Female teen anxiety and depression are at an all-time high. The psychologists and therapists in our community have noticed this phenomenon in our own practices, but new research shows that this troubling phenomenon extends far beyond Orange County.
According to a Youth Risk Behavior Survey released earlier this year by the CDC, nearly 60% of female teens in the US experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness in 2021, and 10% of female students attempted suicide. Both of these figures have skyrocketed in recent years and far outpace comparable increases for teenage boys.
This explosion of suicidality, self-harm, depressive disorders, social anxiety, and other mental health challenges demands answers. First, why is this happening? Second, what can parents and families do to protect their teenagers?
Major Causes of Anxiety in Female Teens
Many factors contribute to the lack of well-being that teenage girls experience today. Two of the most pervasive, however, are the influence of social media and the after-effects of the Covid pandemic.
The Influence of Social Media
The increased use of social media over the last two decades coincides very closely with increased adolescent suicide rates, teen anxiety, and depressive disorder rates.
The reasons are clear – peer pressure and the fear of missing out (FOMO) are made worse by social media usage. If a teenage girl opens Instagram or TikTok and sees that her friends are at a party or event that she was not invited to, the feeling of rejection can be devastating. Similarly, selfie culture and the use of filters create unrealistic expectations for girls’ physical appearance that can impact self-worth.
Post-Pandemic Struggles & Self-Harm
The Covid-19 pandemic accelerated and exacerbated the negative impact of social media as well as other issues. Teen girls who were experiencing social anxiety or stressors at school suddenly had a safe haven at home. No one was making them leave the house and in fact, they were encouraged to stay home in a safe cocoon. As a consequence, they became conditioned to avoidance behaviors and did not experience the resiliency that comes from facing our fears in life and learning that bad things are often temporary; not permanent.
Teenagers’ mental states were also negatively impacted by a lack of in-person social interactions during lockdowns. We are wired for social connection and isolation can really tear at our emotional health.
Conversely, teens who lived in stressful home environments no longer had the safety release from going to school and being with their peers. Physical or emotional abuse at home, economic instability, and other stressors were then exacerbated.
Lastly, the shift from being homebound back to “normal” school attendance and social activity was traumatic for many teenagers.
Many teenagers facing depression or anxiety related to this transition have turned to self-harm, often in the form of cutting, to manage these emotions. Research has verified these trends in the form of increased mental illness hospitalizations for teen girls and higher reported incidences of self-harm.
Reframing the Approach to Female Teen Anxiety
Some parents, especially those who are unaware of these underlying challenges, believe that their teens need to learn to weather life’s storms. After all, bad stuff happens to everyone, and teenage angst has been around as long as there have been teenagers.
While this argument may have some merit, today’s challenges are not normal. and they are not what parents experienced in their own developmental years. These trends are extremely concerning, and warning signs need to be addressed if they appear.
For example, when most of us were young, we had never heard of cutting as or other types of self-harm as a way of managing emotions. One mother was shocked when her middle school daughter classified girls in her school as “cutters” and “non-cutters”.
In plain terms, teenage girls who are suffering from depression or anxiety, engaging in self-harm, or struggling with their personal well-being need to speak with a therapist. Left unchecked, these issues can lead to damaging behavior in the present as well as future suffering.
Young people who weather a difficult season without the right support can also suffer deep psychological changes. They may come to believe that their struggles are personal failures or live with a deflated sense of self-worth.
Therapy, however, reframes those experiences. Instead of feeling trapped by negative emotions, these challenges can become opportunities to build resilience and self-esteem.