“With teenagers, they raise us and we raise them; very much so,” said Frisch, curled up in an easy chair in her airy, sunny office, with walls covered in the brightly colored artwork created by her adolescent clients.
The therapist earned her master’s degree in social work from Fordham University. She didn’t start out intending to specialize in therapy for teenage girls and their mothers. And she surely didn’t imagine spending her weekends holding overnight retreats for young women, offering tips for empowerment along with fruit smoothies.
To the uninitiated, “It’s A Girl Thing” weekend retreat, which consist of 36 hours of intensive group therapy, bonding and self-exploration, could sound like a recipe for disaster. Take a dozen teenage girls dealing with issues like divorce, body image, self-esteem and bullying. Add a woodsy location and two sleepovers. Can you end up with…affirmation?
According to retreat participant Kaitlyn Hutchinson, who called her experience at age 15 “life-changing,” working with Frisch proved transformational for her. At a teen, Hutchinson said she was dealing with a plethora of issues.
“I was at a life in my point where I felt unappreciated and unliked,” she noted. “My self-esteem was really low. I had never been taught to love myself. This retreat came up and my mom asked me if I wanted to go. I didn’t have that many friends so it certainly didn’t interrupt my social plans.”
At the retreat, Hutchinson found she wasn’t alone. “All the girls and facilitators there were just as odd and confused about the world,” she said. “I could see the beautiful, functioning ladies who may not have it all together and may not be perfect but were just themselves. “It was reassuring.”
Why the therapy works
This formula, said Frisch, is not to be denied. “The truth is we are more alike than different. We bring these girls together, some with issues of depression, some with family issues, some from different socio-economic backgrounds,” she said. “The truth is when it is safe all the boundaries fall to the side, so it works.”
Tapping into a young woman’s innate strength works, she said, because “each person has inside themselves the wisdom they need to heal.” Therapy is the process of bringing that wisdom to light.
With the participants’ strong emphasis on social media sites such as MySpace and Facebook in their everyday lives, Frisch said her retreats constitute a valuable opportunity for girls to strengthen bonds on an interpersonal level. “When girls are Facebooking and texting, they actually lose their communication skills in a way,” Frisch pointed out. “It is very significant because girls can have 6000 texts in a month and yet feel very disconnected.”
The reason these retreats work has a scientific basis. The same oxytocin hormone that is released when women have an orgasm is also released when they talk, bond and share secrets, Frisch said. Dr. Shelley E. Taylor, a professor of social psychology and health psychology at the University of California at Los Angeles, calls this the tend-and-befriend reaction of women to stress.
“In threatening times, people seek positive social relationships, because such contacts provide protection to maintain one’s own safety and that of one’s offspring,” Taylor theorizes. “Our research suggests that oxytocin and endogenous opioid peptides are implicated in these responses, especially in women.”
Hutchinson shared her own theory of why the “It’s a Girl Thing” retreat helped her become empowered. “Teenagers are like dogs; they sense fear and the lack of self-worth,” she stated. Her peers, who used to tease her, noticed a difference when Hutchinson returned to school in the fall, the summer after she had attended the retreat. “I remember coming back my senior year, and I knew they had no reason to say anything to me. I was able to look them in the eye and say, Back off.”
Frisch said the girls who attend her retreats find empowerment from themselves and each other, not necessarily from Frisch. “They feel validated by their peers. It is what they think of each other that is more important,” she said.
After experiencing success facilitating retreats for young women, Frisch expanded her services to include support groups for mothers of teenager daughters. Here, women share issues common to parenting teens as part of “The Mother-Daughter Connection.” The group is about “being really conscious of your own self in your parenting role, basically parenting from a really clean place with your daughter, not reacting in ways that are unhealthy or harmful,” Frisch explained.
Women raised with too many rules may try to compensate by giving their kids too much freedom, she said. “You learn to understand what is an appropriate limit for you child based on who your child is.”
Key to both therapy groups is an expressive art modality that gives clients the opportunity to express the issues they are dealing with in non-verbal ways. “Some people are very articulate, and some people need other ways to access their feelings, particularly when there has been a death or trauma,” Frisch explained.
For Hutchinson, now 20 and a communications major at SUNY New Paltz, the empowerment skills she learned at the retreat are something she continually relies upon. Coming full circle with her experience, she recently worked with Frisch at a weekend retreat, acting as a facilitator and role model for the young girls in attendance. In essence, Hutchinson has become the very role model she once looked up to.
Her advice to girls who want to feel empowered, even if they are being teased? “Hold your chin high, look straight ahead, and walk right by [critics] with a smile on your face,” she said. “Know in your heart that you are stronger — you will not pass judgment on them.”++
To find out more about “It’s a Girl Thing” weekend retreats, or Frisch’s mother-daughter therapy services, visit www.itsagirlthinginfo.com. (For information on Taylor’s “tend and befriend” theory, go to http://taylorlab.psych.ucla.edu/research.htm.)