Staying up until 2:00 a.m. to finish assignments? Cheating on tests and stealing library materials in order to get good grades? Using drugs and alcohol to deal with the pressure? No, these are not examples of students in law school, med school, or any graduate school or college. According to the book by Roni Cohen-Sandler, PhD, Stressed-Out Girls: Helping Them Thrive in the Age of Pressure, this is middle school!
Adolescent girls in our culture today are feeling more pressure than ever to be the best of the best, not just academically, but in extracurricular activities and popularity as well. They feel they need to be extraordinary in all areas. And it is no surprise that with such unattainable goals, girls are reporting they feel hopelessly unable to measure up. Adolescent girls are also masters at hiding their feelings from parents and teachers, so many adults in contact with them may not realize the amount of stress the girls are enduring. This constant anxiety is hurting not only their self-esteem and physical health, but also their ability to achieve and their overall well-being. In Stressed-Out Girls, Cohen-Sandler provides an inside look at how this pressure to excel is hurting girls of this generation and what parents and educators can do to help.
Cohen-Sandler is a clinical psychologist who has been evaluating and treating adolescents for over thirty years. In her book, she applies her clinical expertise, information from a wide-ranging survey, and individual interviews to analyze what is going on in the lives of girls today, including quotes from girls in grades six through twelve. Cohen-Sandler comments that, although she is not discounting the stress that boys experience, the extent and experience of the stress is different for girls, and the gender differences are rarely fully recognized. For preteen and teen girls, school is “all about the process,” and even seemingly minor incidents can add to their stress. Maintaining rewarding relationships, along with a need to please others, plays a large part in the health of a girl’s self esteem.
Cohen-Sadler articulately reveals what a lot of stressed-out women and mothers may have already suspected (but have had little success in overcoming). As women, we hear again and again that taking on too many responsibilities and having too high of expectations of ourselves is not healthy—why do we think that pushing our daughters to excel in everything would be any better? We have come to accept many signs of stress as normal parts of leading busy lives, but the effects of this strain can be devastating to girls throughout the school years. This constant worry can drain a girl’s strength, diminish her motivation, and undermine her ability to be successful.
In her research, Cohen-Sandler found that girls as young as ten years old are feeling this intense pressure, which can get worse through middle and high school. She reports that as a result of trying to meet all of the demands on them, girls are experiencing sleep deprivation, susceptibility to illness, decreased mental acuity, and lowered self-esteem. Ultimately, the most significant outcome of this stress on young girls is that they can become “estranged from their inner lives.” They don’t develop their own goals, and as a result, they end up feeling empty and disconnected from their own lives.
Cohen-Sandler offers practical strategies that concerned adults can use to help girls develop resiliency, reduce stress, and increase self-confidence. The author suggests it is important that adults make a point to demonstrate that they care more about who adolescent girls are, rather than what they have accomplished. Within the family, parents can make the home less stressful by reducing the levels of their own anxiety concerning their daughter’s achievement. Adolescent girls need to feel their talents and individuality are significant. Maybe they didn’t get straight A’s or the make the varsity basketball team like Mom or Dad, but instead they excel in drawing or playing the guitar. Let them know their abilities are still valued.
The most important things parents can do include allowing a young girl the freedom to discover her passions and helping her to develop her own goals, along with the steps it takes to reach those goals. Parents can also help daughters by maintaining a good relationship with them, even in the face of falling grades or broken rules and by emphasizing their girls’ personal qualities and inner strengths (such as compassion, sense of humor, honesty, creativity) instead of their achievements.
This book is an enlightening and helpful resource for parents, teachers, guidance counselors, and coaches—indeed anyone who interacts with adolescent girls on a regular basis. And instead of accepting so much stress as normal in our own busy lives, maybe we can take a look at how we are structuring our lives to combat stress. If young girls can see their mothers and other women around them striving for a better balance, then they will have a healthier model to follow.