When you're the mother of a 10-year-old, it’s hard to listen to a story from a parent with teenage daughters and assume this has anything to do with you.
I remember thinking all the talk about the ‘crazy’ junior year, SAT/ACT prep and loads of AP classes, was another world away and, ‘I’ll deal with it when I get there — there's enough on our plate right now.’
But I was wrong. I should have prepared my daughter earlier. If you have a middle school daughter, please keep reading. This does pertain to you.
Why? Rachel Simmons says in her new book, Enough As She Is, “There is something troubling stewing beneath the surface of all this (girl) success.” This brewing starts young in our daughters and can blindside us once she is in her late teen years.
My daughter is 14-years-old, so I hope I can catch her. But it is too late for many of my son’s 17-year-old friends. They are at full gallop on the hamster wheel that Simmons calls the College Application Industrial Complex. It’s dizzying and exhausting by itself, but Simmons says when dumped on top of girls who’s, “drive to achieve is fueled by brutal self-criticism and anxiety that they will fail,” we find “girls who may look exceptional on paper but are often anxious and overwhelmed in life.”
This is precisely what is happening to my dear friends’ daughters. Instead of enjoying their magical upperclassmen years, they are dropping like flies all around me. Just a few years ago, they were the easy going, academic superstars we all hope for. Yes, they placed extra focus on their grades, extra-curriculars, and social media, but they were such great kids, without much drama or wringing of hands, no one suspected anything might go wrong.
Now they are stressed out with soul-crushing schedules and self-imposed social media punch clocks.
Girls’ depressive symptoms have increased by 50% from 2012 to 2015 which was more than twice the number of boys. The National Center for Health Statistics says the suicide rate for girls between the ages of 15 and 19 doubled between 2007 and 2015. This is a 40-year high!
"I think no one can dispute the wholesale kind of collapse of girls' wellness right now," says Simmons. "It's really a crisis. I don't think I'm overstating it. Everywhere I go, I hear about levels of anxiety that are so crippling that it makes it hard for teachers to teach, and we can't not pay attention to this anymore."
What is going on?
Well…the problem starts with good news.
Never have girls had so much opportunity. There are fewer barriers to entry in almost any field or passion they want to pursue and are no longer limited solely to demeaning stereotypical roles, images, and body types like our grandmothers’ generation.
The bad news is we've forgotten to tell them they don’t have to do everything - and most important - they don’t need the bikini body anymore.
Much like how the myths of “super mom” and “having it all” compels us to run our client meetings by day, make all the school shows by night, and ‘Martha Stewart’ our kids’ parties on weekends — all while wearing stilettos and perfect manicures, of course; our girls are succumbing to the myth of “amazing girl” with disastrous mental health consequences.
“We are raising a generation of girls...who feel that no matter how hard they try, they will never be smart enough, successful enough, pretty enough, thin enough, well-liked enough, witty enough online, or sexy enough.” - Rachel Simmons
In the last two months, three different friends have shared with me their terrible “Tales of the Junior-Year Girl” which corroborates Simmons fears.
Last week a friend told me her daughter brought in a list of her targeted colleges to the school’s college counselor. The counselor asked, “Where are your backups?” She replied with tears welling up, “This is all I know how to do. If I don’t get into one of these schools, I don’t know what I’ll do.” Her mother told me she was so surprised by this outburst she was struck dumb.
A friend’s daughter was caught cheating on her final exam. Her cumulative grade in that class was already a 96%. She said she was afraid she hadn’t studied enough. Her furious mother calculated she could have scored in the 60th percentile and still kept her A.
“So…she was at a party and this boy she had a crush on for a long time, leaned over and asked if he could kiss her. She said ‘yes.’ I guess the kiss didn’t last long because she said she experienced a wave of anxiety and asked him if they could stop. He was surprised but super respectful. He said ‘of course,’ and my guess was he was happily expecting this was the start of their relationship,” my friend explained.
“Instead, she ghosted him!” my friend said as she shook her head.
“Why?” I asked.
“She said she was ‘terrified of being vulnerable,’ afraid she didn’t know ‘what she was doing,’ and it was just ‘easier not to enter the relationship in the first place.’ And then the kicker…’ With all these AP classes, SAT prep, and college stuff I don’t have time for a boyfriend anyway,’” Her mother groaned.
These girls are full participants in what Simmons calls the “New Rules of Stress Culture.”
See if you don’t find a little of yourself reflected in the following “Rules” excerpted from her book, Enough As She Is, I sure did, and it was scary. Even scarier, I see my daughter.
1. Being overwhelmed is the new normal. If you’re not constantly busy studying or attending meetings, something must be wrong with you, your schedule, or your work ethic. The rise in constant busyness means much less downtime for girls to hang out and connect. As one college sophomore told me, “I can’t have downtime. I feel like I’m doing something wrong if I’m not doing anything.”
2. Stress is equated with worthiness and productivity. The more stressed you are, the more successful you must be. As twenty-one-year-old Nicole told me, “I like being the person who’s always busy. I want people to notice it. I define myself as that person who was constantly working. When somebody walks by, they think, ‘How is she DOING all this?’” By this logic, socializing is a form of laziness.
3. If you’re happy, it must mean you’re not working hard enough. If suffering is equated with worthiness, then happiness is a selfish pursuit. As one student told me, “I have a hobby. I guess I’m doing college wrong.”
4. Don’t share your good news with peers. You don’t want to sound like you’re bragging, plus it might make your peers feel bad. As one college student told me, Sometimes I feel like I have to drop my mood down a couple notches when I’m around other people.”
5. Don’t burden your peers with your own stress because that might stress them out. Being a drag on others is a no-no. A college student overheard a classmate snap at her lab partner, “Don’t start with your shit today, I’ve had the worst day of my life.”
Sometimes just telling girls that all this stress and anxiety to get into a good college isn’t their fault, can help them relax and maybe even enjoy the ride a little. The important thing for them to know is they need not contort or ‘fix’ themselves to fit the ‘Complex.’ As Simmons’ book title says, you are enough as you are.
Mark Manson, the author of the fabulously named book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck; A counterintuitive approach to living a good life, says, “not everybody can be extraordinary; there are winners and losers in society, and some of it is not fair or your fault.” Girls can gain much-needed resiliency armor when they understand this reality.
In fact, research suggests that academic resilience is promoted by having the very personal qualities being ignored to get better academic results — having social competence, a sense of purpose, positive use of time, family life, and good problem-solving skills.
Simmons recommends trying the “I Love” exercise. Use a timer set for a minute and ask your daughter to say everything she loves that comes to her mind. Alternate with her and list your own. “Discuss what surprised you and what you found interesting. Was it hard to think of the things you love? How often do you do them? How can you incorporate doing more things you love into your life?” This will most likely include giving up some unloved tasks to make room.
Don’t forget about yourself. Make room for things you love too. After all, you are her role model.