13 and Depressed: Why Young Teen Girls Are at Risk

Why girls are more at risk for depression than boys and how to help them cope.

Posted Apr 25, 2018

nathan csonka/Flickr
Source: nathan csonka/Flickr

Until the age of 12 or 13, girls and boys experience roughly equal rates of depression. This changes dramatically by age 13; at that point, girls are twice as likely as boys to become depressed. This 2:1 ratio is present throughout adolescence and adulthood, so that one of the highest risk factors for depression is being female.

What is going on for girls around age 13? And why do early adolescent pressures affect them so much more than boys? Part of it is the way that girls respond to the problems, stress, and tumultuous change that is swirling around them. They don’t always know the best way to cope effectively with their strong emotional reactions and to the many conflicts that emerge at this age. Consider five key differences that increase girls’ risk for depression:

1. Girls are more likely than boys to experience multiple stressors at once. 

It is true that both adolescent girls and boys experience a lot of stress. The difference is that boys tend to react to the stressors differently, through externalizing the pressures. This can cause the problems we see with boys acting out — fighting, using substances, and aggressive behavior. Girls, however, are more likely to internalize the pressures, holding them in, blaming themselves for not being able to cope. So while both girls and boys may experience high levels of stress, girls are far more likely to become depressed in response to the stress. Also, girls are more likely than boys to experience multiple stressors all at once — including puberty. Girls' bodies are changing dramatically, their hormones are surging, and they often feel bewildered by what is happening to them. Imagine this stress paired with all of the other changes of early adolescence — transitioning to a new school and new academic expectations, dating, bullying, etc. — while also going through puberty at the same time! Boys are somewhat protected from this, because they tend to reach puberty at a later age than girls. Girls are more likely to be hit with everything at once, and to become depressed as a result.

2. Girls have greater emotional sensitivity than boys.

Girls have greater overall emotional intensity than boys and feel higher levels of almost every emotion. Studies of girls’ and boys’ brains show that girls can recognize and read emotions faster than boys, and while this can serve as a strength, this very same emotional sensitivity can also make them more vulnerable to depression1

3. Girls place more importance on relationships than boys.

Girls are socialized to base their self-esteem and personal worth on the success of their relationships and on gaining others’ approval, making them more sensitive to rejection by family, friends, or romantic partners, as compared to boys, who do not base their sense of self so heavily upon their relationships. The more time your daughter spends on her relationships, and the more she shares intimate details of her life with others, the more vulnerable she becomes when something goes wrong, as it so often does in adolescent girls’ tumultuous relationships. Feeling like everyone needs to like her and approve of her at all times, and that she is not okay if any of her relationships are not okay, can leave her prone to depression2.  

4. Girls are more likely than boys to have excessive empathy

Girls are also more likely to use excessive empathy in their relationships with others. Girls’ use of empathy is a positive, and empathy should be encouraged in all girls. Excessive empathy, however, involves taking on other people’s problems as if they were your own, and even feeling guilty because other people are suffering when you are not3. Just as your daughter’s emotional sensitivity can be both a gift and a risk factor for depression, so is her ability to take on others’ feelings and problems as if they are her own — it helps her connect with other people, but also leaves her vulnerable to depression. 

5. Girls are more likely than boys to co-ruminate. 

Rumination refers to the tendency to worry excessively about your problems, to blame yourself for every bad thing that happens, and to mull your shortcomings and mistakes over and over in your head instead of taking action to make the problem better. Girls are more likely to use this style of thinking than boys, and rumination is highly linked to depression. Girls, more so than boys, also talk about their feelings and problems with their friends. This is called co-rumination — ruminating with others, or sharing your weaknesses and problems in a way that just fuels negative thinking, rather than moving anything towards positive change. The more that girls co-ruminate with their friends, either in person or online, the more likely they are to become depressed over time4.  

What can parents do to help prevent depression in their daughters?

The reasons that one girl develops depression while another doesn't are not always easily understood. However, research shows that girls who develop effective coping and problem-solving skills are better protected from the risks described above. Based on these findings, here are two major ways parents can bolster their daughter’s resilience and protect her from depression risks during the transition to adolescence: 

1. When your daughter encounters issues that are causing stress, she can learn to identify the problem and how she wants to manage it.

Instead of worrying about the future or staying stuck by ruminating about the past, she can decide: (a) I can do something about this, so I will use effective problem-solving skills, or (b) I can’t change the situation, at least in the present moment, so I will do what I can to cope with it more effectively. 

If she decides to take action through problem-solving, she can practice the following model:

Problem-Solving Model 

     (a) Defining/operationalizing the problem:I am so tired I can’t get through the day. My friends are texting me late at night, and I have trouble telling them I need to go to sleep, because I want to be there for them if they need me.” 

     (b) Defining goals:I want to be more assertive with my friends, and I also want to get more sleep.”

     (c) Generating/brainstorming potential solutions: “I could tell my friends in advance that I will not have my phone after 10 p.m.” “I could turn my phone off.” “I could tell my friends at 9:30 that I will be placing my phone on Do Not Disturb.” “I could leave my phone in the family room at night.”

     (d) Evaluating consequences: “I will tell my friends I am making a change. I will put my phone on Do Not Disturb at 10 p.m., and I will not check it again until 7 a.m. when I wake up for school.”

     (e) Implementing action and evaluating results: “I missed out on a few things, but most of them weren’t important. My friends weren’t mad at me. I did get more sleep.”

2. Alternatively, if your daughter is facing a stressor that can’t really be changed through problem-solving, she might learn how to cope with it more effectively.

Your daughter should develop a solid coping-skills repertoire and have strategies she can implement, depending on a given situation. What does she need in the moment that will help her feel better? Help her develop a list for the following 5 categories5 :

Coping Skills Plan

  • Do something fun. What do I like to do for fun? (These are things I do because I like to do them, not because I have to do them.) 
  • Do something to release energy and stay healthy. What are some things I can do to move my body and reduce stress? Is there anything I need to do overall to practice better self-care (e.g., sleep, nutrition, exercise)? 
  • Do something soothing and relaxing. What do I like to do to relax? What can I do to add more relaxing activities or events into my day? 
  • Talk to someone about it. Who makes up my network of support right now? Who can I call when I am having a problem, so I can express my emotions? Who is someone that I trust will be there for me? How can I spend more time with supportive people? 
  • Change the way you think about it. Do I need to change the way I am thinking about the situation, so that it is less harsh and extreme? For example, if I believe I am a “loser” or “ruined,” because I didn’t get invited to a birthday party, I will become increasingly upset if I keep dwelling on these beliefs. 

To reconsider the situation, your daughter can ask herself three questions: 

1. “What is the evidence for what I am believing right now?” (“Hmm… I got invited to other parties. This is only one party, and I’m not really friends with this person anyway.”

2. “Is there another way to think about it?” (“I didn’t invite her to my party, so maybe it makes sense that I’m not invited to hers.”

3. “Would a friend say this to me right now?” (“No, no real friend would say I am a loser or that I’m ruined. They would just say that it’s only one party, and it’s not that big of a deal!”

Early adolescence is a difficult time for both our daughters and our sons, but our daughters are particularly at risk for depression during these years. Our efforts to help our daughters learn to increase their awareness of what they are thinking and feeling will go a long way towards helping them decide what to do in any given situation: Is it more effective to take steps to change the situation? Or to cope with it more effectively? Empowering her with these skills can keep her from staying stuck in her problems and free her to thrive during her adolescent years.  

Facebook image: Lopolo/Shutterstock

References

1 Deak, J. (2003). Girls will be girls: Raising confident and courageous daughters. New York: Hyperion Press. 

2 Essau, C.A., & Chang, W. C. (2009). Epidemiology, comorbidity, and course of adolescent depression. In C. A. Essau (Ed.), Treatments for adolescent depression: Theory and practice. (pp. 3-26). Oxford, NY. Oxford University Press.

3 Hankin, B. L., Wetter, E., & Cheely, C. (2008). Sex differences in child and adolescent depression: A developmental psychopathological approach. In J. R. Z. Abella & B. L. Hankin (Eds.), Handbook of depression in children and adolescents (pp. 377-415). New York, NY: Guilford Press. 

4 O’Keefe, G. S., Clarke-Pearson, K., & Council on Communications and Media. (2011). Clinical report – the impact of social media on children, adolescents, and families. Pediatrics: Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, 127, 800-804. doi:10.1542/peds.2011-0054

5 Stark, K. D., Streusand, W., Krumholz, L. S., & Partel, P. (2010). Cognitive behavioral therapy for depression: The ACTION treatment program for girls. In J. K. Weisz & A. E. Kazdin (Eds.), Evidence-based psychotherapies for children and adolescents (pp. 93-109). New York: Guilford Press.