Advice on Helping Teen Girls Thrive

By Sue Shellenbarger in the Wall Street Journal

 

Screaming, slamming doors and careening from one emotional outburst to the next—all can be part of life with a teenage girl.

Although girls approaching their teens are often years ahead of boys in gaining height, language and social skills, those strengths mask some important vulnerabilities.

Questions about helping teen girls thrive are a source of interest for psychologists and neuroscientists, sparking more than three dozen studies in the past year. Here’s a guide to the findings:

Ages 10 to 11: Early signs of puberty set in sooner than many parents expect. Girls begin staying up later and having their first crushes. Many are beset by strong, volatile emotions, ending a period of relative calm from ages 6 to 11, says Lisa Damour, a psychologist and director of the Laurel School’s Center for Research on Girls in Shaker Heights, Ohio.

Some girls mature faster and begin menstruating at age 10 or 11, compared with an average of 12 to 13. Early-maturing girls are at higher risk of behavior problems and depression. Girls who look older than their years often attract older peers who may lead them into risky behaviors.

Early-maturing girls who hang out with school friends the same age, rather than older friends from outside school, fare better. Also, those who say they’re close to parents and can talk with them about many things have a better chance of thriving, research shows.

Ages 12 to 13: Girls typically are more skilled than boys at expressing their emotions and interpreting others’ moods at this stage. They’re quicker to grasp nuances of humor.

Girls are also more vulnerable to stress than boys. 

A stress hormone that has a calming effect on teen males and adults may make teen girls more anxious, based on research on female rats. And teen girls are more sensitive to rejection, showing a sharper rise in stress hormones when trained peers in laboratory simulations exclude them from conversations, according to a 2017 study of 59 children and teens led by Laura R. Stroud, a senior research scientist at Brown University’s Warren Alpert Medical School.

Girls whose parents give them strategies for solving social problems—by suggesting they join a school club to meet peers with similar interests, for example—have stronger friendships, according to a 2017 study which surveyed 123 middle-schoolers and their parents and teachers twice over 10 months.

Girls also need help managing strong emotions, Dr. Damour says. One eighth-grade girl screamed in distress after finding out about a bad grade online, as if “she walked into a mass-murder scene,” the girl’s father told researchers in a 2016 study.

Parents should avoid overreacting. “The No. 1 mistake parents make when their kid is in distress is to jump in to solve the problem,” says Michael Y. Simon, an author and school counselor in New Orleans.

Simply helping a girl name what she’s feeling and talk about it can have an almost magical calming effect, Dr. Damour says. Teens who are able to ask for and receive support and problem-solving help from their mothers at age 13 tend to be more independent and better educated at 25, according to a 12-year study of 184 subjects.

Some girls try to cope by sharing too much or attacking others on social media, which tends to amplify bad feelings. Dr. Damour advises curbing social-media use and guiding girls toward face-to-face activities instead.

Ages 14 to 15: Girls’ interactions with parents can take a negative turn, and some become pessimistic in the face of challenges. Boys offered a chance to win rewards in a Wheel of Fortune-like game became excited and motivated, while girls said the challenge made them anxious, says a 2017 study of 167 teens with an average age of 14.

Girls tend to have more negative conflicts with parents than boys. A certain amount of arguing helps teens learn to control themselves and negotiate differences, Mr. Simon says. Parents who can listen with respect and disagree calmly make teens feel as if their opinions matter, helping build a sense of identity.

Some teens, however, unconsciously dump negative feelings on a parent so Mom or Dad will feel bad in their stead, says Dr. Damour, author of “Untangled,” a best-selling book on raising adolescent girls. They also tend to make bad feelings worse by ruminating or brooding over them. Rumination is linked to depression in teen girls, who suffer the malady at nearly twice the rate of boys.

If a girl is ruminating on a problem she can do something about, help her get started on working toward a solution, Dr. Damour says. If it’s something she can’t change, help her find a happy distraction. Preteen and teenage girls posted lasting improvements in feelings of mastery and closeness with others after taking part in a one-week mountain-biking program where they were also coached on goal-setting, self-expression and team-building, according to a 2016 study of 87 girls.

Teen girls who embrace goals that involve helping others also have a higher likelihood of thriving. Such teens tend to have parents who trust them and listen when they talk about problems, says a coming study of 207 girls led by Belle Liang, a professor of counseling and psychology at Boston College.