The Teenage Brain

By Kevin Tankersley

Understanding the differences in young men and women

Bullying is easy to spot when boys do it. They hit and bite and kick. With girls, bullying is sometimes not as obvious. It’s more verbal, using words to hurt. Or shutting someone out of a group or ignoring her.

Counselor, author and speaker Steph Jensen will be discussing those differences and much more, including young people’s use of social media, during Girl Drama, a two-day seminar next month sponsored by Vanguard College Preparatory School.

The seminar begins with a 90-minute presentation — The Teenage Brain: Understanding the Innate Strengths and Differences in Your Boys and Girls — at 6 p.m. Thursday, September 7. Friday’s all-day session will be Girl Drama: How Educators and Parents Can Use Brain Research and Current Best Practices to Promote Positive Relationships.

More information on the seminar and registration information can be found at

Jensen, a Nebraska native, earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Nebraska and master of clinical counseling from Bellevue University. She’s been a teacher, an educational consultant and a licensed counselor, and she is the author of “Thrive in the Hive: Surviving the Girl’s World of Good and Bad Relationship Bee-haviors.” She and her family have lived in the Hill Country for 16 years.

Jensen recently spoke by phone with Wacoan writer Kevin Tankersley. They talked about the upcoming program at Vanguard, how to spot signs of bullying and ways to help children — and parents — navigate the ever-changing world of social media.

WACOAN: Can you give a preview of what you’re going to be talking about at the Girl Drama seminar in September?

Jensen: We’re going to be talking about the way girls show aggression as compared to the way boys show aggression. And what we can expect in regards to girls engaging in more use of social aggression or relational aggression compared to boys, who engage in more of the physical aggression in difficult and challenging situations. We’ll apply that across the spectrum from little people to even adult women and how that plays out in relationships, how that plays out in their social development and in internet use and social media.

WACOAN: So girls take part in relational aggression more than boys, who are more physical?

Jensen: As early as age 2, research has shown over and over again that girls, in difficult and challenging situations, their reaction is social or relational. They’re going to reach out to a relationship or social connection, and a lot of times that’s in harmful ways. They’ll use words or ignoring you or not talking to you or crying, in social and relational responses.

Boys, from the earliest ages — as early as age 2 — will respond with physical aggression. They’ll respond by pulling or tugging or biting or kicking. They respond physically.

We’ll talk about how with boys, from a very early age — and regardless of your background, your training, your education level — when you see boys hitting, biting, kicking, you immediately do very impromptu and effective behavior modification, where you say, ‘Don’t use your fists. Use your words.’

From a very, very early age, boys are being shaped into more pro-social responses in difficult and challenging situations. Girls, a lot of times, their social aggression, their relational aggression, we don’t see it. And if we don’t see it, we can’t correct it. Then they continue to use it as long as it works for them.

They’ll use that social manipulation or that relational manipulation to continue to solve their problems or to get their way, in essence. Or, if we see it, we might just roll our eyes and say, ‘She’s so dramatic. She’s such a drama queen.’ Again, not teaching her a more pro-social response. Or, we might say, ‘Don’t tattle.’ So if a child does come and tell us what happened, then we may say, ‘Don’t be a tattletale.’ Or we’ll say, ‘Just play with someone else.’ Again, we’re not shaping that relational aggression from early ages in the same way that we shape boys’ aggression in some more pro-social responses at those early ages.

Then when you layer on social media and the messages to girls and the use of relational aggression [and] social aggression to get ahead. Things like ‘Survivor’ — you manipulate relationships, you manipulate emotions to get ahead. When that’s your natural, normal response anyway, and it’s being reinforced and modeled so much in the culture, then you see more of that relational aggression in girls.

WACOAN: In the seminar agenda on Friday there are a couple of items dealing with social media. Are there some tips or ideas you can share with parents on how to help their girls navigate social media?

Jensen: We go through some specific steps on how to address that. My general recommendations are that social media should be monitored and limited. You need to monitor it, and you need to limit it. You need to engage your girls in face-to-face interactions and really reinforce and cultivate that.

We have to be intentional about it because they’ll sit on their social media, and one of the scarier things we’re seeing is the largest rise of suicide of girls ages 10 to 14. And a lot of that can be tied back to consuming themselves in social media. They’re being bombarded with all of these images that are inaccurate and just not realistic. They’re being bombarded with the sexuality and the relationships and so many things. They put themselves out there and get responses they’re not emotionally equipped to deal with.

It becomes very all-consuming [and] scary during an important time of self-development, self-awareness, that they’re not able to complete in a healthy way when they’re living in an alternate reality. So we have to find ways as parents to intentionally engage our girls in real-life relationships.

WACOAN: How can parents deal with social media in an intentional manner without seeming like they’re stalking?

Jensen: It’s OK to stalk. It’s your job. It’s our job as a parent to stalk. A lot of parents will ask that, and I’ll say, ‘This device was never, ever developed to be something private. It was developed to communicate with someone else.’

This is not even comparable to the diaries of the past, where we’d write in them and lock them up and then hide the diary and then we’d hide the key someplace else. That was something we didn’t want anyone else to see. The purpose of that was to be private, and even then, the advice was to read it. You need to know what’s going on in your kids’ lives. You just can’t compare the two.

Social media, the intent is to communicate with others. And parents absolutely have every right to know what their kids are communicating at any time.

WACOAN: There’s a paragraph in the seminar brochure that talks about social media, and it lists 20 social media sites, many that I’ve never heard of. Some I’ve heard of but have no experience with them. I have an almost 13-year-old daughter. How can we, as parents, keep up with the ever-changing landscape of social media?

Jensen: That’s a good question. There are some great people out there talking just about social media and kids. There’s the website, and it’s phenomenal. And there’s Richard Guerry. [Editor’s note: Guerry is the founder and executive director of the Institute for Responsible Online and Cellphone Communication.] He does some great work on public and permanent, teaching kids and teaching adults about the permanence and the also legalities behind all of this new social media. I would point you to the experts who are keeping up on it.

It’s amazing to me. The kids are great because as soon as the adults figure out what they’re using, they jump to another platform. It’s just an ongoing thing. About the time you get something published, it’s already outdated.

Another way that I find out about a lot of these, a couple of weeks ago I did a three-hour presentation just on girls and social media and had 160 professionals from around the country. I asked them, ‘What are your kids doing right now?’ There were a few [platforms] that came up that some of us had never heard of.

Look at those [experts] who are embedded in that world all the time. Read their research and read their information. And just ask. When I go into schools, I ask the kids, ‘What are y’all using right now?’ They’re more than happy to tell you. They’ll inform you. It’s a constant job.

WACOAN: Back to the relational aggression in girls versus the physical aggression in boys. With boys and the physical aggression, they have a disagreement, hit each other a few times and it’s done. With girls and relational aggression, does it drag out more?

Jensen: Yes. And a lot of that is brain development. That’s why we spend the first hour just looking at the differences between the compositional differences between the male brain and the female brain and that division of labor. That really helps people to understand the ‘why’ behind the behavior. Once we better understand the behavior, we’re better equipped to address those behaviors.

WACOAN: What are some signs that a child is being bullied at school, if she doesn’t come out and tell us?

Jensen: Any changes in their patterns or behaviors. So, if they start to shut down or if they start to close themselves off. If there’s more crying or their outbursts are coming faster or lasting longer. We look at the frequency and duration of some of those responses. If there are changes in appetite. If they’re starting to have headaches or some of those physical responses, you may want to investigate a little bit further.

And I think of it as the way that we approach how things are going with our girls. I always found it was nice to go somewhere outside of the home, where they’re not afraid you’re going to have a big response. Sometimes they don’t want to talk to us because they’re afraid of how we’re going to respond. If we’re in a public place, they feel a little more comfortable because they know we’re not going to have a big response in that setting.

Don’t force a ‘Let’s sit down and have a talk.’ Make it more general and they may open up more.

WACOAN: OK. Let’s say our daughter tells us something that’s been going on at school. Do we contact the teacher? Do we contact the school? What’s the best practice there?

Jensen: I would go back to building up the individual. Process through. Let her talk [it] through.

We all have painful situations. Ask her, ‘How are you dealing with that? What are some things you could do to help this out? Are there other people we should invite over? Are there other activities you would like to try out or investigate? What are some ways you can respond to that?’ I always try and build up the individual child first. Equip them with ways to deal with those big emotions.

We’re all going to have big emotions, and how do we deal with that? And we’re all going to have conflicts in relationships. How do we deal with that? If she can process through and do some of that problem solving, let her try that.

Then follow up. ‘How did things go today? How are you feeling about that? What’s going on?’ Focusing on the positive will start to minimize the effects of the negative. Again, depending on the intensity, you may need to get teachers involved as well.

I think that some of the basic civil discourse and getting kids to work through some of these emotions, we’re lacking some of that. We just want to try and punish the situation away, or we’re just going to separate the two of them. That doesn’t equip either child with the tools that they need, the skills that they need to be successful long term.

WACOAN: Is there more bullying among girls than there is among boys?

Jensen: No, it’s equal. And if you look at the research, it really does show it is equal among boys and girls. Of course, the boys engaging or office referrals or documentation of bullying with boys is always higher than girls, but that’s due to [the fact] that it’s a lot easier to see.

WACOAN: When you’re here in September, there’s one session on Thursday night, and then an all-day session on Friday. Will the Thursday session be more beneficial to parents and the Friday session more beneficial to professionals working with children?

Jensen: I do believe that the first night is more geared toward parents, and then the second day is more for educators and teachers. Here’s the interesting thing. I have people from all walks, parents to police officers, who come to these sessions and always say, ‘It was fantastic information.’ Or teachers who come up and say, ‘I wish I would have gone through this training before I got married.’ It’s just good information.

If people come that evening and want to dive deeper, what you can cover in a short amount of time is just the tip of the iceberg. The next day will be a deeper dive if they want to go further in that, just some of the general information.

WACOAN: So you do research on the brain?

Jensen: I tie in a lot of the brain research. My real job is I’m the director of training, nationally and internationally, for Boys Town, the largest child care organization in the world. Our focus is on behavior intervention.

We’re celebrating our 100th anniversary this year, and that’s what Boys Town has always been focused on, equipping individuals with the tools they need to engage with kids at any level of the continuum, from parenting all the way up to your highest level of psychiatric care, to address behaviors and help kids become better self-managers.

WACOAN: In looking at brain research, what is something interesting you’ve learned lately?

Jensen: We’re seeing that what we’ve made generalizations about based on common sense, between male behavior and female behavior, we can now see in the brain why it is. It really answers the question of why, when you look at the brain, and it’s so exciting to see that some of those things that we would say are abnormal or oppositional or disrespectful, really are naturally normal. We just have to teach to that. Behavior is learned. It’s never too late to teach behavior.