What do parents of teen girls most need to know to understand their emotional health?
First, not only is it a very important thing to know and understand, your teen girl or girls are even more important. They are precious. It may not seem like it in the middle of a particularly unsettling tantrum, but they need you, especially now, more than ever. Their lives may well literally depend on you.
Second, what they say and do that is so disturbing, is not a reflection on you or your parenting. Whatever it is they are struggling with is all their own. But they can’t get over this obstacle by themselves. They do need you.
Third, the emotional health of our teens, male or female, has never been more threatened. Besides the normal struggles of surviving the teenage years, the COVID-19 pandemic and the attendant isolation that comes with it has made things darker than ever for adolescents.
“Children and adolescents may appear to be less at risk for severe COVID-19 symptoms, but the pandemic has significantly disrupted their lives in other ways.”
-Johns Hopkins University, 2020
Half of all mental illness conditions start during the teen years, but most go undetected and untreated until much later. Globally, depression is one of the leading causes of illness and disability among adolescents. And suicide is the 3rd-leading cause of death for persons aged 15-19.1
Determinants of Mental Health in Adolescents1
Adolescence is hard. Way too many things are changing practically every day physically. Emotions seem to rise and fall as easily as the wind blows to and fro. And relationships in the social world fluctuate just wildly enough to keep the most stable adolescent off balance.
Maintaining healthy sleep patterns, exercising regularly, coping positively and constructively with all that comes at you, solving problems effectively, and eating nutritionally is hard enough as it is, even with supportive families, schools, neighborhoods, and the wider local community in play.
It is the severity, frequency, and a number of risk factors that make for the stress that can compromise a teen’s mental health. Adolescents naturally seek a modicum of autonomy, a satisfactory and healthy identity, a safe understanding of sex and sexuality, and a certain grasp of what the world around them has to offer.
Running contrary to those very natural tendencies are peer pressure, media influence, and evolving gender norms, among other pervasive influencers. Also, in play to muddy the waters are a home or family life that is dysfunctional, fluctuating relationships with peers, the prevalence of drug and alcohol use, bullying and violence, and socioeconomic hardship, not to mention pandemics that threatens to cancel sports events, school dances, and even…graduation.
Adolescents already prone to manifesting mental health conditions are particularly vulnerable to social exclusion, discrimination, stigma attaching, educational difficulties, risk-taking invitations, physical illness, and human rights violations.
They can’t seem to win for losing. If disorders were not already waiting in the wings, they are more than possibly coming down the pike now.
Ways Teen Mental Health Can Run Afoul1
There are many ways the mental health of your lovely daughter(s) can run afoul. The list below is not exhaustive, but it gives you an idea of the various tracks the train of normal adolescent development can jump to.
You can’t always anticipate them or even prevent them from doing so. But, no matter what you did or did not do in the run-up to a mental or health disorder with your child, you can most certainly choose to hang on for dear life once it gets rolling.
*excessive irritability, frustration, anger
*attention deficit hyperactive disorder
*oppositional conduct disorder
*binge eating disorder
Suicide and Self-Harm
*3rd leading cause of death
*risk factors are many
Early Detection is the Key2
It’s difficult for parents to not want to admit something is wrong with their teen. It’s easy to look to another way. It’s easy to tell yourself in time this will pass. After all, it’s only a phase, isn’t it?
Early detection is the key. Your daughter(s) should be fitting in at school and among friends. You need to notice when they first do not. Your daughter(s) should be doing well in school and making good grades. It’s important that you keep close track, even week to week.
Your daughter(s) should be excelling in sports or school activities. Though they may not be a star, you need to know when it no longer brings them joy. Your daughter(s) should be positive participating members of your family. You’ll notice this first if she is not.
Older teen girls should start working part-time. Does yours have a job? Why or why not? Do you know? Your daughter(s) should be thinking ahead to college or beginning a career. Is yours still living at home, and unmotivated to get a job or even think about living on her own?
Red Flags Parents Need to Pay Attention To3
Excessive and prolonged are traits for many behaviors experts consider as “red flags” for mental illness among adolescents. Among them, excessive sleeping and prolonged depression, require professional attention.
*excessive sleeping, difficulty getting to sleep, insomnia, or other sleep problems
*loss of self-esteem, self-ridicule, care of the appearance
*loss of interest in favorite pastimes, even abandonment of them
*dramatic decline in school performance, loss of interest in school
*weight loss or loss of appetite, dramatic decrease, even increase
*dramatic and unexpected shifts in mood, out of character
What Makes Teen Girls So Different When it Comes to Mental Health4
“Teen girls are more vulnerable than boys.”
--Dr. Ron J. Steingard
Both genders suffer from anxiety and depression, but girls are much more at risk. Research shows that before puberty, the prevalence of mood disorders is about the same for boys and girls, but by mid-adolescence girls are more than twice as likely to be diagnosed with such a disorder.
Dr. Ron J. Steingard, of the Child Mind Institute, says it’s because girls process emotional stimuli differently. Brains scans show an uber sensitivity at a much earlier age for girls than boys to emotional stressors, making them more vulnerable to dramatic and more prolonged shifts in mood.
Theoretically speaking, girls mature at an earlier age than boys, perhaps to provide them with a greater emotional capacity necessary for nurturing babies.
On the face of it, boys, though they are certainly more than capable to participate in the making of babies, are not equipped initially with the level of sensitivity to care for them as adolescents.
Such emotional responsiveness was perhaps not necessary for the tasks that were more expected of them as young men, like hunting and protecting. Having such sensitivity may well have been considered a disadvantage for even the youngest of males.
What happens with some girls is that for various reasons their ability to properly process or deal with emotional stimuli coming at them is compromised.
Girls in this situation begin to experience anxiety in situations where danger is perceived, but in this case, the anxiety is an over-reaction. It is essentially out of proportion with the situation being experienced.
In the case of depression, an internalizing disorder that can actually mentally and emotionally paralyzes the girl experiencing it, it is more likely that the feeling of being out of control, being overwhelmed, ultimately causing her to give up, or to withdraw.
In a major depressive condition, the depression may be so severe that it lasts up to 9 months. A milder form of depression, called dysthymic disorder, may last for years.
What Parents of Such Disordered Teen Girls Should Do4
Just as early detection is key to helping teen girls suffering from mental illness, so is early intervention. Early intervention is not important only to provide relief from suffering, but also to get help early enough to avoid the addition of other effects along the way that could cause even greater difficulty later in life.
Low energy and poor concentration can have a significant negative impact on school performance. Avoidance of social stressors that keep some girls from going to school completely eliminates the chance of performing at all.
Further, subsequently falling behind in studies is an added detriment to a teen girl’s self-confidence and self-image. The problem of depression or anxiety is unnecessarily compounded.
And the negative additions don’t stop with failure at school. Other disorders that make for completely new mental issues to treat include eating disorders, self-injury, or suicidal thinking.
It is important that as soon as possible if the red flags are waving, parents get professional help for their daughters. The good news is that these mental and emotional illnesses are treatable and manageable.
The sooner treatment can begin, once professionally diagnosed, the sooner teen girls can begin to heal their disorders, decrease the chances of other problems coming into play, and increasing the likelihood of not missing out on vital events in their young lives.
1 “Adolescent Mental Health,” World Health Organization, September 2020.
2 “Understanding Your Teen’s Emotional Health,” FamilyDoctor, American Academy of Family Physicians2020.
3 “Mental Health and Teens: Watch for Danger Signs,” Healthy Children, 2007.
4 “Mood Disorders in Teenage Girls,” Dr. Ron J. Steingard, Child Mind Institute.