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Parents worry that their daughters are constantly under pressure and stressed out. It turns out most are. Studies show an alarming rise in anxiety and stress in girls from age 10 and through college.
When you have a daughter, you know: you are under tremendous pressure to do well in school, to be socially engaged and accepted, to look good – each of which can sometimes cause something that feels like debilitating stress or anxiety.
According to a new study by the Pew Center, 7 out of 10 teenagers see anxiety and depression as the main problem in their peers between the ages of 13 and 17. Pew notes, “Girls are more likely than boys to say they plan to go to four year college. .and they are also more likely to say that they are very worried about going to the school of their choice. “The center’s research confirms that” a greater proportion of girls than boys say they often feel tense or nervous about their day (36 percent versus 23 percent say they feel this way every day or almost every day). “
Add to these stressors concerns about bullying, drug addiction and alcohol use, relationships with boys, and understandably school shootings, and what feels like a constant stream of negative news. To young girls, many of whom have a tendency to reconsider a situation or incident, the pressure can feel relentless.
Ask a young lady you know and she will be able to tell you that she is scared at a party or that she is stressed out from a disagreement with her best friend. She may be scared of a speech to give in class or a test that she doesn’t feel ready to take. Or she might be nervous about what she’ll see the next time she opens Snapchat or Instagram. She might be stressed out or worried about an upcoming athletic competition or musical performance, or what to do with a boy who is (or not) following her.
When you have a daughter you need to ask yourself, “How can all this stress and anxiety be good, even useful?” As a parent in the trenches and recipient of breakouts, breakdowns, pouting, or silent treatment, you must also ask yourself, “How can I help effectively?”
Stress and anxiety are “fraternal twins”
Your daughter may hate feeling stressed or anxious. She can only see these strong reactions as a nuisance. But they’re not necessarily a bad thing. It is important to first understand how stress and anxiety play a role in a person’s daily functioning. Although stress and anxiety often merge and are used interchangeably in people’s minds, parents can help their daughters use both to their advantage.
Know that these “negative” emotions and the body’s natural response to protecting itself can actually be used forever. Lisa Damour, author of Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls, describes stress and anxiety as “fraternal twins … both are mentally uncomfortable”. She defines stress as a “feeling of emotional or mental strain or tension” and anxiety as “a feeling of fear, fear or panic”.
Just because stress and anxiety have become an epidemic for young girls doesn’t mean that stress and anxiety can’t be helpful – even good – especially if we rephrase them as a means of moving in the right direction, rather than as bad feelings that hold us back. Damour makes the following points to consider when helping your daughter:
- It might be easier to run away at the first sign of stress or anxiety. By teaching our daughters to face stressful situations, we help them build their resilience.
- Stress and anxiety are by-products of stepping out of your comfort zone. Working outside of their comfort zone helps girls grow, especially as they face new challenges.
- Analyzing a fearful situation with daughters helps them better judge whether they are overreacting how bad it is or underestimating their ability to deal with it.
Dr. Damour documents how profound and weighty this pressure is and provides strategies to alleviate it. She reassures parents that stress and anxiety can be positive to help girls face disruption and setbacks.
Transition time needed
To guide your daughter, Dr. Damour for imagining your daughter’s brain as an upside-down snow or glitter globe. The adolescent brain needs time for the “snow” to settle before it can think clearly.
Once a parent understands how the adolescent brain works, it is easier to give your daughter a transition period before she rushes headlong on “bailouts” or makes unproductive comments. This approach is valuable in the midst of an immediate “crisis”.
The transition period can be when your daughter rushes home after school and goes to her room, clearly annoyed. Give her the space she needs and, when she shows up, discuss the situation or predicament she is in and the options she may have. Allow her to complain, then ask what she thinks might help … or might happen. The goal is for her to understand that her stress or fear is, in Damour’s words, “just a thought or just a feeling.”
As we know, rejecting their fear or avoidance is not the right way to go. Instead, try to help her brainstorm her own solutions. Ask about ways she can handle or solve the problem. You will be surprised how well she can figure it out with your composed instructions.
It’s not about saving your daughter
As parents, our first instinct is to save our daughter. And considering how strong those anxious emotions can be, it’s natural to feel compelled to save the day. We want nothing but comfort and painlessness for our children. However, this can lead to one parent becoming a crutch. We can come up with an excuse so that she doesn’t have to take the test she says she can’t pass, or that she is staying home from a party because a friendship drama might be going on, or even her to a concert or a rehearsal or performance she’s committed to to protect herself from those endlessly stressful or anxiety-inducing situations that led to a breakdown.
Who has not sometimes been at a loss as to how to help? In her book, Dr. Damour provides parents with a roadmap to ease the pressure, but not in a way that parents find helpful.
If you help her avoid a situation, the problem will likely get worse. Avoidance is only temporary relief. At some point she has to take the test, face the boy, talk to her friend, join the conversation on Facebook or perform in a concert or on a sports field.
Rather than rushing to pave the way for a daughter’s conflict, drama, or worry in the moment, parents can pause in most situations and guide her through the conflict. Realize that it is better to take a step back, calm your own alarm system and encourage your daughter to come up with alternatives, think about what could happen and find solutions to deal with or carry out . Lead them to develop lasting habits that will enable them to deal with stress and anxiety rather than trying to get rid of them completely (which we know won’t happen).
Gently steer your daughter away from perfectionism as she leans in that direction. This is a common path to fear in the first place. The idea of being perfect, especially in school, is toxic pressure that both society and parents put on their daughters, emphasizes Dr. Damour. It is time for parents to help their overworked daughters take back the time and intensity they may devote to academics.
Pressing not only helps calm parents down, but also gives them the tools to support them when daughters run into obstacles. The work that is now being done will help build resilience to the inevitable problems that they will face in the future. I highly recommend this book.
Copyright @ 2019 by Susan Newman
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