I cannot count the number of times I’ve met a new person, and they asked me Do you have children? Yes, I have two teenage daughters. And then I brace myself and get ready for the inevitable Oh poor you! They are the worst. So much harder than boys. Or the even more offensive – You better get a shotgun. Teenage daughters – they conjure images of screaming tantrums, obsession with popularity, wild mood swings, and fears of sexual activity, drinking and drugs. There is a cultural assumption that teenage girls are the most volatile and dangerous beings on the planet. I did not experience my girls this way, and the latest psychological research suggests that most parents don’t either.
Sue Shellenbarger fans the flames with her recent article in the Wall Street Journal, “Advice on Helping Teen Girls Thrive.” It is a well-meaning but unnecessarily negative article which buys into myths and outdated psychological perspectives on the mental health of teenage girls. The overarching theme of the article is that teenage girls are massive trouble and that parents need lots of help trying to manage these screaming she-devils.
When describing the actual behavior of teenage girls, she uses only the most extreme examples: “Screaming, slamming doors and careening from one emotional outburst to the next – all can be part of life with a teenage girl” and “One eighth-grade girl screamed in distress after finding out about a bad grade online, as if “she walked into a mass-murder scene.” These scenarios, while very dramatic, don’t reflect the everyday behavior of the average teenaged girl.
For many years psychologists characterized adolescence as a time of “storm and stress.” But by the 2000s, many studies were published that contradicted this conclusion. Psychologists now view puberty and adolescence for both boys and girls as a positive process that most young people live through without an abundance of conflict. At least eighty percent of adolescents don’t show signs of emotional distress or behavioral acting out. So why does Shellenbarger focus on the twenty percent who do?
Based on very tenuous research on female rats, she also makes the leap that girls are more anxious because of hormones, buying into the ubiquitous hormone myth: that all menstruating females are at the mercy of hormones. There are many studies that verify that changes in reproductive hormones have very little to do with mood fluctuations and don’t cause women to become irrational and unreliable. This is a stubborn and dangerous myth that threatens to box women in personally and professionally.
Better advice on how to help the average girl thrive is to assist them in transcending the limitations set by gender politics. Work in your community and schools so girls have the same kinds of opportunities as boys. We know that activities like playing competitive sports or participating in science fairs provide many opportunities to succeed and fail, which build resilience and can promote leadership skills. Work on creating a community where the talents of girls are welcome in any context.
Rather than start from an assumption that adolescence is a troubling, traumatic time, raise your girls with an expectation of rationality and growth, and odds are that is what you will get.
For more on the psychological development of girls, read my upcoming book The Hormone Myth: How Junk Science, Gender Politics, and Lies About PMS Keep Women Down, which will be published August 1, 2017 by New Harbinger Publications.
Nice to focus on how to help healthy girls thrive – competition, risk of failure, encouragement in stem disciplines, lack of gendered limitations.