Teen girls may be more vulnerable to stress; Parents can help mitigate the damage.
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Navigating the many pitfalls of adolescence is a challenge for any teenager. But according to new research, girls are exposed to more stressful situations than boys—and the suffering doesn't stop there.
Mental health experts have long known that stress can lead to depression, and that people who obsessively think about a stressful situation (known as ruminating) are at an even higher risk of becoming depressed. But in this study, published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science, researchers uncovered a more specific link: Stressful situations in which the teens were directly involved (such as an argument with a friend or parent) caused them to ruminate more, compared with stress that was out of their control (for example, a death in the family). And girls were more likely to ruminate, which puts them at a greater risk of depression.
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“These findings draw our focus to the important role of stress as a potential causal factor in the development of vulnerabilities to depression, particularly among girls, and could change the way that we target risk for adolescent depression,” lead author Jessica Hamilton told the site PsychCentral.
Researchers reviewed information from 382 boys and girls participating in a separate study on emotional vulnerability and depression. The adolescents completed initial evaluations related to their cognitive vulnerabilities and depressive symptoms, as well as three follow-up assessments spaced seven months apart.
The results revealed that girls had more depressive symptoms at the follow-up assessments because they were exposed to a higher number of stressful situations than boys were. This caused them to obsessively think about their stress, which further exacerbated their symptoms.
"Young men tend to move on after a disagreement," social psychologist and parenting expert Susan Newman told Yahoo Health. "It's much harder for young females to not be affected by a disagreement with a friend or particularly a breakup with a boyfriend. That has a lot to do with the fact that girls are often raised to be nurturing and caring."
Approaching teen girls about their personal lives can be a stressful challenge in itself. Newman offered several tips for parents to use when talking to young girls.
1. Don't attack the teenage culture. Parents tend to be derogatory about the way teenagers are today, compared to when they were young, Newman said. But Mom and Dad may "want to be careful about how negative they are about their daughter's culture," she added. "Social media and smartphones are a huge part of her lifeline and the way she communicates. Criticizing Facebook or the amount of time girls spend texting is not going to help."
2. Don't make jokes about her self-image. "It sounds obvious, but parents need to understand that their daughters' ears are perked up and notice every nuance in what is said," said Newman. Even a seemingly harmless comment can cause stress in her world.
3. Be available. But don't push. "As a parent you always want to let your daughter know that you are willing to talk about anything that is upsetting her," said Newman. "But you don't want to suffocate her. Girls that age want their space." A blanket statement conveying that you are always there if she needs you will suffice.
4. Be wary of your expectations. Sometimes parents have very high expectations for their kids, and if they are expecting their daughter to be in the popular group or to be a great athlete, it puts a great amount of pressure on her. "No matter how much parents try to hide it, kids really know what their mom and dad are hoping for," Newman said.
5. Don't make light of her feelings. What parents might view as a trivial fight with a friend could be a huge deal for their daughter. She needs to know her feelings are legitimate, so saying something is not a big deal might sound like good advice, but it will make things worse.