It is often reported that anxiety and depression in children, and girls in particular, is on the rise. Girls today feel more stressed out and overwhelmed than ever before. Is this an exaggeration, and if not, what’s going on?
Research says that women are 60% more likely than men to experience an anxiety disorder over their lifetime with the average age of onset at 11 years. By mid-adolescence girls are more than twice as likely to be diagnosed with a mood disorder as boys. The data says that it’s true, but I don’t buy it and here’s why.
An elephant named Bozo in 19th century England was brought to a circus to become a popular tourist attraction, but soon after arrival the elephant became angry, attacking the zookeeper and charging at spectators around his cage. The zoo owner decided to put Bozo down and to earn money by making it into a spectacle. Hundreds of people showed up on the day Bozo was to be shot.
Before the guns could fire, a short man wearing a brown derby stepped forward and asked for two minutes to try to calm Bozo down. After signing a release, he quietly entered the cage as the crowd hushed in anticipation. The elephant prepared to charge the intruder, but the man calmly began to speak to Bozo. The elephant raised his head and let out a pitiful cry, then allowed the man to stroke his trunk as they walked slowly around the cage.
When the man left the pen, the owner demanded to know what he had done to calm Bozo. The gentleman responded, “He’ll be fine now. He’s an Indian elephant, and none of you spoke his language. Find someone who speaks Hindustani; he was just homesick.” The man put on his jacket and walked off. Everyone crowded around to see the name on the release. It was signed, Rudyard Kipling.
In the past month, I have sat in circles with high school and middle school girls at my weekend retreats, and a number of the girls had diagnoses of anxiety or depression. What I discovered was girls who are not receiving the support and skills needed to deal with today’s pressures: more competitive and aggressive girls, higher academic pressure, more intense and earlier in life pressures of materialism, lookism, sexuality, and objectification, relentless stress from keeping up on social media, as well as feeling more isolated.
What they need is not more diagnoses and medication but more understanding, just like Bozo. I see their behaviors as symptoms, not a disorder.
We need to take seriously the role that toxic school environments play in girl’s mental health, and that includes spending time giving girls more awareness and skills to handle and prevent relationship aggression. Repressed feelings cause most of the anxiety, depression, stress, and overwhelm experienced by adolescent girls today. So they need guidance on how to get quiet, go inward, know what they are feeling, and use healthy ways to express their emotions. Girls also need education about how to combat the harmful images and messages they are absorbing from the media and culture.
After hearing how so many peers could relate to their stories, and realizing that they are not alone or crazy, anxious girls at the retreat were transformed into the happy, relaxed, and peaceful creatures they are meant to be. That is the power of understanding their ‘language’ and seeing them as whole and complete, not broken.
Check out 2 of my recent podcasts; one on how to raise generous daughters, and one with my interview of 3 girls on the dating scene in high school today. Just click link below and listen away!