Many signs of stress are so common that they are accepted as the normal, even expected, cost of leading busy, productive lives. What teen, for example, hasn't procrastinated in doing her homework, overreacted to a situation with a friend, or frozen while taking a test? What girl hasn't lost her temper, been moody, excessively tired, or occasionally used aches or pains as an excuse to stay home from school? It is the rare daughter who hasn't taken out her troubles on a younger sibling or stayed up until all hours and then been late for school the next morning.
Every parent and teacher should be aware of these basic truths about the insidious, sometimes devastating, effects of stress on girls throughout the school years:
Young Girls Are Afflicted
The first thing adults need to know is this: Stress for success is no longer exclusive to ambitious high school seniors engaged in the nerve-racking college-application process. The epidemic in this culture has spread to ever-younger girls, infecting those on the cusp of puberty as well as older adolescents. Too often I hear the voices of girls who already feel very tired and defeated, though they have yet to graduate from the relatively protected confines of elementary school.
Alex, for example, came to see me because her parents were puzzled by her sudden reticence about school and meltdowns at home when faced with nightly assignments. A petite ten-year-old with blond curls and enormous, widely set, ice-blue eyes, her baby face looks somehow seemed incongruous with her anguish: "The second I get home from school I start my homework and I work nonstop until dinnertime. I get headaches so much and I feel sick. And still, I have to go to middle school. And then I have to go to high school. And then I have to go to college."
Middle School Intensifies Stress
By the time girls enter the early teen years and middle school, developmental challenges exacerbate stress in every area. On the school front, girls are suddenly asked to follow mind-boggling rotating schedules, keep track of a slew of due dates, and deal with an array of teachers--each with their own preferences, idiosyncrasies, and expectations. This is the sort of juggling expected of corporate CEOs.
Adding to these new demands are the social challenges, which by middle school rival or surpass academic ones in both intensity and importance. In general, girls feel desperate to reconnect with friends they may now see less frequently during the school day. They need to reassure themselves of these old ties by helping each other with problems and analyzing the details of all their unsettling social interactions. Well before they get to high school, girls say they face daily dilemmas such as whether to get sleep or good grades, whether to work on math problems or friendship problems, and whether to study history or reflect on their own lives.
A generation ago, tweens who had yet to enter the halls of high school might have been playing Parcheesi, dressing up their Barbie dolls, and jumping rope. Today these young girls are obsessed with calculating their grade point averages, managing their time, and getting into good colleges.