Helping Teenage Girls with Anxiety

Anxious teen girl

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Anxiety Crisis Among Teen Girls

Teenage girls are carrying more than their fair share of 21st Century angst.

The reasons are complex and researchers continue to explore this anxiety among teenage girls that’s become a crisis.

We already know some troubling facts. Psychologist Lisa Damour, author of Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress & Anxiety in Girls, said in an interview on NPR that 31 percent of girls reported suffering from symptoms of anxiety. When it comes to boys, only 13 percent reported anxiety.

While there’s an urgency to find ways to help teenage girls decrease their anxiety level, certainly progress on this issue will also be beneficial in helping teenage boys minimize anxiety.

As research provides new discoveries, a piece at a time, parents, teachers and therapists have to work in the “now.” There’s a critical need to find innovative and compassionate ways to reach the thousands of young girls who are overly-anxious and overly-stressed.

Stress is Normal Unless Chronic

A useful amount of stress helps all of us function. We have to get up for work, take care of our families, pay the bills, and cooperate with colleagues and neighbors.

A healthy level of stress helps teenagers get their homework done, aim for college and careers, and take part in family responsibilities. Stress helps young people learn social values and cooperation as they are become adult members of society.

It’s when stress becomes chronic that it takes a physical and emotional toll. It’s especially a concern at a time when young people are developing physically and emotionally.

And it’s not just stress itself, but our perspective on anxiety and stress that weighs on teenagers and adults. Damour says she’s seen the view of stress changing over the decades she’s worked with adolescent girls and their families.

“Somehow a misunderstanding has grown up about stress and anxiety where our culture now sees both as pathological,” said Damour in an interview on KQED public radio in San Francisco. “The upshot of that is that we have adults and young people who are stressed about being stressed and anxious about being anxious.”

Middle Schoolers are Vulnerable to Anxiety

Teenagers don’t have a lot of years to figure things out. Ninth grade is one of the most vulnerable times for teenagers. They care too much about what their friends, and even their critical peers, think of them.

During ninth grade and through the middle schools years teenagers are at a crossroad. They struggle to understand who they are, sometimes even unaware or unappreciative of their own skills, talents and dreams. They often reject the rules and cultural expectations of their parents during this natural developmental phase of creating their own identity on the path to becoming an adult.

Parents, teachers and counselors of middle-schoolers know first-hand what a stressful and unpredictable time it is. In those few critical developmental years, the path to becoming a healthy functioning adult is fraught with potential disasters that can affect mental and physical health.

Causes of Teen Anxiety

Technology and the 24/7 world of connectivity, especially what’s now viewed by many as an addiction to cell phones, must be considered fas actors in teen anxiety. There’s also increasing academic competition and the stress of working families, along with the physical changes that come with maturity that add to the challenges of these teen years.

Sometimes teenagers are thought to be more mature than they really are based on physical development and the legal age of adulthood long-accepted as 18 years old.

But neuroscientist Sandra Aamodt points out that emerging research is finding that the brain matures around age 25.

5 Ways to Help Teenage Girls Decrease Anxiety

Here are some of Damour’s suggestions to help teenage girls understand anxiety, decrease its negative impact, and make use of its positive potential:

  1. See anxiety as normal: Adults can assure teenage girls that anxiety is a normal part of life and we can view it as a reminder to do things that we simply need to do. The key is to keep stress and anxiety at manageable levels.
  2. Develop positive reactions to stress: When stress comes by way of criticism from others in school or social groups, parents can help teens plan ways to react so situations don’t linger or escalate. A teen can learn strategies to address the offender and offer her own view in calm way, or take the issue to a counselor.
  3. Learn to let it go: Damour advises that sometimes we have to decide that a stressful issue or interaction is just not important enough to take up our time or energy. We have to learn to let it go by without simmering hostility or anger.
  4. Encourage healthy sleep: Being sleep-deprived increases stress. Damour says older teenagers need nine hours a night and middle schoolers do best with 10 hours a night. Have teens turn off cell phones and computers and build in some more relaxing downtime before bed.
  5. Determine what we can control: Everyone, including teenage girls, must understand that one person cannot control the interactions of school or social groups or society as a whole. A teenage girl can control her choice of friends and be involved in activities that are positive. We all have to learn to pick our battles and fight for what is most important to us, and not get dragged down into every little skirmish that comes our way.

Parents can seek help from mental health professionals who have experience with families and teenagers. Therapists have a wide range of strategies that can be individualized and their expertise can help guide teens, especially teenage girls, through these challenging years.

References

Kelly, Mary Louise, “From Friends To School, ‘Under Pressure’ Helps Teenage Girls Navigate Adolescence,” NPR, Feb. 18, 2019

Kris Farmer, Deborah,”How to Help Teenage Girls Reframe Anxiety and Strengthen Resilience,” KQED, Feb. 12, 2019

Damour, Lisa. Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress & Anxiety in Girls, NPR, Feb. 2019

Cox,Tony and Aamodt, Sandra, “Brain Maturity Extends Well Beyond Teen Years,” Tell Me More, NPR, Oct. 10, 2011.

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