Anxiety in girls is skyrocketing—are our expectations to blame?

In her new book, Under Pressure, psychologist Lisa Damour examines the skyrocketing rates of anxiety in girls and says we may be asking too much of them in terms of conforming, being helpful and never being angry.

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Growing up is hard to do, whatever your gender. But in this specific cultural moment, there is no denying that we are being forced to take a long, hard, collective look at our toxic treatment of women—right down to how we rear young girls. According to recent statistics, girls are disproportionately more likely to suffer from anxiety disorders than boys. According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, almost half of girls in Ontario said they were experiencing moderate to severe ‘psychological distress’ by the time they reach high school.

In her new book, Under Pressure, clinical psychologist Lisa Damour asks why anxiety in girls is so rampant, taking a fine-toothed comb to various aspects of their lives—home, school, friendships (IRL and online) with girls and boys—to expose underlying sources of stress and the role it plays in the women they’re becoming. Here, she discusses early warning signs, the transgressive power of girls’ worries, and when a bit of anxiety can be a very good thing.

TP: Why focus on girls in your book?

Lisa Damour: For one, girls are at the centre of my practice. And the rates of anxiety in girls are two to three times higher than boys. But the book also gave me a chance to explore the stresses that are unique to girls—they deal with different pressures, particularly in the sexual or romantic world. Our culture holds a very different standard for their appearances. Girls are also tremendously ambitious these days, but we have not found a way to make them comfortable competing with their female peers in a healthy way.

TP: At what age do signs of anxiety typically crop up? What should parents be looking for?

LD: To start, I’ll say that anxiety is an everyday human function, and we see it in the very early days of a child’s life. Even babies become anxious when separated from parents, which is normal. Anxiety in and of itself is a healthy, protective aspect of human life. We want to help our children recognize it as such—we don’t want to react as though something is broken if they’re feeling that way.

Anxiety disorders in children  TP: How do we know, then, if they’re tipping into the unhealthy side of the anxiety spectrum?

LD: We should worry if and when the anxiety stops making sense—if it crops up all the time, or over minor concerns. We don’t want to see young people having panic attacks over birthday parties. We also worry if there’s interference with normal development—in social or intellectual skills, or self-care, for example. If a girl becomes so anxious that she refuses to speak to people or won’t try anything new, that’s not good.

TP: In the book, you use the phrase acquiescence by default” to describe the way girls are generally expected to behave. Isn’t there something transgressive about girls expressing discomfort—or anxiety in particular?

LD: Girls are given more room, culturally speaking, to be fragile than boys. But if we go with the observation that boys’ anxious feelings sometimes come out as anger, girls’ anger can also come out as anxiety. Our culture doesn’t like girls to be angry. When girls start to really struggle with anxiety, they’re letting us know things are not OK and, in that way, maybe they’re not conforming to what we collectively want them to be, which is helpful and acquiescent. I feel like the spike we’re seeing in anxiety gives us an opening to take seriously that we may be asking more of girls, in terms of being agreeable and compliant, than is fair.

TP: What are the unique challenges of parenting girls in our current cultural climate?

LD: The modern world comes with more information, via the internet and social media, than maybe we want our girls to have—even if some of it can be filtered. We need to be thinking about filtering in two different ways: One is that we try to prevent exposure to certain things, like, say, pornography, but that’s not always going to be successful. Girls may now be asking for a phone or a computer quite young. But another way of filtering is by exposing them to our beliefs and values. For example, you can explain that pornography does not represent what healthy adult sexuality looks like, and reassure them that you’re ready to talk about anything that is frightening and overwhelming to them.

TP: How do interactions among girls provoke anxiety?

LD: Of course, girls are not going to get along with each other all the time, but we haven’t given them a lot of tools about how to have healthy conflict with each other, and how to engage in competition that they’re comfortable with.

TP: And what about girl-boy relationships?

LD: Because this book is about stress, I tend to focus on the darker side of girls’ relationships with boys, even though there are obviously happy, healthy friendships and young romances. But the truth is that sexual harassment is regularly underway by seventh grade. And though adults are thinking a lot about these things in the #MeToo era in, say, the workplace, we’ve not yet come to terms with how much earlier all of this begins. The tremendous power imbalance between the genders? That starts in middle school. A woman that I work with in my clinic told me one of her seventh grade patients was told by a boy, “Send me nude pictures or I’ll spread rumours about you.” Adults have been too slow to confront this.

TP: The idea of coping is so interesting—obviously it’s not a one-size-fits-all concept. Are there any best practices, or methods that work better than others?

LD: Find out what your daughter already likes to do to soothe herself when she’s uncomfortable. Most children have strategies that adults don’t recognize or appreciate the effectiveness of, or they see them as immature or idiosyncratic. For example, when your teen daughter is on the couch watching re-runs of Hannah Montana—it might strike you as strange, but it may be exactly what she needs to feel better. Our job as parents is to pay attention to and support adaptive strategies that kids discover for themselves.

TP: When can anxiety be a good thing for kids? You don’t want to make kids so afraid of being stressed that they become too ‘stressed about stress’ to function.

LD: I often say to the girls in my practice, “If you go into a social situation and you feel anxious, pay attention to that feeling.” We’re not always encouraged to tune into when something feels off. The anxiety could be a helpful alarm bell. A little bit of anxiety can also improve performance on tests, or at athletic events—things like that. We should not have the expectations that girls live in a state of zen calm, but we want them to have an energized feeling to do their best. Stress and anxiety, when balanced properly, don’t have to be that hard to manage.

Read more:
Raising strong daughters: How to boost girls’ self-esteem
I dealt with my kid’s anxiety by letting her be anxious

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