whatever….”  They don’t even bother discovering how they feel anymore because, in their minds, “what’s the use?”  They develop a kind of “learned helplessness.”  When a girl gives up her will, desire, inner authority and inner voice because she feels powerless to be heard or because it throws her into too much inner turmoil, then that’s when we see the truth manifesting itself symptomatically: in diverted or displaced symptoms or behaviors:
•    acting out behaviors (conduct disorders and sexual acting out);
•    provocative non-verbal communications;
•    stomach-aches and head-aches;
•    eating disorders such as stuffing one’s self or throwing it up;
•    cutting;
It’s the split-off truth manifesting itself elsewhere.

One of the psychological realities that I’ve learned in my clinical practice is that the truth will always manifest itself, whether through language, behaviors, or symptoms  -if not now, then later.  I have seen that short-term avoidance or displacement is only a Band-Aid, because ultimately one’s true feelings will reveal themselves.  It’s the nature of the beast; there is an internal truth and integrity to us all.  Our only choice is whether to express our inner truths in healthy –though often less comfortable – ways, or wait until the feelings take over in unhealthy or self-destructive ways.

Challenges for Parents
Our challenge as parents of girls is to help them stay connected and in touch with how they really feel:  even if it changes minute to minute or is very unappealing to us!  As parents, we need to support their right to be different and to say what they believe in, we need to create a family environment in which they feel safe expressing themselves and know that you welcome their opinions.  And, we also need to teach them how to do this well, by modeling it in your own everyday interactions.  How can we accomplish that if the parental pact calls for one or the other of us to silence and forsake our own opinion in favor of the dominant parent or the one who simply spoke first?  And how do we do that if  “the united front” requires one or the other parent to silence themselves when they disagree?

What I’m not suggesting is that we give free reign to rude and disrespectful language, because as we’ll see in a moment it is also our job to socialize its expression.  But what I am suggesting is that a girl’s power and control over her life; her very sense of personal safety and identity, is linked to her voice.  It’s her lifeline to her own inner truth.  It’s a lifeline that needs to remain unblocked and undistorted in order for her to make wise decisions in the world.  I’m suggesting that for this to happen; for her to never question her right to express herself, this imperative needs to be ordinary and commonplace, and reinforced everywhere --  especially at home by everyone in the family.  Having the right to voice opinions should neither be reserved for boys nor should it be directed only to girls, nor should it be a right reserved just for parents or just for the dominant parent, nor should it be only exercised with certain people and situations!  Indeed, it needs to be shaped, used adaptively, and be sensitive to audience.  But voicing one’s true opinion needs to be a birthright.   When practiced effectively, it needs to be a non-issue.

Helping our Daughters Develop an Effective Voice
Ways to Disagree
The way voice is used; i.e. teaching our daughters how to use it effectively and appropriately, is of critical importance and is one of our greatest challenges as parents  -especially when faced with recalcitrant teens whose voice often pushes us away!  But I cannot emphasize enough that it is our job to help our daughters develop a comfort and facility in finding their own most natural, clear, and effective voice.  We need to help them discover a manner of speech that works for them, and that represents their very own personality.  Not our version, but theirs.  One that works in their lives, with their peers.  Because if a girl hedges, questions her right to speak, or presents herself ambivalently or ambiguously, she relinquishes her authority, interrupts her internal lifeline, and places herself at risk for being controlled by others.

Here’s an example:  One of my 14 year old clients, whom I’ll call Lisa,  admits that she’d do or say anything to keep people from not liking her.  She wears provocative clothes, runs around with the “fast and loose” crowd, gave blow jobs at 12, but sleeps with teddy bears, is terrified of being hurt, and fights a losing battle with her inner moral code that she wants so badly to uphold.  She wants to do the right thing, but can’t, because she can’t risk being disliked.

Just recently she sobbed in my office as she shamefully told me that her newest boyfriend, once again, got her to perform sexual acts on him – even though she tried to say no!  But let’s look more closely at what had gone on:  In the weeks prior to his visit, she described how they’d talk on the phone for hours about all the sexual things they wished they could do together when he came to see her.  When the time came, however, she didn’t want to.  So she hedged –not wanting to upset him or embarrass herself- and could only bring herself to say “I don’t think so,” and “I really don’t want to,” while also giggling and doing it anyway.

Now of course on one level, the words she said should be sufficient  -and in my house in fact I’m a stickler with my son and daughter about stopping any activity as soon as the word “no” or “stop” is spoken –regardless of whether they are laughing or giggling too.  But Lisa was, in fact, saying yes and no, in different voices, simultaneously, and her “no” was ambiguous.  She both interrupted and overruled her connection to her own code of ethics; to her internal lifeline, and could not use her voice to keep herself safe.

Our girls need to understand this phenomenon: that we all communicate with many different voices simultaneously, and that they can confuse, or even cancel each other out, when delivered inconsistently.  They need to learn about this idea specifically, so they can pay attention to being clear and consistent with themselves on all levels as they communicate. 

Our daughters also need to be raised in an environment in which they feel comfortable and safe saying, “no” when they mean no, and “yes” when they mean yes  --and in which they feel equally comfortable hearing others’ doing the same.  They need to learn how to say “I disagree,” or “I see it differently” or “that’s not exactly what I meant” or “I don’t think that would work for me” or “that makes me mad” or “please don’t yell – it makes me afraid to speak” in their own family setting, and hear others say it too:  Even to hear parents say that to each other!  They also need your help in learning  a safe and comfortable language just for saying no. 

I’m actually suggesting that we teach our daughters specific alternatives; that we offer them some additional ways to refuse politely and clearly, without worrying that they will hurt, or be hurt, by it.  Like:  “No; I’m sorry I can’t.  But maybe another time,”  or “I don’t think I can do x, but maybe we could try y,” or “That was nice of you to ask.  Let me think about it and get back to you later,” or “I wish I could, but my parents don’t allow that.”  Many parents will also offer themselves up to be the generic “fall guy” for their girls if they ever need an excuse to fall back on, are afraid, or need a way to save face.  This can be an effective stop-gap measure, but it is not a permanent solution.

What’s key is that our girls have available to them a flexible repertoire of skills because different situations will call for different competencies or trigger different vulnerabilities.  Developing an effective voice does not mean using the same voice across all situations.  I think it’s important to expand their range of options and present an actual array of alternatives. And, I also think it’s our job to give her specific guidelines about what we expect.  Often we make the mistake of leaving our daughters with the overly general expectation that they “assert themselves,” but with neither the skills to do that, nor the specific understanding of what we believe is in their best interest  While we need to hear and respect their own voice, it is still our job to teach them our values and give them feedback about what we expect of them.

If these skills aren’t taught specifically, and practiced routinely, by every one in the family, society will assist you in reinforcing the opposite lesson:  that your daughter should swallow her words and stay in her place.  If she doesn’t come to take for granted that disagreement and dissent are a natural part of life that doesn’t result in censure or excommunication, or worse, if she observes for herself that even her parents won’t stick their own necks out, then she will surely shut down.

Socializing Communication
To be clear, by supporting their right to disagree, I’m not suggesting that we relinquish our parental authority, power, or control, and give our girls free reign to say whatever they want.   Respect goes both ways; authority, however, does not.

One of the most misunderstood concepts in psychology has to do with self-expression or catharsis.  People often over-determine this concept, and use as an excuse to say anything they want, any way they want, under the guise of, “well, I’m just expressing my feelings.”  Parents also make this mistake and allow their children to be rude and disrespectful, thinking in good faith that they need to tolerate this in order to empower and not silence their children.  I disagree!!  We still have an obligation to socialize our children and give them feedback and reality checks about the impact of their words, and the power words have to confuse or even injure others.

Most importantly, we have the obligation to teach them how to formulate and present their ideas in a manner that invites listening and encourages understanding;  that is, in a manner that truly communicates.  This is the only goal of communication:  to convey ideas to someone else in a manner that invites and advances understanding.  Being “assertive” and speaking their mind is only half the equation; the other is finding a comfortable and effective voice that communicates their ideas productively and takes their audience into consideration. Otherwise, the tree falls, but nobody hears it!

Mastering Our Own Voice
How do we do that best?  Certainly, by giving them direct feedback about the words or phrases they use, and about their “nonverbal overlays” that also carry meaning, such as attitude, facial expressions, tone of voice, affect, etc.

But our most powerful teaching tool by far is ourselves.  As fathers or mothers, we teach our daughters to communicate appropriately by mastering it and doing it well ourselves; by finding our own strong, clear voice that is also kind and respectful.  One that is authentic and consistent with our own self-concept, and with our role as parents.  One that is assertive, but not aversive, when disagreeing.  One that is sensitive to the other, but not silenced by them.  And one that invites productive dialogue by not only speaking clearly, but by pausing to listen.

Let me tell you about a 17-year-old girl that I treat whom I’ll call Anna.  This is a girl who acts tough and sarcastic to the outside world, accepts no limits, and most people are afraid of her.  She was date raped at 14 because she couldn’t say no, and since then continues to succumb to the sexual demands of her boyfriends, with whom she constantly finds herself in control battles.  Her philosophy is, “if I don’t control them, they’ll control me,” so she resorts to verbal aggression, deceit, and manipulation to protect herself instead.   She admits that once she gets involved in a relationship and allows herself to care for someone, she feels out of control and can’t speak her real mind.

How did Anna get here? 

Now let me just say that I’m not one who believes in blaming parents for the deeds of their children, since I believe that a child’s own constitution and the enormity of the outside social forces together account for a greater amount of the variance in a child’s behavior.  But, I am struck in Anna’s case by her description of her timid mother, who, while encouraging Anna to stand up for herself, be strong and speak her mind, allows her own husband to walk all over her.  Anna describes with rage and despair how she watches her father humiliate her mother by calling her names and putting her down in public, while her mother smiles and shrinks.  When Anna asks her mother why she lets that happen, her mom answers:  “It really wouldn’t matter what I said anyway.  He won’t change and it would just make things worse. It’s not worth it.”   So I wonder:  where, and how, was Anna ever supposed to learn how to speak up for herself in the outside world?

But while there is more to Anna’s story than her mother’s meek and mixed messages, I do believe that families represent the first and predominant socializing agents in our children’s lives, and thus hold enormous potential to inoculate our girls against some of the larger social diseases.  And I do believe that it is therefore our job to carefully think through what the most effective ways are to strengthen their egos and teach them skills for managing themselves in the outside world.  Because when our messages are mixed or unclear, like Anna’s or Lisa’s story, we can be sure that our messages will get undermined by forces beyond our control.

TWO PARENTS, TWO VOICES: Rethinking the “United Front”

When Parents Speak as One: Potential Implications:
•    MYOB: it’s between mom and you; my opinion is irrelevant or unimportant;
•    Silence = endorse and agree with the prevailing parental view;
•    As parents we always think the same thoughts;
•    I’m afraid of her anger and can’t stand up to her either, even if I disagree and even to support you;
•    It’s wrong to openly disagree.

The Importance of Modeling Healthy Conflict Resolution
Implications of poor conflict management:

•    Disagreement is dangerous because it can escalate and pose a threat
•    Harmony is the goal.
•    To avoid conflict the choices are:
a)    Swallow or silence your opinions,
b)    give in / sacrifice;
c)    lie or be dishonest.

•    Conflict avoidance is most dangerous for girls: they are more likely to avoid conflict anyway; it’s supported by the culture and the “take-care-of-others-first” ethic.
Implications of healthy conflict management:
•    Encourages healthy boundaries and differentiation: everyone is, by nature, different.  It’s natural to have different perspectives and opinions.
•    Models a good process for expressing disagreement and for negotiating different needs that doesn’t have to be hostile or threatening and that presents no risk.  No need to avoid it.
•    Shows how to enlarge range of possibilities and not get stuck in polarized “either – or” decisions;
•    Invites participation in achieving resolution: shows interest in child’s needs and viewpoints; helps develop problem-solving skills;
•    A child’s participation can increase their personal investment in making (mutual) solutions work and feeling more responsible for the outcomes.

Importance of Family as a classroom for experimentation, socialization, and growth:
•    Strong & consistent family ethics are needed to counteract negative social messages;
•    Safe place to try on / try out emerging identities and competencies;
•    Healthy families consist of a plurality of individuals all of whom are:
1.    Comfortable expressing opinions;
2.    Can do so using effective language and voice, and
3.    Feel safe doing so.
(NOTE: not to say children and parents have equal power in making and upholding decisions; rather, in expressing different points of view.)

Developmental Issues for Adolescent Girls:
•    Identity; exploring “who am I?”
•    Co-existence of multiple perspectives as a new and important fact of life;
•    Authenticity vs. Hypocrisy: Intolerance for what’s phony
•    Trust.  With whom can I be safe being myself?

Mother-Daughter Control Battles:
•    Watch out for dangerous lessons that can cause our daughters to not express their feelings, swallow their words, divert their needs dysfunctional symptomatology or acting-out behaviors.
•    Need to have control and be heard is important developmental / ego-building task that requires careful direction, structure and boundaries. 
•    “Control” requires redefinition at this age – Self-control; Self-control; making conscious choices (vs. peer pressure); taking responsibility for one’s actions - are more important than obedience.   
•    Mothers and Fathers play different roles in teaching control lessons.

•    Most important developmental competency for adolescent girls;
•    Represents their means to emotional / physical safety in the world.
•    Voice as tool that can hurt, protect, communicate information, express identity.
•    Must be natural and authentic; albeit flexible and sensitive to audience.
•    Must “work”; be effective to invite listening & understanding.