Teen girls experience more stress and anxiety than ever before, and at a much higher rate than their male counterparts. Boston Medical Center recently found that 31% of girls and young women report anxiety symptoms, compared to 13% of boys and young men. As Laurel School’s Center for Research on Girls’ executive director, Lisa Damour spent 10 years studying this shift, blending her own clinical experience with national data. This new psychological frontier is the subject of Damour’s New York Times Bestseller Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls. Here, she breaks down the trend.
Cleveland Magazine: What’s led to such an alarming increase in girls’ stress levels?
Lisa Damour: Anxiety is not a “girl problem” — it’s just more likely to be seen in girls. Girls are excelling academically and achieving accomplishments we’ve never seen before — but at the same time, nothing’s come off their plates. We still expect girls to be agreeable and friendly, and our culture still places a huge emphasis on girls’ looks.
CM: What are other major stressors for today’s teens?
LD We’re seeing shorter sleep durations in teenagers and digital technology is often the culprit, partly because social media is so immersive for young people. It disrupts sleep — and when sleep is disrupted, stress and anxiety rates increase. Also, some take as many as 13 AP courses and high school sports have practically become a professional enterprise. We’ve ratcheted up the level of what we expect teenagers to accomplish in high school — which, unsuprisingly, contributed to how stressed they feel.
CM: How do you hope your book helps parents?
LD: Most psychologists don’t meet families until something is wrong — but parents raising kids for whom everything is going well still often find themselves feeling boggled and frustrated. The good news is that if their daughters are stressed and anxious, parents are likely to hear about it. But the challenge is making sure daughters aren’t discussing things so much that they’re actually making it worse — we call it “rumination,” [meaning] spinning wheels in emotions.
CM When it comes to teens’ stress, what does the future hold?
LD There’s a sense of despair around stress and anxiety, but there’s a tremendous amount we can do. This is something psychologists understand well. We have lots of options for treating it — so I don’t feel hopeless at all.
Damour breaks down three tips for parents hoping to curtail teen stress.
Fretting over the college admissions process can stress out the whole family. “Sometimes, kids think their parents have expectations that they really don’t,” Damour says, “so the earlier and more often they can articulate [expectations], it’s good for kids.”
“Whatever’s involved in getting enough sleep, just get enough,” she says. Sleep-deprived teens are more reactive, less able to cope and more emotionally fragile — all stress contributors. Also, tech must stay out of the bedroom. Damour suggests instituting a house rule, positioning it as a family-wide policy.
To reduce comparison-induced anxiety, parents can help daughters better contextualize social media images by discussing how curated and unrealistic they are. “The kind of media literacy we used to do for magazines, we now need to help young women do for the social media they both create and consume,” Damour says.
Appreciating stress and anxiety as a normal part of life helps keep your daughter from getting stressed about being stressed. Try recovery habits such as sports, cooking or even a light Netflix binge. “Focus less on trying to reduce stress and more on making sure your child has good systems for recovering from it,” Damour says.