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Why Are Girls So Stressed?

View of School
Adolescent girls have a whole different way of looking at school, where they spend the majority of their weekday time and confront many of the hurdles to their success. Boys are typically unemotional about school; they see these years as a means to an end or a goal that simply needs to be achieved. Because they tend to look at the big picture rather than at the details that often preoccupy girls, they are not as reactive to the goings-on--or as inclined to take disappointments or setbacks personally.

For teen girls, however, school is all about the process. What happens throughout each and every school day--academically, socially, and emotionally--becomes a yardstick of their success. Every moment really matters.

Even relatively minor issues that accumulate throughout seven hour school days aggravate girls' pressure. For example, one middle schooler recounted this classic, bad-day scenario: "A bunch of little things happened that weren't all that important, but it got under my skin. A stupid thing like the cafeteria lady yelled at me for putting my tray back in the wrong place and then I was late to PE because I forgot where I put my bag. My Spanish teacher was in a bad mood, I got a horrible grade on my English paper . . ." On and on, teen girls recall--and often discuss, obsess, and agonize about--the litany of dissatisfactions and frustrations that might never appear on the radar screens of their y-chromosomed classmates.

Importance of Relationships
Peer group acceptance is crucial for most adolescents. But as described by Jean Baker Miller in Women's Growth in Connection, girls' self-worth develops primarily within the context of their relationships. Their sense of who they are is based in large part on how they impact other people. Teen girls feel most accomplished in school not only when they get good grades, but also when they are in sync with the people most important to them. Unless girls see their friendships and relationships with parents and teachers as strong and satisfying, they do not feel truly successful.

That is why teen girls keep a running mental inventory of the status of all their relationships. They review puzzling conversations, ponder compelling social exchanges, and imagine how others perceive their interactions. Continually noting, evaluating, and reassessing the quality of these relationships gives girls a moment-to-moment reading on how others view them. Yet these efforts, which require tremendous mental and emotional energy, can further exhaust girls.

Of course, social ups and downs are inevitable. But by listening to teen girls, I found that each up and each down during the course of every school day really counts. Each becomes a measure, however fleeting, of girls' self-worth.

For this reason, a teacher's offhand remark, a parent's irritation, or a friend's baffling expression are often more stressful for girls than adults would imagine. More than boys, girls feel like failures when they think they upset someone, can't help a friend, or let down an adult. Accordingly, these everyday events affect girls differently and far more powerfully than they do boys.

Lucinda, a high school sophomore, came to me for therapy when she became increasingly depressed and lonely after being rebuffed by one of her oldest and closest friends. In our sessions she speculated incessantly about what might have happened, what she possibly could have done to provoke her friend's rejection, and how she might go about regaining her friend's good opinion. Around that time I was also seeing a teenage boy who told a similar story about a good friend who suddenly began to ignore him. "So what did you do?" I asked Tim. He looked at me quizzically for a moment. "I changed my lunch table," he shrugged.

Ability to Read People
Far more than boys, girls are socialized to interpret body language and other subtle nonverbal behavior. However, their skill at detecting nuances in other people's attitudes and feelings also makes them more susceptible to infectious pressures for success. Girls quickly pick up on the apprehensions of others that swirl constantly around them--in class, on the ball field, at lunch, and, especially, at the dinner table. Abbie, a high school student, says, "We have parents and teachers who almost always want you to be great in school, and they want you to also be great in anything you do after school. I've been taking Tae-Kwon-Do since I'm four; my parents want me to be as great as my brother."

Like a match, parental nervous energy about achievement ignites and inflames girls' own worries about whether they have what it takes to succeed.

Desire to Please
Girls are generally more interested in pleasing adults. It is the rare teen girl who doesn't, on some level, want to conform to what she believes her parents, teachers, and peers expect of her. So great is her desire for praise that she is often willing to take on lofty or seemingly unattainable goals. Just before she graduated from elementary school, for example, Kaylee wrote in an e-mail: "My parents want me to be a computer. I feel so stressed, it's like I have to get an A on everything. When I think about my career, I want to be a doctor for babies. I want to go to Yahl [sic], but I think I'm too dumb."

As they mature, girls feel even more stressed when the expectations of their peers and adults conflict. It's hard to satisfy everyone.

More on: Teen Stress

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From Stressed-Out Girls: Helping Them Thrive in the Age of Pressure by Roni Cohen-Sandler, Ph.D. Copyright © 2005. Used by arrangement with Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

If you'd like to buy this book, click here.


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