Science Says Today’s Girls Are More Anxious Than Ever
Critical coping strategies for parents to help girls “under pressure.”
Posted Mar 01, 2019
Parents worry that their daughters constantly seem pressured and stressed. Turns out, most are. Studies show an alarming increase in the anxiety and stress experienced by girls starting at age 10 and through college.
If you have a daughter, you know: They are under enormous pressure to do well in school, to be socially engaged and accepted, to look good—any one of which can at times cause what feels like crippling stress or anxiety.
According to new Pew Center research, 7 in 10 teens see anxiety and depression as a major problem among their peers ages 13 to 17. Pew notes, “Girls are more likely than boys to say they plan to attend a four-year college...and they’re also more likely to say they worry a lot about getting into the school of their choice.” The Center’s research confirms “a larger share of girls than boys say they often feel tense or nervous about their day (36 percent vs. 23 percent, respectively, say they feel this way every day or almost every day).”
Adding to and percolating beneath those stressors are worries about bullying, drug addiction and alcohol use, relationships with boys, and, understandably, school shootings and what feels like a constant barrage of negative news. For young girls, many of whom are prone to overthinking a situation or incident, the pressure can feel relentless.
Ask any young lady you know, and she may tell you she feels anxious at a party, or she’s stressed by a disagreement she had with her best friend. She might be terrified by a speech she has to give in class or a test she doesn’t feel prepared to take. Or she could be nervous about what she will see the next time she opens Snapchat or Instagram. She might be stressed or anxious about an upcoming athletic competition or musical performance, or about what to do with a boy who is pursuing her (or isn’t).
If you have a daughter, you have to be asking yourself, “How can all this stress and anxiety be good, even beneficial?” As a parent in the trenches and the recipient of the outbursts, meltdowns, sulking, or silent treatment, you have to also be asking yourself, “How can I help effectively?”
Stress and Anxiety Are “Fraternal Twins”
Your daughter may hate feeling stressed or anxious; she may see these strong responses only as a plague. But they’re not necessarily a bad thing. It’s important to first understand how stress and anxiety play a role in anyone’s day-to-day functioning. Although stress and anxiety often merge in people’s minds and are used interchangeably, parents can help their daughters use both to their advantage.
Know that these “negative” emotions, and the body’s natural response to protect itself, can actually be harnessed for good. Lisa Damour, author of Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls, refers to stress and anxiety as “fraternal twins...they are both psychologically uncomfortable.” She defines stress as “feeling of emotional or mental strain or tension,” and anxiety as “the feeling of fear, dread, or panic.”
Just because stress and anxiety have become an epidemic for young girls doesn’t mean that stress and anxiety can’t be helpful—even good—especially if we reframe them as tools for moving in the right direction, instead of bad feelings that hold us back. Damour makes these points to keep in mind as you assist your daughter:
- It might be easier to run away at the first sign of stress or anxiety. But by teaching our daughters to face stressful situations, we help them build resilience.
- Stress and anxiety are byproducts of stepping out of one’s comfort zone. Operating beyond their comfort zone helps girls grow, especially when taking on new challenges.
- Analyzing an anxiety-producing situation with daughters helps them better evaluate if they are overreacting to how bad it is or underestimating their ability to deal with it.
Dr. Damour documents just how profound and weighty that pressure is at the same time she delivers strategies to alleviate it. She reassures parents that stress and anxiety can be a positive to help girls learn to take upsets and setbacks in their stride.
Transition Time Needed
In guiding your daughter, Dr. Damour recommends you think of your daughter’s brain as a snow or “glitter” globe turned upside down. The adolescent brain needs time for the “snow” to settle before it can think straight.
Once a parent understands how the adolescent brain functions, it is easier to allow your daughter transition time before rushing headlong into “bailouts” or making comments that are unproductive. This approach is valuable in the middle of an immediate “crisis.”
The transition time may be when your daughter races home after school, clearly upset, and heads to her room. Give her the space she needs, and when she emerges, discuss the situation or predicament she feels she’s in and the options she might have. Allow her to complain, then ask her what she thinks might help...or happen. The goal is have her understand that her stress or anxiety is, in Damour’s words, “only a thought or only a feeling.”
As we know, dismissing her fear or avoidance isn’t the right path; instead, strive to help her brainstorm her own solutions. Ask for ways she thinks she can handle or solve the problem. You will be surprised at her ability to figure it out with your composed guidance.
It’s Not About Rescuing Your Daughter
As parents, our first instinct is to bail out our daughter. And considering how strong these anxious emotions can be, it’s natural to feel compelled to swoop in and save the day. We want nothing but comfort and painlessness for our children. This, however, can lead to a parent becoming a crutch. We may make an excuse so she doesn’t have to take the test she says she can’t pass, or have her stay home from a party, because some friendship drama may be afoot, or even let her skip out on a recital or a play rehearsal or performance she committed to, all to protect from these endlessly stressful or anxiety-provoking situations that have created a meltdown.
Who hasn’t at times been at a loss for how to help? In her book, Dr. Damour offers parents a roadmap to step in and alleviate some of the pressure, but not in ways that parents are prone to believe are helpful.
Helping her avoid a situation will likely make the problem worse. Avoidance is only temporary relief. At some point, she’s going to have to face the test, face the boy, talk to her friend, join the conversation on Facebook, or perform in a recital or on an athletic field.
Instead of rushing to smooth the path to whatever a daughter’s conflict, drama, or worry of the moment, in most situations, parents can pause and lead them through it. Realize it’s better help to step back, calm their own alarm system, and encourage your daughter to find alternatives, think about what might happen, and come up with solutions she feels that she can handle or execute. Guide her to form long-lasting habits that empower her to handle her stress and anxiety instead of trying to erase it altogether (which, as we know, won’t happen).
Tamping Down Perfectionism
Gently steer your daughter away from perfectionism if she leans in that direction. This is one common route to anxiety in the first place. The idea of being perfect, particularly doing well in school, is a toxic pressure that both society and parents place on their daughters, Dr. Damour points out. It’s time for parents to help their overly stressed daughters pull back on the time and intensity they may be devoting to academics.
Under Pressure not only helps calm parents but also gives them the tools to be supportive when daughters face obstacles. The work done now will help build resilience for the inevitable upsets they will face in the future. I highly recommend this book.
Copyright @2019 by Susan Newman
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Damour, Lisa. (2019). Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls. New York: Ballentine Books.
Horowitz, Juliana Menasce and Graf, Nikki. (2019). “Most U.S. Teens See Anxiety and Depression as a Major Problem Among Their Peers.” Pew Research Center, February 20.
American Psychological Association. (20.18) “APA Stress in America™ Survey: Generation Z Stressed About Issues in the News but Least Likely to Vote.” October.