Why Young Girls Are Struggling and What Parents Can Do

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I just need a break.
I need one season off.
I need one day to stop stressing.
I need one free week in the summer.
I need a break.

These words echo through my office during any given week, most often uttered by bleary-eyed middle and high school students, though some as young as eleven will dare to whisper, “I just want to be a kid.” It’s no big secret that many kids feel the push (and the drive) to succeed at a young age. Girls, in particular, feel the pressure.

Young girls today hear some very conflicting messages laced with stress and pressure. You can be whatever you want to be, but you can’t stop (won’t stop) working until you get there. You can go to any college and chase down any dream, but you better be the best at everything to make those dreams come true. Lean on your teammates and classmates. Work together. Lift each other up. But remember to focus on your own goals and personal success.

On the one hand, young girls feel empowered. They no longer live in the shadow of their male counterparts. They know they have voices and they’re learning how to use them. On the other hand, they face immeasurable stress from a variety of sources, some even self-imposed, and they are facing higher rates of anxiety and depression .

Without proper supports in place to help girls learn to cope with increased stress, they feel isolated and overwhelmed.

Results of a 40-year study on suicide among boys and girls published in JAMA showed that the rates of suicide for girls 10 to 14 increased 12.7% per year (compared to 7.1% for boys the same age) beginning in 2007. A similar increase was seen among teens 15 to 19, with rates of suicide going up 7.9% for girls and 3.5% for boys. The study also found that girls are increasingly using more lethal means, such as hanging and suffocation.

Don't clip your child's wings. Your toddler's mission in life is to gain independence. So when she's developmentally capable of putting her toys away, clearing her plate from the table, and dressing herself, let her. Giving a child responsibility is good for her self-esteem (and your sanity!).

Why are young girls under so much pressure?

Anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation are all highly complex issues, and no two girls are the same. There are some common themes that emerge when dealing with the stress girls face right now, but it’s important to remember that every girl has her own story to tell. All girls have their own stressors and respond to those stressors in their own way.

Some common stressors girls face can include:

• Academic pressure • Achievement pressure (school, sports , extracurricular activities) • Relational aggression • Family discord • Chronic medical conditions • Sleep deprivation • Pushed beyond developmental level • Lack of downtime • Lack of unstructured time • Fast tracking girlhood (pushing girls up before they’re ready) • Social media (comparisons, FOMO, cyberbullying) • Perfectionism • Fears about safety • Untreated mental health issues • Lack of social support • Inadequate access to help • Negative communication/relationships in the home

What can parents do to help girls thrive?
Girls can learn to cope with their stress. The earlier they learn that stress if part of life but they can find strategies to cope with it and people to support them through the most difficult times, the better prepared they will be for increased stress levels as they grow.

In short, start young.

Talk about stress and mental health.
Don’t shy away from these important topics. One thing girls tell me often is that they felt completely unprepared for the stress of middle school because they never knew stress could actually affect them.

While some girls get through middle school with relatively little stress, others do feel overwhelmed by the changes (both internal and external.) You can help your daughter prepare for this developmental period by bringing stress and mental health to the table.

Play with your children. Let them choose the activity, and don't worry about rules. Just go with the flow and have fun. That's the name of the game.

Talk about the differences between stress and anxiety. Discuss possible triggers and how stress and anxiety can manifest in the body. Share your own symptoms as examples. Do you suffer headaches when you’re stressed ? Tell your daughter that. Headaches are a common symptom of stress among young girls.

Talking about these things won’t cause your daughter to experience stress or anxiety, but avoiding these topics just might.

Prioritize sleep. Sleep deprivation is a major issue among middle and high school students right now. The changing brain and late extra-curricular activities coupled with early school start times can make the sleep problem feel like a losing battle.

Talk about sleep hygiene with your daughter. Create a healthy sleep plan to get those coveted 9-11 hours of sleep each night. Discuss how nutrition , exercise, and sleep all work together to support optimal brain health and development. Get those devices out of the bedroom!

While some nights might be a struggle due to activities and homework, it’s still important to follow a consistent sleep schedule. That might mean making hard decisions about activities and overhauling the weekly schedule, but the benefits will be far greater than the disappointment of cutting back.

Remember that the positive aspects of the Internet outweigh the negatives. The Internet is an excellent educational and recreational resource for children. Encourage your child to make the most of it and explore the internet to its full potential.

Factor in family time.
Sure, kids naturally gravitate toward their peers as they grow. That’s a healthy part of growing up. They do, however, continue to need the support that family provides. While mandatory family fun days might result in an eye roll, simply making time for family (no frills required) on a consistent basis sends the message that family is important.

When families are always running in different directions, they feel disconnected and exhausted. When they free up time to just be together, they feel supported.

Listen to your girls.
This is a big one. It’s natural for parents to want to protect their kids from upset and fix problems as they occur, but young girls want to feel heard. They want to get their feelings out without worrying about how you might handle it.

Listening is the most important parenting tool in the kit, and learning to manage your own reactions as you listen and empathize will change how your daughter copes with and manages stress as she grows.

Practice relaxation strategies.
While deep breathing is the secret sauce when it comes to working through panic attacks and acute stress reactions, there is no one secret strategy that works for everyone else. Learning to cope with stress involves some trial and error.

You can start by introducing these strategies:

• Deep breathing (this one is a MUST) • Progressive muscle relaxation • Yoga • Mindfulness • Journaling • Creative outlets • Daily exercise • Gardening • Knitting • Puzzles • Text a friend

Get help.
If symptoms of stress, anxiety, and/or depression interfere with your daughter’s ability to focus in school, socialize with peers, or function within the family, get help right away. The sooner your daughter gets the help she needs to learn to manage her emotional health, the sooner she will return to her previous level of functioning.

If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal ideation, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

Thandie Newton (mom of two girls Ripley and Nico): “I’ve learned the value of absorbing the moment. I remember the first time Ripley saw her shadow. My God, it was like shadows had just been invented. It was the most exquisite moment.”