In my work with pre-teen girls, their sense of themselves is still relatively positive. This is why I like to begin my work with them at this age, to strengthen them against what is to come.
It’s a different story when I talk to teen girls. Too many have learned to hate themselves:
* they hate their bodies
* they don’t seem to know their own best qualities
* they focus on what they perceive to be their weaknesses
* they rarely feel good enough
* they have lost some of the trust they once had in their friendships
* their feelings for their parents are more ambivalent
Who gets the blame?
Teen girls are fiercely self-critical and then blame themselves for not feeling good. Life for teens can be intensely challenging. Sadly, when the pressures are too much to bear, many girls blame themselves and, worse still, some then punish themselves as a way of coping with the strong feelings. Rather than looking outside of herself for the reasons for her distress, she makes it her fault. Rather than looking outside of herself for support, she tries to cope on her own, finding ways to numb the feelings. No wonder eating disorders, cutting, drinking, drug use, promiscuity, and suicide attempts are on the increase.
One in ten 16-year-olds surveyed in a new study at Queen’s University Belfast has considered self-harm or taking an overdose. “By far the most likely reason why young people self-harm remains self-punishment. This suggests that young people with mental health problems keep blaming themselves for these, rather than appreciating external stressors such as pressures arising from school work or financial difficulties,” researchers said.
The key findings of the 2013 survey on 16-year-olds’ mental health include:
- 28 per cent of 16-year-olds said that they had experienced serious personal, emotional or mental health problems at some point in the past year.
- Just over one third of these respondents had sought professional help for these problems.
- 13 per cent of respondents said that they had, at some point in the past, seriously thought about taking an overdose or harming themselves, and 6 per cent had thought about this in the past month.
- 13 per cent of respondents said they had self-harmed — 5 per cent had done so once and 8 per cent more than once. The most likely reason (60 per cent) given by these young people for doing this was that they ‘wanted to punish themselves’.
We know that the pressures on teens can be high. We want them to study hard, we test them endlessly, push them to do well in exams, and even then a job is not secured at the end. Teens need money, to keep up with the right phone, clothes, and outings. We expect more from them at home. Meanwhile they are shifting their attention to their social world with peers, navigating an increasingly complex emotional landscape, where gossip is rife and alliances are made and fail repeatedly. Teens have little down-time, with the demands of social media invading the home and the night.
When we adults fail to reduce these pressures, or to support them in living through them, then teens seem to be blaming themselves and then punishing themselves. For ten percent this may even be life threatening; but actually when I listen to teen girls talking, their quality of life is seriously affected by their view of themselves. It’s very troubling.
How does this affect girls?
Teens low self-opinion is affecting the choices they make every day:
what they will do
what they will eat
who they will meet
what they will venture
what they will study
what they will sign up to
what they will watch
who they will spend time with
Teens low self-opinion is profoundly affecting their futures.
We can change this. It is never too late.
What can you do?
Every time you interact with your daughter with love, it supports her. Each time that you are able to empathise with her — you feel her feelings with her without being devastated or trying to solve them — you help her to learn how to manage her feelings and to take her feelings seriously.
Although your daughter may have many faults, and her behaviour may appall you, and you may hate how she is running her life, still look for her strengths and her gifts.
You may need to strengthen yourself to endure some of her worst behaviour, so surround yourself with supportive people. When in your daughter’s presence hold in your mind that any bad behaviour is a sign of her suffering, and focus on what is good in her. Spare her from your comments about how tough she is to parent, and share them with your best friend instead.
Never miss an opportunity to tell any teen girl that you know what you like about her. She may squirm, but she’ll still hear you.
Many grown women are afflicted by not thinking highly of themselves, underestimating what they are capable of, running themselves down, constant dieting, and continued numbing out activities. Let’s interrupt that cycle. Figure out how to stay connected and communicating with your teens, even when it seems impossible, and let them know that you care.
And while the statistics are sobering, I like to remember that the majority of teens are coping magnificently well, despite the pressures. So while I want to stay alert to the signs of girls needing extra support through their teens, I also celebrate the strength of our girls to withstand the stresses of adolescence.