As treatment programs proliferate and become more specialized, more and more programs are now designed to address specific needs, such as non-verbal learning disabilities, single-diagnosis and dual diagnosis substance abuse disorders, eating disorders, and so on. Behavioral healthcare providers, along with mainstream educators, are also discovering the power of gender-specialized treatment. Many researchers and practitioners now advocate, in particular, therapeutic boarding schools and treatment programs designed for adolescent girls or young women. If you are considering a treatment program for your daughter, there are several advantages to a single-gender environment that are worth considering.
The program at a girls’ treatment center can be designed to focus on issues that manifest differently in females than males, are gender sensitive, and/or have a higher statistical occurrence among females. These issues may include body image and associated eating disorders such as binging, purging, and/or restricting behaviors, trauma-especially sexual trauma, promiscuity and others. In addition, cognitive and developmental differences between adolescent boys and girls can be better accommodated by employing gender-specific treatment approaches. Brain science confirms that girls and boys differ cognitively; girls have a more developed corpus callosum leading to more developed language skills and better integration between left and right hemisphere function, and they tend to process more abstractly and less visually than boys. These and other cognitive and developmental differences mean that specialized treatment approaches designed around these differences can have a powerful impact. Psycho-educational groups, for instance, which tend to be topical, can be selected according to their relevance to an all-girl audience. The sensory and processing modalities emphasized in group and individual therapy can also be selected according to gender strengths.
Academic studies show that girls and young women are more inclined to participate verbally in group discussion in single-gender settings than in co-ed settings. This is important academically, as it engages females more intensively in the discussion component of learning, but it’s perhaps even more important therapeutically. Therapists in treatment settings find that girls also participate more freely in single-gender therapeutic groups-especially when the discussion turns to sensitive issues such as trauma, sexual abuse, or body image. Since participation is fundamental to benefitting from therapeutic groups, well-run girls’ and young women’s treatment programs can facilitate an accelerated healing process. Since a focus of treatment for many young women suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), promiscuity, or abusive relationships is on “finding their voice,” this increased participation in group discussion can have a positive impact on the treatment process. The more dynamically a young woman can experiment with her role and voice in a group setting, the more quickly she can develop a confident, authentic voice and lasting sense of self. This allows her to more effectively set and keep personal boundaries, advocate for herself, and find a meaningful role in any situation.
Children transitioning into adolescence and adolescents transitioning into adulthood universally grapple with the issue of identity formation. This struggle to answer the question “who am I” is compounded in young people with emotional, behavioral, and substance abuse issues. Researchers are finding that girls’ boarding schools and treatment programs can facilitate the process of identity formation by removing the burden and limitations of gender stereotypes. This means that adolescent girls and young women are freer to explore areas typically dominated by males. Vocationally and academically, girls are more likely to explore areas such as advanced math, computer science, and physics. Socially, girls are more likely to take on leadership roles in group activities, group therapy, and student governance in a single-gender environment. This increased breadth of experience and opportunity allows young women to explore identity options more freely, which means that they are more likely to find their most authentic voice, and passion, and place in the world.
One benefit of a girls’ treatment program is that it removes the distraction and pressure of cross-gender relationships. While it is, at best, debatable whether this is healthy over the long-term for either gender, it can create a short-term modicum of simplicity and safety that is beneficial to the treatment process. Studies, including one Australian study involving 270,000 students (conducted by the Australian Counsel for Educational Research, ACER), found that “boys and girls in single-sex schools were more likely to be better behaved and to find learning more enjoyable and the curriculum more relevant.” The more anecdotal experience of treatment professionals working with smaller samples of single-gender populations seems to support this finding. Girls in single-gender settings report less body-image pressure, less distraction in the form of romantic advances or showing off, and more freedom to “just be myself.” This reduced distraction can increase a young woman’s ability to focus on treatment and, in a therapeutic boarding school setting, academics and/or vocational preparation.
Over the last decade, treatment options have become increasingly specialized and have included gender-specific programming. Just as it is critical to find a treatment program or therapeutic boarding school that specializes in your daughter’s specific treatment issues, it can be important as well to select a program that will meet her needs as a young woman. Girls’ schools and programs, or co-ed programs with single-gender program elements (e.g. single-gender counseling groups or classes) can add one more level of beneficial specialization. The more specifically a program is equipped to deal with a certain population, the more effective and lasting the treatment process is likely to be.