As a mom who is raising two daughters and a therapist to teenage girls in Washington, DC, I find myself wanting to advocate for them. In so many ways, we have evolved as a society. We teach little girls that they can be whatever they want. They can be a CEO, a surgeon, an engineer, a scientist, a lawyer. We finally got to see our first female presidential nominee – and almost President – in 2016. What a great time to be a girl, and to raise a girl. But behind these messages lies expectations and stressors that our girls are feeling now more than ever.
Instead of replacing previously held expectations of girls – to look pretty and to please others – with messages of strength, we have instead added more expectations – be smart, be strong, be independent, be driven, be hard working, be athletic, and be social AND be pretty, well-liked, and be sure to please others. According to a UCLA based study, female college freshmen are the most likely to be sad, lonely and depressed.
Why is this? A few theories include what researchers are calling “role overload” – girls are expected to be too much. There is simply not enough time in the day to get straight A’s, be social, athletic, pretty, and smile all at the same time. It also leads girls to feel confused about their identity – are they supposed to be strong and independent? If so, and if they aren’t pretty enough, what does that mean? Girls are also spending the most time on social media, something we know is highly correlated with depression. But that also speaks to the social pressures girls face.
So what do we do? Research has shown that self-compassion can lead to lowered rates of sad feelings and feelings of loneliness. Learning how to be kind to yourself is a difficult and an essential skill to learn. Practice self affirmations. Repeat to yourself positive characteristics: I am funny, I am kind, I am a good friend, I am enough. Acts of service and kindness are also shown to boost mood. Do something good for someone else, or for the world. Volunteer, connect with your community. What can parents do? Assure your girls that this culture is toxic and that they are enough just the way they are.
In an age where we are taught that we can be whatever we want to be, be careful to show your girls that they are enough just the way they are. Sure they can be whatever they want, and they can have it all. But it’s unrealistic to think you can have it all all at the same time. We are human, after all.