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“Reviving Ophelia”: Saving Adolescent Girls… Again

The updated edition tackles adolescent girls' and parents' new challenges.

Source: Rahmani-Kresna/Unsplash

We still live in what clinical psychologist Mary Pipher called "a girl-poisoning culture" in the 1990s when her book Reviving Ophelia stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for three years. Defining cultural elements have changed, and the updated 25th Anniversary edition addresses the challenges this generation of parents and their adolescent girls face.

Young girls are lonelier in spite of and because of social media, and many of their difficulties are distinctively different from the drug culture their peers struggled with in that earlier time. While girls today are less likely to be in trouble for their drinking or sexual behavior, they have a greater chance of becoming depressed, anxious, or suicidal. (Read below for girls’ mental health details as well as the positives for girls and family relationships in 2019.)

But, I’ll let co-authors Mary Pipher and her daughter Sara Gilliam, a teenager when the original book was published, explain their personal struggles and how this new edition supports problems mother-daughter dyads encounter today while also showcasing good news about the opportunities girls now have.

The evolution of Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls--the 25th Anniversary edition by Mary Pipher and Sara Pipher Gilliam:

In the early 1990s, Mary was a therapist working primarily with adolescent girls and their families. Teenagers arrived at her office with all kinds of problems—school refusal, pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, alcohol and drug abuse, and intense conflict with their families. Parents felt confused, frustrated and desperate. Girls appeared sullen, defiant and angry—especially at their mothers. Meanwhile, their mothers were the people who worked the hardest to understand and help them. At that time, most therapists diagnosed families with troubled children as dysfunctional. But Mary saw something else. Girls were crashing into a toxic culture that neither they nor their parents understood. She wrote Reviving Ophelia to share what she knew about how our culture was affecting teenagers’ mental health.

Sara, a typical nineties high schooler, sped around Lincoln, Nebraska in a battered Honda Civic and spent every evening talking to friends on her landline. Her peers experimented with drugs and smoked cigarettes in the back room of the Red and Black Cafe. She loved her parents but they argued about boundaries and Sara was often grounded for missing curfew. She couldn’t wait to graduate, move out and start her real life.

Our relationship was typical of mother-daughter dynamics in the 90s. We loved each other and experienced moments of genuine closeness punctuated by a fair amount of conflict. We argued over limits and appropriate behavior. Sara was convinced that she was ready to be independent and resented her mother’s attempts to slow her down and set limits. Mary was stunned that Sara wasn’t always respectful to her; as a child she had never spoken a harsh word to her own mother.

A few months after Reviving Ophelia’s publication, Sara left for college. While she toiled in freshman biology, Reviving Ophelia steadily climbed the New York Times bestseller list, where it remained for three years, including 52 weeks in the number one spot. Mary heard from people all over the country that the book had inspired mother-daughter reading clubs, parenting support groups, and girl’s empowerment activities. Schools, therapists and parents changed how they thought about family dynamics and adolescent girls. After 1994, girls’ mental health improved steadily for more than two decades. Our society seemed to be getting a handle on adolescent girls’ needs.

Courtesy of the Publisher
Source: Courtesy of the Publisher

Eighteen months ago, we set out to revise and update Reviving Ophelia for a new generation. While much of the original book still felt relevant, we recognized that we needed to address the cultural changes that have redefined the landscape for today’s adolescent girls—school shootings, global terrorism and climate change, the 24-hour news cycle, and the advent of smartphones and social media. Girls today are coming of age in an exceptionally difficult political, social and economic environment. They are stressed about academics, melting polar ice caps and refugees halfway around the globe. Girls of color are anxious about their personal safety in this era of polarization and hateful discourse. All of these cultural changes have resulted in a dramatic decline in adolescents’ mental health.

After 2007, girls’ well-being began a steady plummet downward. By 2016, three times more 12- to 14-year-old girls committed suicide than did in 2007. We believe there is a direct and unassailable connection between this diminishing happiness and the launch of smartphones. Devices and the internet have made girls vulnerable to 24/7 bullying and encouraged the development of false selves. Today’s adolescent girls are embedded primarily in electronic communities. Outside of school, they tend to have little face-to-face interaction with peers, and they rarely interact with their neighbors. They shop, socialize and seek entertainment and affirmation online. Rather than developing relationships, they spend their emotional energy creating an attractive and compelling virtual persona; instead of going out for meals or movies, they text friends from the comfort of their bedrooms. This has created a new kind of loneliness in teenage girls. They have 500 followers, but no true friends.

Today’s girls are highly reactive to every notification they receive from social media sites. Rather than doing the inner work necessary to develop a strong sense of self, many girls rely on likes for validation. They sleep with their phones on and describe pressure to stay connected at all times. Some sense that something is missing in this digitally-driven culture and express nostalgia for the “olden days” of dating, reading novels and chatting with friends.

The advent of smartphones also brought about a dramatic change in girls’ sense of their own independence and agency. They can call or text their parents any time, from anywhere. Parents can use apps to track their daughters’ location and relationships. This means girls have limited experience navigating problems on their own.

This first generation of digital natives is struggling with technology whose effects none of us truly understand. Parents are worried but mostly ineffectual when dealing with their daughters’ social media use. They know little about girls’ online lives. As one mother put it, “I am holding on to my daughter with my fingernails.”

Yet, there is much good news to report about contemporary adolescent girls. They are focused on academics and genuinely accepting of others. Girls in 2019 are less likely to binge drink, use drugs, or get pregnant. Compared to earlier generations, they are less homophobic and racist and more gender fluid. Youth activism and political expression are skyrocketing, led by cadre of ambitious and confident young women and bolstered, at least in part, by social media.

Perhaps best of all, the family unit has reclaimed its significance and closeness. Divorce rates are at a 40-year low. Most girls today are fond of their dads, whom they describe as warm, goofy and interested in joining them for morning jogs and movie nights. Unlike girls in 1994, most of today’s teens report loving their moms. The demonization of mothers that peaked in the 80s and 90s has waned. Many girls in our focus groups referred to their moms as their best friends. Mothers today are dialed in to their daughters’ mental health, and are eager to help them access therapy and other supportive resources. Family harmony is the rule, not the exception. In part, this is because girls are not pushing back on rules; additionally, as the world grows more difficult, girls increasingly turn toward the love and security of family.

Meantime, a great deal happens between a mother and daughter across 25 years. Sara left Nebraska for a decade, then returned, fell in love, married and had two children. Mary became a grandmother and published nine more books. Our relationship changed from one of conflict to one of cooperation. We express our affection for each other openly, something that didn’t happen much in 1994.

In many ways, writing the 25th anniversary edition of Reviving Ophelia brought us full-circle; the “original Ophelia” (Sara’s occasional nickname in our family) and “America’s therapist” united with a common goal: supporting a new generation of mothers and daughters. In facilitating focus groups and diving into current research, we were reminded repeatedly of shared history and we emerged feeling nostalgic and appreciative of our former selves. Across the decades, we have navigated not only our own relationship but the culture’s relationship with girls. We have come out on the other side, content and motivated, inspired to work for a better future. We hope our readers will feel the same.

Mary Pipher is also the author of Women Rowing North: Navigating Life’s Currents and Flourishing As We Age

Related: Science Says Today’s Girls Are More Anxious Than Ever