Writing, and sharing writing, to cope with puberty's changes
I don’t know what your adolescence was like, but I’m still waiting on my acceptance letter to Hogwarts or to stumble into a wardrobe that will take me to Narnia. Even though magic wand shopping and talking to lions aren’t actual moments of adolescence, these stories continue to captivate generations of youth because the underlying themes continue to be relevant. These stories get at the heart of what it feels like to enter adolescence and suddenly have to deal with new responsibilities and changing roles.
When a study linking the reading of Harry Potter to reduced prejudice in youth goes viral on social media, we see evidence that words matter. Words have the ability to transcend barriers of private thought. While reading, we may find that our private thoughts and feelings, are shared by Harry at 4 Privet Drive and Lucy in Narnia. These insights help us discover that we’re not alone and that we’re being heard.
With this in mind, how might the power of words translate to the experience of puberty?
Puberty is a time of dramatic changes. Bodies are maturing, relationships are changing, and school may feel harder. Piles of research detail how experiences during puberty can have lasting effects throughout adolescence and into adulthood. For example, girls who mature earlier than their peers are more vulnerable to depression.
What if words could help mediate these negative outcomes? What if youth were given the outlet, not just to read about like experiences, but to have their own words heard? As a graduate student in developmental psychology at Cornell, these are the questions that I am trying to answer. My connection to PRYDE through a research assistantship has proven immensely helpful to my work because PRYDE’s great connection to resources and research partners.
Since the summer of 2013, Dr. Jane Mendle’s Adolescent Transitions Lab has been investigating this line of research in partnership with NY State 4-H. Participating youth are given a 4-day writing program centered around the themes of puberty, including: notable bodily changes, changes in friendships, and changes with family members. The program gives voice to youth’s thoughts and emotions about puberty, helping them gain greater clarity about the transition.
This spring, I will be working with Jefferson County 4-H after-school programs to further hone this writing exercise so that it includes a focus on problem solving. We learned from our data collection from 4-H camps in prior years that youth may marinate on unpleasant thoughts or experiences about puberty when asked only to free write. Getting stuck on these negative thoughts can actually result in less effective outcomes for the writing program. By adding a problem-solving tint to the writing prompts, youth may be encouraged to go beyond negative thoughts or feelings and think about ways to change these situations.
Feedback from 4-H practitioners has confirmed how much youth enjoy being asked about their experiences. I’m surprised how often the adolescent experience is studied or written about without giving adolescents themselves opportunities to express what they feel is most important or salient to their experiences. Further, feedback from participating 4-H youth at Camp? Bristol Hills noted that they appreciated the opportunity to debrief and share what they wrote about with each other. This feedback may be helpful in adding a discussion-based component to the program. After all, if writing words can be empowering, then perhaps sharing them can be as well.
 Mendle, J., Harden, K. P., Brooks-Gunn, J., & Graber, J. A. (2010). Development's tortoise and hare: Pubertal timing, pubertal tempo, and depressive symptoms in boys and girls. Developmental Psychology, 46, 1341-1353. doi:10.1037/a0020205
Mendle, J. (2014). Why puberty matters for psychopathology. Child Development Perspectives, 8, 218-222. doi:10.1111/cdep.12092