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Stress in Teen Girls: Who's at Risk?To find out what is really happening with today's teens--why they are so stressed, who is most at risk, and who is most resilient--I surveyed 2,298 girls (691 in grades six through eight and 1,607 in grades nine through twelve) about their attitudes, pressures, and experiences with success. These students attended a variety of schools: public and private, coed and all-girls, religious and secular, traditional and alternative. By posting this survey on the Girls' Life Web site, I also heard from girls across the country. A comparison group of 625 boys (98 in grades six through eight and 527 in grades nine through twelve) also completed my questionnaire.
In addition to interviewing parents, teachers, and school administrators, I spoke with about a hundred girls attending middle schools and high schools--either individually or in groups, on one occasion or over the course of a six-week period. I interviewed many girls who were Caucasian, as well as a number of first-generation Americans whose parents had emigrated from South America, Africa, Asia, India, the Middle East, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic. I spoke with girls from poor, working-class, middle class, and affluent backgrounds; their parents' highest level of education ranged from less than four years of high school to graduate school.
What I discovered is that all girls, even highly functioning ones, can be toppled into crises by a constellation of circumstances: temperament, personality style, past history, school dynamics, and community cultures. Furthermore, these at-risk girls form five distinct groups, each sharing specific vulnerabilities and preoccupations. Of course, teens often exhibit characteristics of more than one profile and have different sensitivities to stress over time. But these typologies of stressed-out girls offer parents and teachers a framework within which to identify and understand teens' most common struggles, anticipate crises, and step in most effectively to avert them.
Girls who are perfectionistic, for example, are pressured by the consuming need to be exceptional. Because they fear making mistakes that could cost them their dreams or expose them as frauds, they avoid the risks that are often necessary for true discovery and accomplishment. Unless they feel sure of succeeding, they steer clear of challenges and stick instead to what seems safe or conventional. With this mind-set, even mundane events such as getting disappointing grades, annoying their teachers, losing games, or fighting with their friends can seem cataclysmic.
Teens who experience personal or family problems make up another group of vulnerable girls whose pressing concerns prevent them from being able to invest fully in many areas of their lives. Strong emotions such as anger, anxiety, and despair--which they typically have trouble managing--sap their energy and prevent these girls from thinking sharply, flexibly, and creatively.
Teens in transition also need to adapt to a suddenly changed world. That is why girls who are starting middle school or high school or transferring to new schools are particularly vulnerable to the effects of stress--as are their families. Nervousness about the unknown, as well as the need to acclimate to different surroundings and demands, challenges everyone's coping skills.
Another at-risk group is made up of insecure girls who long for peer acceptance. Their intense alertness to their classmates' judgments siphons off crucial energy better directed toward creativity and achievement. Instead of thinking about lessons and ideas, they obsess about whether their outfits are acceptable, what someone's behavior means, or if the comment they just blurted is really dumb. Insecure girls play it safe by fading into the background. They are loath to participate or speak up in class. In fact, they will do anything to avoid sparking debate, controversy, or possible derision.
Last, there are girls who feel undervalued at home or in school. Like square pegs in round holes, they don't .t in. Sometimes their interests are unlike those of their classmates. Or they learn differently. When their talents don't resemble those of their family's, girls feel different (read "inferior"). In addition to the typical stress for success, then, square pegs feel additional pressures to live up to the standards they perceive in their family or school cultures. If they're not round pegs, they feel like failures.