The ticking teenage timebomb: Pressures to be thin, become sexually active and excel academically push 15-year-old girls towards emotional apocalypse
Today’s 15-year-old girls appear to be heading for an emotional apocalypse, with figures suggesting that 43 per cent feel depressed or anxious, while 27 per cent are suffering from a full-scale mental illness. Pressures to be thin, become sexually active and excel academically are just a few of the factors being blamed. Anna Moore finds out why today’s teens are at crisis point
Flo Woods, 15, from Oxfordshire
It has got a lot harder for girls because there are a lot more people looking at you. Everyone’s on Facebook – everywhere you go, it’s all about the image.
Every girl wants to be skinny, have a nice bum, nice legs, good skin. Walking into school, if you don’t look right, you feel that people are looking at you. When I’m in town and I see someone I know, I’ll think, ‘What am I wearing? Is my top tucked into my jeans the wrong way?’
Girls don’t just want to look pretty, though – they also want to be popular and have good grades. They want to get everything right, tick everything on the list.
They feel they have to try harder than boys in every way.
I’m lucky because I ride: I do eventing and it’s such a relief, a complete escape. I feel as if I have a secret language with my horse. She puts her nose on my shoulder and breathes into me and I know she understands.
I’m a very happy person, but every other night I cry myself to sleep and don’t know why or what I’m crying about. I know it’s not a big issue and I know it’ll never be solved.
I don’t want anyone to pity me. I just blame hormones and stress. I mentioned it to Mum the other day and she was horrified and said, ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ I thought everybody did it!
‘Riding is such a relief, a complete escape. I feel as if I have a secret language with my horse’
The expert opinion
‘School can become a living nightmare’
Oliver James, clinical psychologist
There has been a horrifying rise in anxiety and depression among 15-year-old girls, and the evidence points to four good reasons. First, day-to-day school performance; second, exams.
The first recorded rise happened in the period when girls accelerated academically and flew ahead of boys. For some girls, school has turned into a living nightmare — if you come second in geography, your world falls apart.
The third reason is [obsession with] body shape: not prettiness, but thinness. The fourth is family problems: divorcing parents, family rows.
For boys, it’s more ‘water off a duck’s back’; girls feel more involved.
At 15, they’ve been through puberty and can easily make themselves look 17 or 18, but they’re still very young, not that confident and not sure of the rules. It’s too much, too young, too many things going on.
A few years later, if they’ve had a happy childhood, they can opt out of that toxic experience and be free.
They’re more in charge, not so pressured by peers or boys to do things they don’t want to do. I think 15 is a watershed year.
Oliver James is author of Love Bombing: Reset Your Child’s Emotional Thermostat (Karnac Books, £9.99) To order copies at a discounted price with free p&p, contact the YOU Bookshop, tel: 0844 472 4157, you-bookshop.co.uk
The expert opinion
‘At the heart of all this is anxiety’
Steve Biddulph, parenting educator
A worrying percentage of British girls are in trouble. Eating disorders affect about 12 per cent; there’s been a 68 per cent increase in self-harm in the past ten years — and girls are now drinking more than boys.
At the heart of all of this is anxiety, driven by a culture where everyone feels in competition to be impossibly good-looking, and also perhaps a lack of calmness and steadiness in parents who are caught up with consumerism as well.
The danger time usually starts around 14; typically, a girl vulnerable to these pressures has a dad who is critical or cold; a mum who is stressed and busy; has had fairly unlimited exposure to TV (such as in her bedroom) from early childhood, and now digital media — texting Facebook — with no time restrictions.
Special attention is needed from ten to 14, when a girl starts to become her own person. She needs adults who have soul, who ask her about her beliefs, values and what she stands for, what she wants her life to be about. She needs to develop an interest or an activity that really makes her feel alive.
Research shows that girls whose mothers talk positively and intelligently about sex have daughters who are much more choosy and careful about early sexual behaviour: the more they know, the slower they go.
Fathers are essential too, as they carry a strong unconscious message that their daughters are interesting and worthwhile, safe from any sexual connotation. Having an involved dad can delay a daughter’s sexual activity by up to two years, and increases school achievement.
My book opens with the story of Kaycee, a 14-year-old who finds an older boy showing interest in her at a party.
They end up having sex after a few drinks, but she finds out that he has done it for a bet with his mates.
She can’t tell her parents and her life goes off the rails. Her situation arises partly because of a cruel boy, but also because of expectations that girls should and must be sexy, that it’s the way to belong and to be loved.
The trashing of young love by porn, pressures and expectations is a tragedy of our time.
Steve Biddulph is the author of Raising Girls (HarperCollins, £12.99) To order copies at a discounted price with free p&p, contact the YOU Bookshop, tel: 0844 472 4157, you-bookshop.co.uk
Eleanor Barrett, 15, from London
It was weird. Up until years nine and ten – that’s age 13 to 15 – boys weren’t talked about. Then suddenly people started getting boyfriends, having their first kiss, having sex.
People ask if I have a boyfriend and I say no, then they’ll ask ‘Why?’ I say, ‘Because the boys my age are immature, they’re not that nice…’ ‘Oh, you must be a lesbian then!’
There’s so much pressure.
On TV, in movies, you see 15-year-olds conducting relationships. Twenty years ago, they were much older – even in Grease, they were adults, not children.
And boys then seem more courteous and gentleman-like. They’re not looking for a relationship now; they’re after one thing.
If you’re a girl who sleeps with a lot of boys, you’re a slut. If you’re a guy who sleeps with a lot of girls, you’re a king.
My idea of a birthday party is having the girls round for a sleepover, staying up until really early in the morning, watching a movie.
For everyone else it’s, ‘Let’s have a house party, my parents are out!’ There’s drugs, smoking, binge drinking. I’ve been to one and it was the worst experience of my life.
I used to go on Facebook. It makes you feel very pressured to get nice photos of yourself and get lots of ‘likes’ and good comments.
I got so obsessed. It’s really addictive – you’re constantly at the screen. If someone made a nasty comment, it really upset me, and a good friend was bullied quite badly.
People wrote mean comments about her on Facebook and loads of people ‘liked’ them. I’d had it – I deleted my account. I’ve been two years without it and have never gone back.
Exams are another pressure. You’ve got to keep your teachers happy, your parents happy, yourself happy.
You’ve got to try to fit in socially, and at the same time, look after your body, regulate your intake of food and get enough exercise.
It’s overwhelming. It’s like you’re trying to keep up a very wobbly wall.
Nina, 15, from Manchester
I was diagnosed with depression last November after I’d taken an overdose of co-codamol. I’d had a chest infection so I’d been at home.
It sounds so stupid and irrational, but the thing that set off my suicide attempt was the fact that even though I’d been away from school for two weeks, not one friend had been in touch to ask if I was OK. Fifteen minutes after taking the pills, I told my parents and they took me to A&E.
I’d been feeling depressed for about six months, since around my 15th birthday. The symptoms were physical as well as mental.
I felt tired and ill and I wasn’t eating – not for any particular reason, but my appetite just disappeared. I was self-harming too. I told my mum but she dismissed it and if I ever brought it up, she’d get agitated and change the subject.
After the overdose, I was taken more seriously and saw a psychiatrist, who wasn’t helpful. She told me the self-harming was ‘attention seeking’.
She did prescribe antidepressants but Mum wants me to see a psychologist instead for another evaluation. My first appointment is next week.
Although I still find life hard, and even going to school is a struggle at the moment, going out for long walks seems to help. It gives me time to think and get some fresh air. I’ve learnt breathing exercises too.
I think academic and social pressures were probably triggers. I’m doing my GCSEs and I’ve never been able to cope well with pressure.
I go to a private girls’ school and teachers don’t understand that there are more important things in life than doing well academically – like mental stability!
The pressure from teachers is less than half of it though. The girls at my school want to be the best of the best. I recently overheard someone say, ‘I can’t believe I only got 92 per cent. I know it’s an A*, but I could have done better.’
There’s also too much pressure on girls to look and act a certain way. If a girl isn’t stick-thin, tall and drop-dead gorgeous, she has no place here.
My relationship with my dad is another problem. We’ve always clashed – and since my overdose, he’s always busy working and hardly speaks to me. Maybe that’s just his way of dealing with it.
The expert opinion
‘The teenage brain becomes hard-wired to seek risk’
Stephanie Davies-Arai, parenting expert at communicatingwithkids.com
Fifteen is when the ‘teenage brain’ kicks in and becomes hard-wired to seek novelty, risk, excitement and the company of peers.
All teenagers at this age are relentlessly comparing themselves to members of their own sex, and finding where they are in the pecking order in terms of attracting the opposite sex.
Girls tend to want to please, and have the added pressure of a culture that values them mainly for their ‘hotness’.
As a mother, you should avoid lecturing and disapproval. The way you are as a woman — your own attitude to your weight, appearance and self-esteem — will have more impact than anything you say. Have light day-to-day chats; let your daughter know your opinions, but in a conversational way.
She’s more likely to listen if she finds you interesting. Tell her something you’ve read in the paper and ask for her view. Listen, be interested. Don’t force your opinion — state it and let it go.
Minnie Cullen Close, 15, from London
Boys are under a different kind of pressure – maybe to be a little bit naughty, a bit cool. Girls are under more pressure to be academic, pretty, popular, skinny, with nicely brushed hair and painted nails.
A boy once said to me, ‘You should paint your nails more often. Girls look more attractive with painted nails!’ I have friends who are boys, but I haven’t had a boyfriend for a year or two. When I did, there was loads of pressure to do stuff that I didn’t really want to do.
I know people who’ve been bullied online. One girl in the year below me went out with a boy, had sex with him, then dumped him for someone else.
Everyone felt sorry for him and started posting BBM [BlackBerry Messenger] statuses calling her a slut. She was really upset. I don’t think she deserved it.
The pressure to meet your academic targets is too much. I’ll have done 14 GCSEs by August and I’m supposed to get all As and A*s.
I had to retake an English exam because I got a low A – and it meant I wouldn’t have been able to get an A* in my final grade.
There’s pressure from teachers and parents, but I put loads of pressure on myself to do well. I don’t know why. It’s a bit of a pride thing. If you know you can do it, you want to.
The Expert opinion
‘A surgically enhanced, Photoshopped image is “normal”’
Dr Richard Graham, child and adolescent psychiatrist at the Capio Nightingale Hospital and specialist in technology addiction
The ‘transformations of puberty’ are fraught with confusion, to the point where you don’t quite know who you are or what you’ve become. You want to be attractive and desirable; at the same time you’re anxious that you’ve turned into something terrible.
At this stage, the responses from peers, more than family, can make a huge difference. At the same time, the image these girls are held up to — skinny, surgically enhanced, hair-extended — is impossible.
This generation of 15-year-olds is growing up not just with TV, magazines and billboards, but with Facebook, the internet and Tumblr. Photoshopping is ‘normal’. It’s agonising to hear how desperate a girl is to get the right image of herself, to get enough ‘likes’.
When she’s so absorbed in appearance, it makes her less connected, less interested in others in a deeper, meaningful way.
One way of trying to lose anxious feelings is to bully others, to make someone else feel bad so you don’t — which explains a lot of the brutal sexting, ‘slut shaming’ and online bullying that is so prevalent. In a Lord of the Flies world, no one wants to be bottom of the food chain.