Teen Girl Guru

Michelle Dolan helps young women unlock their potential

Michelle Dolan0006Remember those teen years? Many women can recall the angst and insecurity of their adolescence and young adulthood, while new studies report that today’s teenagers face greater problems with depression and anxiety than did previous generations.

After working for almost thirteen years as a life coach for girls and young women, MICHELLE DOLAN knows she has found her mission helping clients navigate this critical, and often challenging, stage of life.

“Most girls don’t see the wealth they possess,” she says. “Coaching is very practical: I help them recognize what they have and can change their trajectory. I still pinch myself every day that I get to do what I do.”

While her clients come to her from many backgrounds and geographic locations, thanks to her largely online sessions, most of them share similar challenges, she says.

“The number-one issue that parents tend to call me about is the social aspect: they feel their daughters are not connecting with people; they have no motivation,” she says. “They seem to lack the ability to make and maintain friendships.”

The root of this malaise, according to Dolan, is an addiction to their phones, which she says creates a habit of consuming rather than contributing.

“We are happiest when we are contributing to something rather than consuming narratives, which happens when they are scrolling [on their phones]. They think this is relaxing, but it’s not true. I hear the word ‘anxiety’ every day; parents tell me ‘My daughter is consumed with anxiety.’”

Times of transition (middle school into high school, senior year of high school with its many decision points, and moving on to higher education or the job market after high school) are times of high anxiety, Dolan points out.

“Teens are trying to discern what’s true through all the voices they hear. One of the most prevalent problems is they let themselves be taken hostage on a feelings roller-coaster,” she says, explaining that coaching encourages them to try things they believe they are not good at. And guess what? They often prove to themselves they have those abilities.

For example, Dolan’s clients often believe they aren’t good at conversations, so they stay away from social situations where they might feel awkward. In her early sessions, Dolan engages them in conversation, and can soon point out how interesting and articulate they are.

Her primary job is not to talk, but to listen and then to “coach the courage out” from inside them, as she puts it.

“Part of the art of coaching is the ability to hear where [the client’s] heart is beating loudest, and where she would be willing and ready to start. You want to start the process at just the right place. We aim for a couple of micro-steps per week,” she says. “I take the ‘life work’ [process] a step further, asking her what she would like to try this week: what she wants and what is the next small step to take. They learn the skill of not overshooting, but start the habit of breaking down [a goal] into small steps in the right directions. Nine times out of ten they overperform.”

Dolan says she has always loved working with young people and was a camp counselor and volunteered in other youth-related capacities as she was growing up. When, in her 30s, she experienced a career crossroads, her husband asked her what she’d really like to do. In thinking about that, she remembered her middle school experiences.

“I was going through a crisis of self-esteem, but my parents didn’t know,” she recalls. “I let horrible things stick to me. So, when I had the opportunity to think through what I really wanted to do in my career, I wanted to become the person I needed when I was 13.”

Dolan found a coaching program specifically designed for use with teenaged girls and young women. She flew out to California for the training and became certified.

“That certification has proved its worth over these years,” she says. “I was equipped to be an excellent coach.”

Often, Dolan is approached by parents who are concerned about their daughter. Sometimes, it’s the young women themselves who find her website, michelledolan.com, and contact her. She often works with parents as well as the teen or young adult clients, but separately. If a medical condition is part of a girl’s problem, Dolan works collaboratively with therapists and medical professionals.

Much of her work with parents is to help them make the transition to a new parent-child relationship.

“The parent function changes slightly as a teen ages up,” she explains. “You are a fixer when your child is young. As parents, we’re great at solving problems. But as your children age, don’t solve the problem right off: create a space for them to figure it out. Ask, ‘What do you think is best? You have great ideas.’ Validate their ideas but don’t fix the problem for them. That’s a different habit for a parent, but it’s the way to start fostering their appropriate independence.”

To start with a client, this “Teen Girl Coach” sets up six weeks’ worth of weekly sessions, which can be extended another six-to-eight weeks if need be.

“I want to coach [clients] to fly and be on their own,” she says. “We start with more intensity to gain momentum, but as they gain health and a better attitude, as they’re taking good risks, and you see evidence they’ve grown, you could spread out sessions to a monthly check-in. My goal is not to be on the family payroll. My goal is to see them fly.”

To view more of photographer Terah Hoobler’s work, go to terahhoobler.com.

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Categories: Features