Why do girls and teenagers today have so much anxiety and depression?
(CNN) — My teenage years, like many of our teenage years, were rough. I felt vulnerable, restless, and confused, and I wrote it all down in the pages of heavily guarded journals.
Looking back, I see that there was beauty in that harshness. All these strong feelings helped me to understand who I am and what kind of people I want around me. I also feel lucky to be part of the last generation to experience childhood without much in the way of digital life, and the last to be influenced by Gen X slackers rather than the self-optimizers that came after. This rawness was somewhat protected by social influences that told me I should do and be more.
This is not true today. Girls are growing up with more and more external pressures, making their transition into adolescence and adulthood much more psychologically disruptive than it used to be. Research shows sharp peaks in depression and anxiety among girls in later years, at significantly higher levels than boys.
In her new book, Girls on the Edge: Helping Our Daughters Thrive in an Age of Increased Anxiety, Depression, and Social Media, Donna Jackson Nakazawa discusses why this is happening and what we can do about it. CNN spoke with Nakazawa about the new science of the girl’s brain and puberty, and how our fast-paced online lifestyles aren’t working well with our psychological needs.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
CNN: What is it about this moment that makes life so emotionally challenging for girls and teens?
Donna Jackson Punishes: There is a lot of focus on performance and competition. Our kids are missing out on that important part of childhood, ages 7-13, when they should be doing things like going out with their friends and lying on the grass, chatting about whatever. We’ve replaced that with a fast-paced culture and we’ve also added social media that kids aren’t supposed to be on until they’re 13, but a lot of it is much earlier.
Once on social media, the focus on appearance hits girls particularly hard. They are more likely to “like” or “dislike” them based on their appearance and are more sexualized than boys. They learn that the more clothes you take off, the more likes you get and that their bodies will be appreciated.
Add to that the threats of global warming, school shootings and all. Everything is literally heating up and social media platforms are being created to increase the intensity of the excitement. And then we have to overlay the harsh reality that girls routinely face additional threats such as sexual harassment, rape, and violence against women just because they are women.
CNN: Are girls’ brains particularly more sensitive to these stressors?
Punishes: Puberty is a very vulnerable period for girls’ brain development. Of course, this is true for boys and everyone on the spectrum, but it’s especially true for girls. When estrogen kicks in during puberty, it’s especially potent at increasing the powerful stress response to unmitigated stressors, and for good reason.
Estrogen, evolutionarily speaking, is a wonder hormone and master regulator in the brain. On the other hand, under normal circumstances, it gives women that extra immune response that helps them stay healthy and strong. But when a woman is faced with major constant environmental stressors, it can cause our systems to overreact. This is why women have a stronger response to vaccines and why women suffer from autoimmune diseases at a much higher rate than men. Social stressors can trigger an immune response similar to physical injury.
When girls experience tremendous social and emotional stress at the same time that estrogen kicks in during puberty, it can exacerbate the harmful effects of stress on health and development.
CNN: On top of that, girls are going through puberty at a younger age
It punishes: Puberty occurs earlier at a time when the brain does not have to remodel. All those parts of the brain that help us recognize what to respond to and what not to respond to and when we need help are not yet activated.
Scientists are still trying to figure out why puberty starts earlier, but we know it happens. In the 1800s, girls menstruated around age 16; in 1900 he was about 15 years old; and in 2020 the average age was 11 years. It is possible that stress or a change in diet can accelerate development. Some neuroscientists say it’s possible that the sexualization of girls at a young age may be another part of why they go through puberty early. If your environment tells you that you are sexual, it can trigger the pathways that trigger puberty. But for every one of these theories, there’s always someone who says we don’t know.
Whatever the reason, more and more girls are going through puberty at a younger age, which means they have feelings and experience more stress before their brains are wired and wired to deal with it. This is an evolutionary mismatch.
CNN: Puberty for everyone is usually a time of strong feelings and a certain level of alienation. How can you tell the difference between a typical moody teenager and a mental health disorder?
It punishes: The classic sign is that your child no longer talks to you or anyone else. They isolate themselves, are irritable, fight with friends, sleep all the time or not at all, and experience constant sadness, hopelessness and fatigue.
So when your daughter comes to you with difficult things, try to make it a pleasant experience for her. If a child says he can talk to his parents about anything, that says a lot about how he’s coping. Parents should try to find ways to keep the conversation open, and not just with them, but with anyone, whether it’s a favorite aunt or a teacher.
CNN: Still, the solution to this problem is not something that parents can or should do alone, is it?
It punishes: There are so many different ways to engage the wider community. Too many parents think they’re on their own, but we’re not alone and we shouldn’t think it’s all up to us. There will be times when our children won’t talk to us and it’s okay to contact the school and say you need help. It’s not a failure if your child is anxious or depressed and you can’t handle it on your own. Why should we think we are the only ones with viable advice?
Talk therapy can help; there is very good evidence. In addition to having a larger community, which can be very comforting for children because that’s how humans evolved over evolutionary time, we knew the tribe had our backs. We come from community, but today there’s a lot of isolation and kids feel like they’re in competition with each other, which makes them less likely to feel connected.
When you involve the community, your children perceive from the rest of the world that they matter and that there are other adults in the world who say, “I see you out there.” We want our kids to participate in community-wide events that aren’t about performance or assessment or external validation or building their resume. Instead, we want these experiences to help them understand that they matter because they matter and increase their intrinsic value.
Overall, the more we make the world at large seem engaging and exciting, good for our girls, full of healthy connections, and different from their online social media world, the more confident our girls will feel.
When they feel safe, the stress mechanisms in their brain are less likely to be activated and they are more likely to make it through adolescence without depression or anxiety. Pubertal girls’ brains are incredibly flexible; they take in many social cues at once. If these signs are good and we eliminate many of the stressors, the adolescent female brain is a superpower.
Editor’s note: Elisa Strauss reflects on the culture and politics of parenting. His book on the radical power of nurturing and nurturing will be published in 2023=