Stress has been a topic of conversation here at ATFG. As the semester moves along, girls and young women are thinking about grades, midterms, and of course social events such as football games, homecoming and Halloween. Understanding where these pressures come from and how you as a parent can help ease your daughter’s stress level will improve your relationship with your child and ease your stress level, too.

Girls and boys handle stress very differently. Boys generally adopt a big-picture view that frames school as a means to an end, simply a necessity they must complete to reach their goals. Girls, on the other hand, are more caught up with details. They are more likely to take disappointments and obstacles personally, and are also more likely to be weighed down by what they view as pressure from others to succeed. Girls’ self-worth is also closely tied to their relationships. The heavy importance placed on relationships can make girls susceptible to feelings of worthlessness or guilt if they think they can’t live up to others’ expectations.

These gender differences make girls especially vulnerable to the common stresses facing teens today. Starting in late elementary and middle school, students must juggle increasing amounts of homework, rotating schedules, due dates, and social and developmental challenges. Changing classrooms in middle school presents a special difficulty for girls, as friends they were used to seeing all day now may have entirely different class schedules. This makes girls desperate to maintain their relationships. When well-meaning parents set limits on social activity so that schoolwork gets done, girls may panic—as pressures from peers to fit in are often as strong in their lives as pressures from parents and teachers to succeed academically. Many of these miscommunications can occur between parents and teens as they struggle to prioritize their many stressors. While parents see themselves as only trying to help, teens may view parents’ input as disappointment in their achievements or pressure to live up to their parents’ goals for them rather than allowing them to pursue their own interests.

Over time, chronic stress reduces girls’ self-esteem. This may manifest in the form of lowered motivation and poor grades as girls protect themselves from feeling like they have failed by not trying as hard. Research shows that stress affects girls most adversely when it overtaxes their coping skills. But the body’s response to stress depends mostly on how girls perceive their ability to cope than on actual coping ability. In other words, with healthy self-confidence and a strong support system, girls are in a great place to tackle the stresses they may face.

With that, here are some tips for parents looking to help their teens manage stress:

  • Sibling relationships are a common source of stress because siblings are an easy frame of comparison for teens. Girls may struggle with self-worth when they feel a sibling is smarter, prettier, more social, etc. Conversely, if they are often viewed as the more successful sibling, girls may feel increased pressure to perform so as not to let parents down. It is common for teens to project these insecurities on parents and conclude that parents have a “favorite.” While parents may feel this is untrue, it is important to examine whether your expectations for your individual children are realistic to their own needs, desires and abilities. If expectations are too narrow—for instance, hoping your daughter will get a soccer scholarship, become a doctor, or go to the same college as her sister—she may feel distressed or unworthy at being unable to live up to expectations. Have an open conversation with your daughter on what she views as her strengths and interests, and how these may translate into realistic goals for her future.
  • Girls often look to their parents, especially mothers, as role models. They often see their parents as settled, successful, or having achieved self-acceptance without understanding the hurdles they faced to get there. This leads to the mistaken view that their own obstacles are out of the norm or are a manifestation of weakness. Share a story with your daughter of a struggle you faced or a time you felt unsure of yourself, and see where the conversation goes. Even if she seems not to react, it may open the door in the future when she is going through a difficult time and needs someone to talk to.
  • Parents may feel that their teen is unwilling to talk with them from the moment they arrive home. However, teens feel that their parents are bombarding them with stressful questions (“How was school? How did your test go?”) before they have had a chance to unwind from a taxing day. If possible, allow your teen some alone time when they get home from school. You may also want to consider having an open conversation with your teen about where you are both coming from when communicating about these stressful topics. While parents may see themselves as well-intentioned, teens often sense an underlying tone of criticism or scrutiny.

The information in this post came from Roni Cohen-Sandler’s book Stressed-Out Girls. Check out this book and Dr. Cohen-Sandler’s other works to learn more about girls and stress!