Social support is considered a mediating factor in the development of many mental health struggles among young girls, especially as this age group is socialized to base a lot of their identity and decisions on their peer’s approval. A well-known longitudinal study on the impact of trauma on female development suggests that while the same applies to girls who have experienced trauma, they are also less likely to have the social skills to maintain a support network, as a direct result of their traumatic experiences.
Social Experiences: Trauma and Middle School Girls
Lacking friends in elementary school makes a crucial difference in social skills during middle school. For most pre-teens, middle school is when they begin to be able to identify what they feel, negotiate relationships with others, and develop a steady support network of peers. Girls who have experienced trauma have an entirely different developmental path.
They don’t have friends of either gender because they can’t trust them, they feel insecure about themselves, and their nervous system is primed to either overreact or numb out under stress. This means they are more likely to struggle to keep up in the normal envy-driven exclusion/exclusion games that define many friendships among middle school girls. In part due to their trouble trusting others and insecure attachment, adolescence brings many chaotic and often traumatizing interactions with boys, in particular.
This creates a cycle of unhealthy relationships, as girls who have experienced trauma are more likely to struggle with setting boundaries, feeling safe in relationships, and feeling genuinely supported by others.
Developing Social Skills in a Therapeutic Boarding School
It may sound oversimplified, but one of the most effective ways of healing relational trauma is by developing healthy relationships. In order to change their core beliefs that “people don’t like them” and that “they don’t know how to make friends,” young girls need evidence that these assumptions can be challenged. In a supportive therapeutic community, girls are surrounded by supportive peers and staff who recognize their strengths and validate their vulnerability. This level of support helps them feel safer in relationships and gives them the tools to heal family relationships during family therapy.
One reason that many girls who have experienced trauma have attachment issues is that they have lacked consistent relationships in their lives. They may begin to get close with a classmate, but are sensitive to perceived rejection and struggle to grasp how relationships naturally grow and change over time. On campus, the girls reside in spacious dormitories with their “tree groups”. These groups of 8 students eat together, learn how to share a living space, and attend group together. They are guided by residential staff who act as mentors throughout the program. Tree groups and mentors become almost like family during a student’s time at Asheville Academy.
How Does Group Therapy Address Attachment Issues?
Group therapy gives girls the opportunity to process their experiences in a supportive community. Led by our qualified, trauma-informed therapists, many specialty groups address attachment issues, social skills, and group dynamics using creative methods, like art therapy, equine therapy, and team-building activities. As a residential program for middle school girls, Asheville Academy uses play therapy and recreation therapy to meet this age group’s developmental needs in relationships and modifies psychoeducation into language that is easier for them to conceptualize.
As girls learn to connect with and support their peers in a therapeutic environment, they develop essential social skills and confidence in relationships that prepare them to navigate healthier relationships when they transition home.
Asheville Academy can help
Asheville Academy is a therapeutic boarding school for girls ages 10-14. Our students commonly struggle with anxiety, depression, ADHD, learning differences, and attachment issues. Many of our students have been bullied in school and struggle with social skills in social groups. We are a relationship-based program that focuses on building meaningful face-to-face connections through teamwork, group therapy, experiential activities, and small classrooms that helps girls heal from the effects of peer pressure.
For more information about relational trauma in middle school girls, contact us at 800-264-8709. We can help your family today!
Jane holds an undergraduate degree in Art History from the University of North Carolina Wilmington, and a MA Degree from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, CA, in Marriage and Family Therapy and Clinical Art Therapy. Jane is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in the state of North Carolina and has previously been licensed in California. Jane has been in the mental health field for 16 years, and has worked as a therapist for children, adolescents, and families. She has provided services in outpatient, school, home, residential, and juvenile hall settings. Jane has served as Clinical Director to two other residential child service agencies in NC.