When Girls Are Not Made of Sugar and Spice

Thursday, April 15th, 2010

On Monday, at a San Diego County HHSA panel discussion, I was asked to address the problem of “girl fights,” a troubling issue given the recent findings of the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. According to the survey, about one girl in four between the ages of 12 and 17 was involved in a serious fight, participated in a group-against-group fight, or intended to hurt someone badly at school or at work in the past year. The percentage of girls involved in violent behavior was, in fact, slightly higher than that of boys (almost 27 versus 25 percent).

These findings contradict the widely held notion that teenage violence is not pervasive among girls. So, parents and other community members want to know, what’s fueling girl fights? Are young girls today more violent than in the past? And, what can concerned adults do about it?

As director of Phoenix House’s San Diego Academy—where 80 percent of the girls we serve have arrest histories and half have a history of fighting—I don’t believe that girl fights are a new trend. Recent research from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) suggests that girls are no more violent than they ever were.

Among the girls in our program, however, we have seen rising rates of depression, self-harm such as “cutting,” and anxiety disorders—all of which appear to put them at greater risk for delinquency. They tell us that school is a major challenge. Peer pressure and social anxiety often lead them to use alcohol or drugs and engage in other risky behavior—especially if they don’t find the support system they need at home or within the community. Not surprisingly, the OJJDP study found that girls who had a caring adult involved in their lives were less likely to become juvenile offenders. In addition to providing a “safe space” where teenage girls feel loved and accepted, adults can help prevent destructive behavior by recognizing when there’s a problem and finding the appropriate community resources to address it.

In San Diego, our Phoenix Academy provides the kind of services troubled girls—and boys—need. As one young woman recently told me, “I never knew what self-help was about until I came to Phoenix House.” Since we opened our doors in 1988, we’ve helped thousands of teens with substance abuse and other mental health problems get back on track and live sober, productive lives. We serve some of the most vulnerable children in San Diego. Among our female residents, 30 percent have experienced sexual abuse; 10 percent have been involved in gangs. Without this care and our school program that helps them make up the class work they’ve missed, these young women might not have a second chance.

We want to continue to be there for them, but sadly, funding for our program has always been a challenge. The costs of providing the full spectrum of medical, mental health, family support, and educational services our kids so desperately need are not fully covered by the County. More so than ever before, we’re counting on the generosity of our friends and supporters to help us* continue to be a resource for teens and their families. Whether girl fights are a new phenomenon or a long-standing problem, programs that give teens a hand up are community necessities.


Elizabeth Urquhart, M.Ed., Phoenix House San Diego Program Director

*All contributions to the California region will be directed to the Phoenix Academy of San Diego.

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1 Comment

  • Well said. The trend toward increase in violent behavior among young girls has been noted over a decade ago, but nobody wanted to talk about it. Even now this is more like “under-the-rug” issue, and I am glad you are talking about it openly. Congrats.

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