As troop leaders, we play an important role in the lives of our Girl Scouts. We are friends, confidants, rule-setters, and aides. We organize camping trips, plan badges and awards, and coordinate meeting schedules, but above all, our main responsibility is to do everything in our power to make sure our girls are happy, empowered, and safe.

But the truth is that no matter how much we want to protect the girls in our troops, not everything is within our control. Bad things can and will happen—to our girls, to their friends, or in the world around them. High school is an especially stressful and unpredictable time and at some point, they will need guidance about navigating the world around them. Talking to your older Girl Scouts about sensitive issues such as eating disorders, toxic relationships, or depression might make you feel nervous, but if you’re prepared, you’ll be better equipped to facilitate the kind of conversation your troop needs.

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Let Them Lead

When a girl comes to you with a sensitive issue, you want to let her be in charge. Remember that she may already be feeling vulnerable and awkward about having the conversation, so your first order of business is making her feel as comfortable as possible so she can share what she wants to share. Remember to really take in what she’s saying and to employ positive body language such as nodding, keeping your arms and legs uncrossed, and maintaining eye contact.

You also want to take care to avoid being judgmental, as that will quickly shut down the whole conversation. Rather than saying, “I hope you don’t start starving yourself like [friend] has been doing; you’re smarter than that” try for something like, “I hear you saying that [friend] has been dealing with negative body issues lately. That must be painful for you to experience. I want you to know that you can always talk to me about things like this if you ever feel overwhelmed or need help.” By listening empathetically and always letting her speak first, you’ll be better able to understand what she’s feeling and thinking.

The same applies when you want to bring up a general issue with the whole troop. You can start by saying something like, “I know that some of you have been experiencing/seeing a lot of ________ recently and I want to have a troop discussion about it. What do you all think about that?” Then, let the conversation go from there.

Share Your Story

When a sensitive issue arises, a girl can feel very alone. In that moment, it can be hard to remember that many others have been through the same things she’s experiencing—and that might even include you!

Maybe you dealt with depression in high school, or maybe you had a good friend struggle with an eating disorder. By sharing your own relevant experience, you can help her remember that she’s not alone. Just be careful not to one-up her stories—you don’t want her to feel like you’re trying to make the conversation about you. Share with the goal of relating, not comparing.

At the same time, remember to keep a balance between being a friend and confidante and being a parent or adult. You want to be approachable, but the goal isn’t becoming best friends with your Girl Scouts—you still want to maintain appropriate authority by setting reasonable boundaries.

Access Resources

If you’re not sure how to open a conversation, there are plenty of examples of everyday media you can use to get started. If you’re watching a movie together and you see something that sends a great message—or a not-so-great one—you can ask what they think. The same goes for billboards on the side of the road during drives to camping trips and other troop outings, song lyrics you hear on the radio, and TV commercials.

Sometimes, an issue might be more than you as a leader can handle on your own. That’s okay! Know that there is a wealth of information available online, at your local library, and beyond. You can talk to the guidance counselor at your girls’ school for tips on where to get started, or check out one of the links below:

Remember that it’s okay to be scared with them; you don’t have to be “stronger” or “braver”. But if you go in armed with ideas on how to handle a sensitive conversation, you’ll not only be able to help your girls through a tough situation, but you’ll also foster stronger feelings of trust and respect—for both of you.

What to do next:

Lia SethLia Seth—Lia leads a troop of Ambassador Girl Scouts in Palo Alto and is a Lifetime Girl Scout Member. She is a Bay Area native and works as an HR Generalist. She loves finding and testing new recipes, watching 49ers football, and playing and hosting pub trivia events. Her writing has been featured by Pearson Education, Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, and local NPR radio stations.

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