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.
What I also learned from my research is that all stressed-out girls, no matter their specific issues, are prone to becoming estranged from their inner lives. What I mean is that even teens who are driven to achieve are so busy living up to others' expectations that they either don't develop or eventually relinquish their own goals. They are so focused on achieving external emblems of success that they don't get the chance to figure out what really excites them and gives them pleasure. They barely know who they are or who they want to become. More troubling, when accomplishments lose meaning, teens begin to feel bored and empty, states that I believe are related to the prevalence of serious problems such as depression, self-cutting, and eating disorders among young women today.
In contrast, I found that girls who have been given the chance to get to know themselves and to pursue their true interests are two steps ahead of the game. Teens who believe their parents and teachers have hopes for them that are realistic--and in line with their actual talents and passions--feel most equipped to succeed.
Equally important, I discovered that while affluence and having exceptionally accomplished parents can increase teens' pressures and obligations, other factors protect them. What really matters is how resilient girls are to stress; this is determined by their self confidence, social acceptance, perceptions of being valued, and coping skills.
This is why intellect and fine schooling do not guarantee success. In fact, the research is clear: Most successful people are not necessarily brilliant, but they are self-directed and passionate about what they do. A twenty-year longitudinal study of learning disabled individuals by the Frostig Center in Pasadena, California, corroborates the importance of resiliency. Researchers identified six attributes associated with long-term life success: self-awareness, proactivity, perseverance, goal-setting, effective support systems, and emotional coping strategies.
What this means is that all the ambition in the world is not going to make up for a poor work ethic, lack of integrity, disorganization, or trouble getting along with others. Graduating from an elite college is not going to matter in the long run if a teen feels stressed out, insecure, discouraged, defective, or resentful. Unless girls have their emotional and social houses in order, they can't focus their energy and fully use their talents. Being smart is never enough.
How to Be Less Insecure (for Teen Girls)
School is tough and the last thing we need is to be insecure. There are things all over the place that make girls today insecure: magazines, TV, even fellow females. So, if you're sick of feeling like you don't totally love your self, follow these steps to build up that esteem!!
- Surround yourself with people who like themselves. It's amazing how much the people around us influence our self-perception. If you hang out with other girls who are constantly reading food labels and complaining about themselves there's a very good chance that their insecurities are rubbing off on you! It's hard to end friendships but if they're damaging your self-esteem it's time to find new friends. Find people who genuinely like and respect themselves. Chances are they're confidence will rub off on you.
- Mirror Pep-talk. Each morning,when you look yourself in the mirror, find a part of your body that you think looks especially awesome that day (ex: "wow, my eyes look really pretty today!" "today is a fantastic hair day!" etc). For every flaw you see in yourself FORCE yourself to find 2 good qualities.
- Find something you're good at...and stick with it! If you're a good singer join a chorus! If you're good at a certain sport join a team. Not only will you be able to take pride in your skills (and maybe even brag a little about your achievements) but you'll find people with similar interests who will respect you for your talent.
- Take care of your Personal hygiene. Its hard to respect yourself when you don't feel your best and people are going to react negatively towards you if you don't take care of your body. Make sure you shower daily (preferably before school), attempt to treat those pesky pimples, brush your teeth every day, and make sure you smell fresh and clean.
- Be aware of your Appearance. People come in all different shapes and sizes. If you're really conscientious of your weight maybe try hitting the gym to shed a few pounds. Plus, the natural endorphins will make you happier! Also, find clothes that show off your natural aspects. Avoid baggy t-shirts and jeans-they are NOT flattering on anyone, even guys.
- Nurture Relationships. Don't feel bad if you don't have a boyfriend. Despite what facebook says, not everyone is "in a relationship". To be honest, most high school guys (especially 16 year olds) are more into hook-ups than actual relationships. Or they prefer to date younger girls because they think they can't get girls their own age (yep, guys get insecure too!). So shake off those Single Blues and focus on enjoying life for what it is.
- Have Personality. Don't change who you are! Being secure and confident doesn't mean being a social butterfly. If you're shy it's still possible to give off that vibe of self-confidence. In the end, you're personality is all you have and that's what is going to win people over in the long run.
- Volunteer. Help out at a local charity, library, or daycare. When you're busy helping others you don't think about yourself. Helping at places such as the Salvation Army or a soup kitchen will show you how great you have it. You'll come away from the experience feeling like a better person on the inside.
- Don't be a b*tch. Girls will often make fun of others because of their own insecurities. Please, don't do this. If you've ever had someone talk about you behind your back you know that it sucks. Its normal to be jealous of those perfect girls but don't show it. If you don't have anything nice to say don't say anything at all. Besides, no one likes a mean gossip.
- Remember. Remember that even the prettiest, smartest, most perfect girls have issues. Think of it like this: someone, out there, would give anything to switch places with you. But, my dear, the grass truly is never greener on the other side.
- If you're extremely insecure and have ever considered suicide, anorexia, or bulimia, go see a doctor. Having a therapist doesn't mean your weak or a psychopath. In fact, no one except you and your parents need to know.
- This is just a little fun thing I'm adding in here: if you're one of those girls who hates, hates, HATES when guys stare at your chest (most girls seem to be like this) remember that all men are pigs (jk!) and staring your "womanly parts" is their way of saying that you're hot. If it still bothers you, try holding your notebooks in a way that covers your chest, that way they have nothing to look at. Or, if you're feeling really bold, next time you catch a guy looking while you're having a conversation hold your hand level with your chest and motion upward towards your face. Be sure to carry the conversation on normally--it'll totally throw him off!
Insecurity can't be changed over night. For many, it takes a life to become comfortable with who you are. So be patient, don't lose heart, and stay positive.
Sparks: How Parents Can Ignite the Hidden Strengths of Teenagers
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