‘The Adolescent Girl in Conflict’ by Gisela Konopka

Gisela Konopka (1966) The adolescent girl in conflict Englewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice Hall

Gisela Konopka (1910-2003) was born in Germany of Polish Jewish parents who had fled the pogroms in Poland; active in German youth movements before the rise of the Nazis, she met her future husband Paul Konopka and they both joined the resistance to Nazism. After she was briefly held in a concentration camp, they both left Germany, she for Austria where she was imprisoned again. They were ultimately reunited in France from where they emigrated to the US in 1941 and were married.

Entering the Pittsburgh School of Social Work, she encountered group work and became a lifelong advocate, introducing it to her native country after the war. She spent most of her working life at the Minnesota School of Social Work, formally retiring in 1978 but continuing to work into her nineties.

Interestingly, at her death, most of the obituaries highlighted her work with adolescent girls and this book in particular rather than her contributions to group work.

Key Points

  • Studies of adolescence focus on boys.
  • Girls’ needs are more complex than boys’.
  • Delinquent girls see themselves as ‘delinquents’ rather than as ‘girls’.
  • Delinquent girls lack satisfying relationships with adults and are often prevented from developing satisfying relationships with their peers.
  • Girls tend to see rejection as personal rather than as related to social attitudes.
  • The only escape for working class girls from a life of drudgery at home and at work is to marry a wealthy man.
  • Even with equal opportunities, the opportunities for boys are still wider than for girls.
  • Most delinquent girls had never received any praise, something which is more important for girls than for boys because their self-esteem is more reliant on acceptance from others.
  • The situations of delinquent girls can be best understood though their experiences of puberty, their relationships with their mothers, their working class status and the absence of satisfying relationships with adults.
  • Young people should be seen as full members of society, barriers to communication should be removed so that there can be open discussion, the stigmatisation of unmarried mothers should end, there should be more appropriate youth services and there should be an end to all practices which degrade young women.


In Chapter 1 The study, she begins with examples of the isolation and vulnerability of young girls in three countries and points out that the only studies bridging the gap in understanding between the generations have been about boys. Yet girls can have both negative and positive influences on boys – provoking rivalry and reducing their offending. Meanwhile, those who care for girls in institutions are often bewildered by them and are unimaginative, whereas girls’ needs are often more complex than those of boys. She suggests that the lack of imagination is linked to the sexual potential of girls.

She therefore set out both to understand girls and to demonstrate how social group work could help them. Not being able to undertake a large study, she chose to look at those in homes for delinquent girls and for unmarried mothers.

She then surveys the existing literature on delinquency, pointing out that it focuses on boys and says nothing about girl delinquents. So, starting from the modern scientific viewpoint that objectivity is impossible, she decides to ignore theory and focus on listening to what the girls have to say in order to see the world through their eyes. She wrote individually to each of the girls in the institutions before her arrival, telling them about the purpose of her study, and visited each institution for several days at a time to share in the life of the girls, including queuing with the girls for meals, during the study.

Individual interviews, tape recorded wherever the girl was happy with that, were held in their living quarters and usually began with a question about what the girl thought others did not understand about being a girl. The girls were also asked if they had any diaries or poetry that could be used in the study and whether she could read their files. If they declined this last, their material was left out of the formal study. Very few of the stories they told differed from those in the records.

Group sessions with the girls were recorded and transcribed. In addition two groups were held outside institutions, one of girls released on parole and the other of girls on probation who had not been in an institution. In all, 181 girls from 14-19 years old participated, over a hundred being subject to court orders and 76 unmarried mothers, who were mostly from middle-class families where illegitimate pregnancy was unacceptable.

The girls were also able to telephone her at home and she found the stress of hearing the girls’ stories extremely difficult but she knew it was vital to listen to them whether or not she agreed with what they were saying.

In Chapter 2 They are people, she first describes how the girls had stopped seeing themselves as girls and saw themselves as delinquents and then goes on to say that people view delinquency a bit like illness before we understood how different microbes cause different illnesses in different people and how some have no adverse effect. It involves many different behaviours caused in many different ways in many different people but broadly includes behaviour which would be against the law regardless of the age of the person, infringements of moral codes and age-related behaviour such as truancy. The only common factor is that the girls are in conflict with society in some way.

Then she tells the stories of individual girls: Bertha, who had stolen her teacher’s cheque book in primary school and signed her own name in it, had been in and out of institutions, running away, committing offences, assaulting staff, ending up in prison and then having a child. Doris, whose father and step-father had both died when she was young, matured early, had her first child at twelve, left home at fourteen and had another child before being locked up, allegedly as a result of a false allegation. Mary, who had been maltreated repeatedly by her parents and first placed by them in care at five, had later been in foster care for a while before going into foster and then residential care when her parents went into hospital. However, when she returned home, her parents having divorced and her mother remarried, she had little idea of how to behave and found herself in the middle of her parents’ fights. So she got pregnant to get out of home but the child was stillborn. She was then put on probation for being drunk and in the institution for breach of probation. Bea had come from a good family against whom she had rebelled, first playing truant from school and then ending up in an institution.

In Chapter 3 Loneliness in an anonymous world, she argues that we rely on others throughout our lives but says that the girls experienced early adolescence as an abandonment, no longer children but not yet mature enough to make all their own decisions. Ironically, those who had ended up in care were then told not to rely on their friends in care. Yet they yearned for satisfying relationships.

Before that, many had been unprepared for and unsupported through the onset of periods which left them ill-prepared for the mother-daughter competition which often characterises adolescence; this does not necessarily involve conflict but many girls were unable to communicate with adults, let alone their mothers, about these issues. They often had negative views of adults and would take revenge on them by, for example, stealing – which young people who had not been in trouble also admitted doing. Even where they admitted more positive relationships with some adults, they did not feel the adults understood them.

Of course, some of the parents had been stigmatised or punished for their daughters’ misdeeds which made it more difficult for them to support their daughters, particularly if they were single mothers. This made the girls feel bad, a feeling that was compounded if they never received any praise from their parents. Victims of sexual abuse from their fathers would also be rejected. Some had been rejected or abused in care where they were supposed to be protected.

A common factor was the absence of loving care from any of the adults in their lives – even the detached youth workers who were supposed to be helping them tended to focus on boys rather than on girls. One consequence was that many had no idea of what a loving adult might be like and did not know how to communicate with them. So a probation officer might dismiss them as uncommunicative when the real problem was their lack of trust in any adult. Ironically, finding one they could trust simply highlighted the difficulties they had with all the others. They were particularly critical of double standards among adults.

Girls from minority groups who had been accepted at primary school found themselves rejected at secondary school and made the butt of sexual remarks. American Indians tended to respond to this by not speaking; some of them found it difficult to speak to her or to accept help from others. However, the girls tended to see their rejections as personal rather than as part of wider social attitudes, including when they chose a boyfriend from another ethnic group. They also tended not to review their own prejudices, even when they became aware of the effects prejudices were having on them.

In Chapter 4 The impact of cultural change on women’s position, she looks at the emancipation of women and the changing definitions of what it means to be ‘feminine.’ This had been largely a middle-class fight; working-class women had had manual jobs outside the home for centuries as well as all the housework without the labour-saving devices now available to middle-class women. Even in Nazi Germany the move to get women back to the home had only affected middle-class women.

The traditional way for a working-class woman to escape this drudgery was to marry a man wealthy enough to relieve her of all this labour; so middle-class exhortations to escape the drudgery by working hard and getting themselves educated fell on deaf ears. Yet there was a fairy tale quality to their aspirations, which were out of touch with the reality that none of the institutions in which they were placed prepared them for any jobs which would give them self-esteem. They were discouraged from considering ‘masculine’ careers and the jobs they could take were all poorly paid.

A couple of the girls were highly intelligent, one having become isolated because her mother was not and could not respond to her, and another because her school could not cope with her intelligence and she had ended up in an institution without having committed an offence.

Another consequence of female emancipation had been wider opportunities to travel, previously only available to boys, but these were not open to working-class girls. Though moves towards racial equality were emancipating girls from minority ethnic groups, this did not apply to delinquent girls – they were still trapped.

In Chapter 5 Ways out of loneliness, she writes that delinquent girls are normally excluded from social groups in which they can find a sense of belonging. Yet they live in groups in institutions and are then told they cannot communicate with any member of the group when they leave. Once outside, they end up in groups of girls who are themselves part of no other group, though only two had been in a gang. Youth clubs seemed to be geared to naturally confident children whose parents would support the club.

So the girls would join a crowd, rather than a group, or make a romantic relationship where even an abusive relationship was better than none at all. The delinquent girls were more idealistic than the unmarried mothers about these relationships but the latter had often been caught in an ’emotional rape’ where having sex was proof that their love was true. Consequently, both groups found it difficult to articulate what a loving relationship might be like.

In practice their values were conservative and the closest they often came to a loving relationship was with another girl in a institution, something they valued intrinsically but in some cases because they thought they were unworthy of a relationship with a boy, because of their bad experiences of men or because of their fear of pregnancy. Occasionally such relationships turned into openly lesbian ones, sometimes as an act of rebellion, sometimes in revenge on a lover, but these often led to more loneliness, both because of the lack of opportunities to talk about such feelings and because some female staff acted repressively to any suggestion of sexual touch between girls.

In Chapter 6 Increasingly low self-image, she notes that self-respect develops first from the approbation of others, something which many of the girls had never experienced. Even though many had average intelligence, their lower attainments at school because of problems at home meant they never got any praise from school either. Or if they did, it would be for accomplishments in less highly regarded creative subjects. One way out is to seek a relationship with a boy but, if that fails, guilt and despair can set in, leading to suicide which is generally an intentional and not an attention-seeking move.

Gisela Konopka argues that adolescent girls are more disadvantaged than adolescent boys because their self-concept is more closely tied to their acceptance as a woman and because they do not have the same outlets for self-expression as adolescent boys. Because aggression is seen as ‘unfeminine,’ they tend to avoid offences which involve any form of assault but, when they are institutionalised, they are subject to frequent assaults on their self-esteem. She illustrates the consequences of all these assaults on a girl’s self-esteem with an extract from a conversation with Dorothy.

In Chapter 7 Emerging theory, she argues the girls’ situations need to be understood in relation to:

  • the onset of puberty
  • a complex identification process
  • changes in the position of women in society
  • loneliness brought about by ‘faceless’ adults.

The onset of puberty is more obvious for girls and resembles an injury but it reminds girls that pregnancy involves the whole person, which it doesn’t for boys. Poor relationships with their mothers have a particular impact for girls. Women’s emancipation has had little impact on working-class women and has heightened awareness of racial inequalities. The first three apply to all girls; those who come into conflict with society end up isolated from it and in particular from adult relationships.

In Chapter 8 We are responsible, she argues that everyone, including the girls, are responsible for addressing the situation and that “too much restriction and too much leniency” (p. 125) are both harmful. Young people must be seen as full members of society and the barriers to communication with adults which are at the heart of the distress the girls experience must be removed. Some of these barriers relate to adult ambivalence about their own experiences which often come out in double standards in areas such as gender roles and discrimination against members of minority ethic groups. Schools, youth organisations and churches need to be able to discuss things openly and without the hypocrisy that surrounds many current discussions. Issues like prostitution are not only about delinquency but also about economic deprivation and male attitudes to women.

She calls for an end to the stigmatisation of unmarried mothers and the brutal ways in which they are often treated, for equal status to be given to marriage and to employment alongside equal opportunities in the workplace, for new types of more democratically organised youth services which meet the needs of working-class girls and which have working-class youth leaders and for delinquency services which offer continuing adult, male and female, relationships to girls, encourage girls to take a positive role in a changing world, release their creative abilities, recognise the importance of the girls’ peer groups and do not engage in degrading practices.

An Appendix offers a transcript of one of the group sessions which formed the basis for the research.


This is a very literate book written by a highly educated woman who is up-to-date with the latest ideas but has no problem allowing herself to get involved in the daily lives of girls forty years her junior and sharing in their pain. This combination of high academic understanding and the ability to get involved in the nitty-gritty of residential life would probably make it unique. But she also brings out all the issues around gender, race, class and sexual abuse which still animate discussions today, presenting them with a clarity and a sympathy which is rarely present in accounts of these topics today.

She attempts an unusual style of research, engaging as a person with those whose experiences she wishes to study even to the extent of allowing telephone contact with her at home. In so doing, she does not cite “a neutral stance is impossible in a delinquent society” (Polsky, 1962, p. 117) but draws on ideas from natural science research which were later to be articulated by Capra (1982) and Prigogine and Stengers (1984).

She anticipates Gilligan’s argument (1982) that developmental research focuses on boys and fails to take account of the different development of girls and she identifies the significance of many of the issues, such as a secure attachment, positive peer group relationships and a happy family, with not “too much restriction and too much leniency” (p. 125), which were to be confirmed in later research as important in avoiding low attainments and anti-social behaviour (Rutter, 1971; Ladd, 2005). She also recognises the differential development of girls in early adolescence which makes relationships more important for girls at this age than for boys (Archer, 1992).

She offers an explanation for why suicide attempts are higher among adolescent girls than boys whereas male suicides outnumber female suicides overall, but she differs from later authors (Irwin, 1977; Kerfoot, 1984) in arguing that these are real attempts rather than cries for attention, something which may be the case because adolescents tend not to know how to commit suicide successfully and 40% make a second attempt.

In arguing that delinquent girls are the victims of the complex interaction of a number of social processes rather than just the victims of their own development or lack of good parenting, she sets out both an explanation for why there has been so little success in addressing the needs of women offenders (Commission on Women and the Criminal Justice System, 2004) and a challenge to all those working with girls to take a holistic approach to their needs and not to be satisfied with simple solutions to complex needs.


Archer, J (1992) Childhood gender roles: social context and organisation In H McGurk (Ed.) Childhood social development: contemporary perspectives, pp. 31-61 Hove: Lawrence Erlbaum

Capra, F (1982) The turning point: science, society and the rising culture London: Wildwood House

Commission on Women and the Criminal Justice System (2004) Women and the Criminal Justice System London: Fawcett Society

Gilligan, C (1982) In a different voice: psychological theory and women’s development London: Harvard University Press

Irwin, E M (1977) Growing pains: a study of teenage distress Plymouth: Macdonald and Evans

Kerfoot, M J (1984) Deliberate self-poisoning in childhood and early adolescence Manchester: Manchester University Press

Ladd, G W (2005) Children’s peer relations and social competence: a century of progress London: Yale University Press

Polsky, H W (1962) Cottage Six: the social system of delinquent boys in residential treatment New York: Wiley See also Children Webmag March 2010

Prigogine, I and Stengers, I (1984) Order out of chaos: man’s new dialogue with nature London: Heinemann

Rutter, M (1971) Parent-child separation: psychological effects on the children Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 12 (4), 233-260

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