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The Hidden Angst of Girls

Stress Is the Norm
As they look around them and see their classmates hectically running around and complaining of all they have to do, girls believe these experiences must be normal. If they think their situation is no different from anyone else's, they may feel less entitled to object or to ask for help when they need it.

With girls so determined to keep silent, it is tough for even the savviest of parents to find out what they are really going through. Getting teens to open up about anything is notoriously difficult; coaxing details about how well they are doing or how they are really feeling about their successes and failures can be next to impossible.

The fact that many parents feel isolated during their kids' teenage years makes learning about their daughters' lives even more frustrating. When they do get together with other parents, knowing that their teens zealously crave privacy makes mothers and fathers think twice before sharing anything personal. This makes it harder to get support. So while parents feel swept up in the flurry of escalating nervous energy around achievement, too often they remain unaware of the stress girls endure. Too often they are at a loss about how their own daughters are coping.

I have to admit that for a long while I, too, underestimated the prevalence and pervasiveness of girls' hidden pressure. I thought that the hype about achievement was exclusive to the Northeast, perhaps to the New York metropolitan area, and surely to the more affluent, high-powered communities surrounding my own. Also, I believed that the girls who were brought for counseling were unusually vulnerable to stress. But I came to realize I was wrong on all counts. The truth is, the pressure to excel is a national phenomenon, and its consequences are wreaking havoc on the lives of teenage girls everywhere.

An extraordinary number of teenage girls who never enter a mental health office are also feeling stressed, discouraged, and misunderstood in their efforts to be successful. Some are trying valiantly to keep up with superstar classmates or siblings. Others would like to compensate for the failures of troubled brothers and sisters or to justify the sacrifices of hardworking parents. A few are living out their mothers' or fathers' own unfulfilled dreams.

Reluctant to reveal their pain, these ordinary girls are silent about their disappointments, ashamed of their inevitable mistakes, and nervous about their futures. Although many are going about their daily lives feeling sad and demoralized, if not despondent, they may act out their pain in a variety of ways not easily recognized as signs of distress. Their parents may not have the slightest idea how unhappy they are--or why.

I discovered this somewhat by accident. In preparation for an article I was writing for Girls' Life, a national magazine popular among preteen and teenage girls, the magazine posted a Question of the Week on their Web site asking readers about any pressures they were feeling to do well in school. This topic struck a chord. In response, I received hundreds of poignant e-mails from nine- to fifteen-year-old girls from across the country.

For example, Colleen reported, "I came home crying today because there's no time for me. I'm not even sure if my parents understand what it's like. They never had such a tough time compared to us 2000 kids. I wouldn't be surprised if we start dropping dead from anxiety attacks and heart problems before we hit twenty." Similarly, Anna wrote, "I definitely think that I am overwhelmed by schoolwork and the pressure that is put on me to get good grades by my peers, parents, and teachers. Sometimes I cry myself to sleep at night just thinking about a test. I honestly dread school every day. Every single day."

As I read one compelling, disturbing e-mail after another, it hit me that these young readers--who were so eager to pour out their hearts in the anonymity of cyberspace--seemed equally determined to keep their distress under wraps at home. Perhaps it was poring through this three- or four-inch stack of responses all at once that was so powerful. Or maybe it was seeing such distress spelled out in print. Regardless, I read these e-mails first in shock, then in horrified fascination, and finally with heartache and the idea for this book mingling in my head.

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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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