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The Hidden Angst of Girls

This kind of virulent nervous energy is rampant among today's teen girls. And yet, it is often hard to detect, even for the parents and educators who care most about them and their success. That is because teen girls are diligent about hiding their pain. They go to great lengths to deny or minimize their distress, leaving even attentive adults in the dark about their true feelings and experiences.

Even when there is irrefutable evidence that things are not going well, girls are pros at reassuring their parents ("I'm perfectly okay!") or adopting an air of indifference to their mothers and fathers' concerns ("My grade isn't so bad; you should see what the rest of the class got!"). When they find themselves in hot water with their schoolwork, even girls who are typically forthright and reliable often make excuses ("It wasn't my fault my teacher got mad!") or lie ("Don't worry, I caught up with my work!").

These are some of the reasons why teen girls bury their anguish:

Fear of Exposure
Self-consciousness, which peaks during the adolescent years, inhibits many girls from revealing their struggles. They are afraid of being even more scrutinized by adults who already monitor their ups and downs. Amy says, "My mother is constantly interrogating me about my friends. If I tell her anything bad that happened, it just makes it worse. Then she has to know everything!"

Need for Autonomy
Teens are working hard to establish age appropriate separateness from their parents. Thus they avoid admitting to weaknesses that could result in dependency. "If I show my parents my poor grade on my math test," says Tracy, "they're going to take over my entire life. They'll keep asking me if I studied, and then my dad will insist on helping me every night and probably confuse me more."

Fear of Repercussions
Almost without exception, girls are afraid of what their parents will do if they find out they are overwhelmed or struggling. Belinda says, "They'll make me see a tutor and I won't have any time to myself. And if I did really bad, they might say I can't go online anymore or go out with my friends on weekends."

Reluctance to Raise Parental Anxiety
Girls are keenly aware of the challenges in their parents' lives, such as jobs, poor health, marital conflicts, divorce, and single parenthood. They also know that merely mentioning their struggles in some area or another can instantly provoke or inflame their parents' worries. Skilled at empathizing, teens often fear "making things even worse."

Avoidance of Flaws
In the midst of developing their own identities, girls' self-confidence is already shaky. Unable to recognize that they are still evolving, they often see their deficiencies as permanent flaws--a view that is sometimes shared by adults. As Virginia put it, "Parents and society want you to be perfect. If you have one or two bad days, they think you're just this really bad person."

Comparisons to the Ideal
Girls' most obvious and available adult role models, their mothers, are middle-aged women who often have come to terms with themselves and their accomplishments. What teens don't usually see are their mothers' false steps, early mistakes, and insecurities, which women themselves have either forgotten or take for granted. Idealizing their mothers can inhibit girls from revealing their own struggles.

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.

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