November 29, 2022

Why do girls and adolescents today have so much anxiety and depression?

Read Time:7 Minute, 15 Second


(CNN) — My teenage years, like many of our teenage years, were raw. I felt vulnerable, unsettled, and confused, and I recorded it all in the pages of highly guarded journals.

Looking back, I see that there was a beauty in this rawness. All those strong feelings helped me figure out who I was and what kind of people I wanted around me. I also feel lucky to be part of the last generation to experience childhood without much in digital life, and the last to be influenced by Gen X slackers rather than the self-optimizers that came after. This rawness was somewhat shielded from social influences telling me I should do and be more.

This today is not true. Girls are growing up with an increasing number of external pressures, making their transition into adolescence and adulthood much more psychologically disruptive than it used to be. Research shows pronounced peaks in depression and the anxiety among girls in recent years, at markedly higher rates than among boys.

In his new book, “Girls on the Brink: Helping Our Daughters Thrive in an Era 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 brain and puberty, and how our fast-paced online lifestyle doesn’t work well with our psychological needs.

This interview has been edited and summarized for clarity.

1 in 5 cases of depression could be related to work stress 1:14

CNN: What is it about this moment that makes life so much more emotionally challenging for girls and teens?

Donna Jackson Nakazawa: 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 hanging out with their friends and lying on the grass chatting about whatever. We’ve replaced that with a fast-moving culture and we’ve also added social media, which kids aren’t supposed to be on until they’re 13, but many are much earlier.

Once on social media, the focus on appearance hits girls especially 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 evaluated.

Add to this the threats of global warming, school shootings and everything else. 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 stark reality that girls routinely face additional threats like sexual harassment, rape and violence against women just because they are women.

Depression anxiety Girls

Social media’s focus on looks is hard on girls, who face likes based on their looks.
(Credit: Tommaso79/iStockphoto/Getty Images)

CNN: Are girls’ brains particularly more sensitive to these stressors?

Nakazawa: Puberty is a very vulnerable time for a girl’s brain development. Of course, this is also true for boys and everyone on the spectrum, but it’s especially true for girls. When estrogen is incorporated during puberty, it’s particularly powerful in increasing a powerful stress response to unmitigated stressors, and there’s a good reason for that.

Estrogen, evolutionarily speaking, is a wonder hormone and master regulator in the brain. On the bright side, under normal circumstances, it gives women this extra immune response that helps them stay healthy and strong. But when a woman is faced with major ongoing stressors in the environment, she 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 elicit an immune response similar to experiencing physical harm.

When girls experience overwhelming social and emotional stress at the same time that estrogen is incorporated during puberty, this can exacerbate the harmful effects of stress on health and development.

CNN: On top of all that, girls go through puberty at younger ages

Nakazawa: Puberty occurs earlier at a time when the brain is not supposed to remodel. All those parts of the brain that help us discern what to respond to and what not to, and when we need help, have not yet been activated.

Scientists are still trying to figure out why puberty happens earlier, but we know it’s happening. Back in the 1800s, girls had their period around the age of 16; in the 1900s, it was around 15 years old; and in 2020, the median age was 11 years old. It may be that stress or a change in diet speed up development. Some neuroscientists posit that it’s possible that the sexualization of girls at an early age is perhaps another part of the reason they go through puberty early. If the environment tells you that you are sexual, then it could trigger the pathways that trigger puberty. But for each of these theories there is 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 greater stress before their brains are turned on and wired to handle it. This is an evolutionary mismatch.

Parents need to find ways to keep an open conversation with girls so they can talk during difficult times. (Credit: ljubaphoto/E+/Getty Images)

CNN: Puberty, for everyone, tends to be a time of strong feelings and a certain level of alienation. How can you tell the difference between typical moody teens and a mental health disorder?

Nakazawa: 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 persistent sadness, hopelessness, and fatigue.

So when your daughter comes to you with difficult things, try to make it a good experience for her. If a child says that she can talk to her parents about anything, that says a lot about how she is doing. 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 isn’t something parents can or should handle on their own, is it?

Nakazawa: There are so many different ways to engage the general community. Too many parents think they’re alone in dealing with this, but we’re not alone, and we shouldn’t think this is all up to us. There will be a time 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 that we are the only ones with viable advice?

Talk therapy can help; there is very good evidence. As well as having a larger community, which can be very reassuring for kids, because that’s how humans evolved over evolutionary time, we knew the tribe had our back. We come from community settings, but today there is a lot of isolation and kids feel like they are 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 there”. We want our kids to participate in community-wide events that aren’t about performance or evaluation, or external validation, or building their résumé. Instead, we want these experiences to help them know that they matter because they matter and increase their intrinsic value.

In general, 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 machinery in their brains is less likely to activate and they are more likely to get through adolescence without depression or anxiety. Girls’ brains at puberty are incredibly agile; they are taking 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: Elissa Strauss covers the culture and politics of parenthood. Her book on the radical power of nurturing and nurturing will be published in 2023. =



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