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Recognizing Effects of Stress on Girls

Plummeting Self-esteem
Chronic stress breeds feelings of inadequacy as well. Girls who find they can't think clearly or perform well understandably lose confidence. Comparing themselves to the idealized role models that surround them in this culture, in their schools, and even in their own families, many teens fear they will never measure up. They stop believing in themselves. They lose heart, not to mention motivation. Eventually, they stop trying.

Researchers confirm that less successful students self-handicap. That is, they sabotage their performance by procrastinating, studying for shorter periods of time, and barely reading their textbooks. This posture enables them to excuse their anticipated lack of excellence. If teens don't give their all and do poorly, they can blame lack of effort instead of lack of competence. Girls would rather be seen as lazy than stupid.

This story is typical. A high school principal was asked to see a tenth-grade girl whose teacher had sent her out of class because of how she responded to a question. When the teacher asked her why she had gotten a D on a test, the girl had replied, "I wouldn't waste my time studying this crap." When the principal later spoke to her about this experience, she confessed, "I'd rather be bad than dumb."

Thwarted Success
There is one symptom of stress that few parents or teachers can overlook: declining grades. This makes sense. The sheer number of hours girls spend in school, with all its simultaneous and complex social, emotional, and intellectual challenges, makes it likely that problems will show up there first. It is hard for parents and teachers to dismiss, rationalize, or justify poor report cards or test scores. They are most often seen--and correctly so--as red flags for trouble, perhaps even as girls' unconscious requests for adults to sit up and take notice.

Less often, girls manage to hold it together, silently and cheerfully going about the business of meeting other people's expectations. These teens don't complain. In fact, they seem to do everything and to do it all easily. They are model students and perfect daughters, likely to elicit praise and gratitude from adults. In fact, they are often held up as examples for other girls to emulate. That is, until they reach a breaking point.

No Girl is Immune
It is worth stating the obvious: Not a single girl gets through school unscathed. No teen is immune to experiencing problems. The crucial question for educators and parents, then, is to what degree girls are adversely affected or even incapacitated by stress. Given how well they hide their pain, how can we assume that when they seem to be doing okay they are really doing okay? How can we know when teens' unhappiness with their activities, friends, or teachers; their struggle in a particular subject; or anxiety about their future is normal--and when we should be concerned? Which teens are at risk for full-blown crises?

Psychologists conducting research in the field of psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) may have some answers. According to a newly developed biopsychosocial model of health and well-being, unhealthy reactions to stress occur when life's demands overtax coping skills. Whether stress results in a lowered immune response, susceptibility to infection, or depression depends on mitigating factors such as mental outlook, optimism, and social support. Perhaps most interesting, the body's physiological responses to stress depend more on perceptions of inner resources than on actual coping ability. It is whether girls think they can manage--that is, self-confidence--that matters most.

This finding is consistent with clinical experience. Teens go into crisis when they believe their pressures are insurmountable. Whatever coping skills they have counted on in the past no longer seem to work for them. Some endure a traumatic event (for example, a parental separation or death), others a relatively minor incident (for example, a fight with a friend or a romantic breakup). But something tips the scales, or a bunch of little somethings converge at once: recovering from the flu, coming back to school after an extended absence, missing a social event, getting a bad grade, or ticking off a teacher. At some point, however, the teen in crisis reaches a critical threshold of what she can tolerate, exhausts her inner resources, and hits a wall.

More on: Teen Stress

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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