PARENTS

The Pressures Affecting Young Girls' Mental Health And Why Parents' Involvement Is Essential

'It’s mentally draining to remind yourself that you are good enough.'

16/03/2017 16:20 GMT

At age 14, Naomi was feeling pressure from all sides of her life.

At school, she had pressure around exams, getting her grades and starting to plan her future career. 

She wasn’t happy with how she looked, she compared herself to others on social media and she started to distance herself from friends.

“I was expected to be making really important decisions about my future at such a young age,” she told The Huffington Post UK

“At my lowest point I was spending time in my room alone and not wanting to be with people. I was having panic attacks, and I couldn’t stay in lessons because of the fear of being judged if I got an answer to a question wrong.”

Elisabeth Schmitt via Getty Images

Naomi is not alone in having these feelings. In August 2016, research by the Department for Education found that the mental wellbeing of teenage girls in England had worsened in recent years.

The study compared the experiences and attitudes of 14-year-olds in 2014 with those in 2005 and found an increase in “psychological distress”. Teenagers in 2014, unlike those in 2005, faced the almost constant pressure of social media and the use of smartphones with video cameras.

This played a part in everything from bullying and missed hours of sleep, to pressure on friendships and relationships.

In October 2016, Girl Guiding asked girls between age seven and 21 how they felt about their sense of themselves. The findings also marked a general decline in happiness for young women from five years ago.

“Girls and young women told us that they feel held back by gender stereotypes, sexism, and anxiety about how they look,” the report said.

“They think they may not achieve their aspirations because they don’t feel safe, they’re facing double standards on what behaviour is acceptable because they’re girls and they don’t feel the same roles are open to them compared to boys.”

An NSPCC spokesperson told HuffPost UK last year (2015/16), Childline carried out 1,596 counselling sessions with girls worried about body image: a 17% increase on the previous year.

Half of all lifetime mental health problems begin before the age of 14, so it’s vital to act early. A child with good mental health is much more likely to have good mental health as an adult, and to be able to take on adult responsibilities and fulfil their potential, said YoungMinds

“It is vital that young people, parents, teachers and carers know where to turn to if they need support and that support is delivered to them efficiently and effectively,” said Emma Saddleton, helpline operations manager at YoungMinds.

“Building emotional resilience is crucial.” 

dmbaker via Getty Images

Addressing the pressures facing young girls

Emma Taggart, 16, a young leader of a Rainbows unit, said the pressure to succeed as she has grown up has lead into worry and anxiety. But on top of that, she feels as though she’s in a world where women are judged more on their appearance than their achievements.

“It’s mentally draining to continually have to remind yourself that you are, have been and will always be good enough,” Taggart told us. 

“This lack of resources to deal with the mental wellbeing of young people brings negative consequences, some of which I came across early last year when one of my friends attempted to take her own life.”

Such pressures on young girls have been apparent for many years.

The PAPYRUS helpline - HOPELineUK - that deals with children experiencing suicidal thoughts receives dozens of calls and texts every week from young girls feeling suicidal due to issues in their lives. 

Heather Dickinson, manager of the helpline, told HuffPost UK these include eating disorders, body image, self-harm, bullying, school or exam stress, relationship issues with family, friends and teachers to name but a few.

“These young girls frequently tell us that they feel their problems aren’t that bad, that they are stupid for feeling the way they do, which, of course, makes them feel even worse about themselves,” Dickinson said.

“Girls sometimes report not really knowing why they feel so bad. This can cause even more anxiety as they cannot pinpoint any specific cause for their low mood and suicidal thoughts.”

Dickinson said that most of the issues affecting young girls are influenced and made worse by social media.

While the various channels may carry benefits for young people by keeping them linked in and less alone, Dickinson said messaging can become “extremely competitive” and increase pressure on young girls.

“Decisions about who is included in private messaging groups, discussions regarding ‘looks’, clothes, social activities, as well as images and selfies serve to heighten insecurities,” she added.

Saddleton said the YoungMinds Parents helpline has shown that the most common concerns for parents with young girls are issues involving self-harm, anxiety and depression.

She said social media is typically a daily activity for a young person and as a result they have 24-hour access to both friends and celebrities, who may be sharing an unrealistic representation of their ‘perfect life’. 

“Young girls may take these posts as an accurate picture of how life should be, of how they should look and of how women should act,” she said.

“Cyberbullying has also become a fact of life for many, and can have a devastating effect on self-esteem.”

YoungMind’s research showed that on top of these pressures, young girls face a huge range of pressures including stress at school, college or university, bullying on and offline and uncertain job prospects.

“Difficult experiences in childhood – including bereavement, domestic violence or abuse – can also have a serious impact on mental health, often several years down the line,” she added. 

Juanmonino via Getty Images

Understanding how parents can help

PAPYRUS’ helpline has received an increasing numbers of calls and texts from parents worried about their young daughters in the past year, who are often unsure how bad they are feeling and whether they are suicidal.

“The truth is, we don’t always know,” said Dickinson. “Parents often feel anxious asking about suicide, concerned that they will make things worse, or ‘put the idea into their head’.”

The charity has found a current theme with girls is that they struggle to know how and where to get support. They often feel that people will not take them seriously, or think that they are “stupid” for feeling the way they do.

There are some practical steps you can take to ensure both you and your child do not become overwhelmed by these pressures.

Make sure they know you love them

Kids need to be reminded and reassured that they are loved and cared for. Saddleton said parents should praise their daughters for what they do well and encourage them to try new things. 

Be clear about what is and isn’t acceptable

Ensure your daughter knows, when it comes to social media, school and any other anxieties they may have, they must be clear on the difference between right and wrong.

“This might sound simple, but give them an explanation as to ‘why’, too,” explained Saddleton. “Children need to know what is okay and what isn’t, and what will happen if they or someone else crosses the line. 

“Follow through on what you say as otherwise they may get confused or stop respecting the boundaries.”

Keep an open communication

Talk to your child. “Even young children can understand about feelings and behaviour if you give them a chance to talk about it,” added Saddleton.

“Take it gently and give them examples of what you mean, for example: ‘When you said you hated Molly, you looked really angry. What was making you so cross?’”

The NSPCC told HuffPost UK: “It’s also important for parents to remind young people that the images they see online are often heavily edited; and if they ever want to talk about their worries they can talk to you.”

Ask what you’re worried about directly

As well as keeping an open communication with your child, Dickinson said it’s important to ask about sensitive topics directly rather than skirting around and avoiding these topics.

“For example, ask about suicide directly,” she said. “Asking directly will give the young person a clear message that it’s okay to talk about it, and that you are a safe person to talk to.

“You will not make your daughter feel worse, but you will give her the chance to get help and be listened to.”

Ensure both parents understand what’s going on

Saddleton said if your child has a second parent that may not live with them, talk to that adult about your worries, when the child is not around.

“They might have a different take on what’s going on,” she explained.

“Try and sort out how to deal with the behaviour together so you are using the same approach, and can back each other up.

“Children are quick to spot if parents disagree, and can try and use this to get their own way.”

HuffPost UK is running a month-long project in March called All Women Everywhere, providing a platform to reflect the diverse mix of female experience and voices in Britain today

Through blogs, features and video, we’ll be exploring the issues facing women specific to their age, ethnicity, social status, sexuality and gender identity.

For more information and support:

PAPYRUS: Children and parents can contact HOPELineUK for advice and support. It is confidential and you will not be judged. Call 0800 0684141, text 07786209697 or email pat@papyrus-uk.org.

Childline: Remind your child that Childline is there to give them free, confidential support and advice, 24 hours a day on 0800 1111 or at www.childline.org.uk.

YoungMinds: The parents helpline offers free, confidential online and telephone support, including information and advice, to any adult worried about the emotional problems, behaviour or mental health of a child or young person up to the age of 25. Call 0808 8025544.

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