Teen tumult: why it's harder on girls.
(researcher Lyn Mikel Brown) (Interview)

By Sue Avery Brown

Abstract: Teenage girls face different psychological problems that
drastically affect their emotional well-being more than teenage boys. The
anxieties and expectations and ways to possibly resolve them are addressed by

Full Text COPYRIGHT Time Inc. 1993
People Weekly, March 1, 1993 v39 n8 p37(1).

Until about 10 years ago, a teen was a teen was a teen, and experts in adolescent psychology didn't think to study boys and girls as separate entities with separate concerns -- girls, in fact, were hardly considered at all. Since then, however, ground-breaking research has begun to indicate profound differences between how the sexes develop. Girls, it suggests, have it tougher.

"Girls learn to silence their own ideas and ignore their own instincts when they come up against what we call the wall of Western culture," says Lyn Mikel Brown, whose book, Meeting at the Crossroads: Women's Psychology and Girls' Development, co-authored with Harvard professor Carol Gilligan, summarizes five years of study of girls ages 6 to 18. Co-chair (along with her husband, Mark Tappan) of the education and human development program at Colby College in Waterville, Me., Brown, 37, spoke with Boston bureau chief Sue Avery Brown about these crucial years.

What psychological changes take place in young teenage girls?

As girls enter adolescence, they begin to struggle with the image of the "perfect girl." The perfect girl is nice and kind. She doesn't get angry -- or at least doesn't show it. She looks perfect. Girls absorb these messages about what's appropriate, what's socially acceptable, and then because it is impossible to live up to these expectations, there is often an increase in depression, a sort of drop in their psychological resilience.

Boys are troubled by adolescence too. Aren't the psychological changes the same for both sexes?

That's been the traditional view. There is some evidence to suggest that there's a drop in self-confidence in boys, but their entry into the culture is easier because the culture, frankly, is created in their image. From listening to girls, we saw how clearly they could name the confusion they felt. When they were 8, 9, 10, they were encouraged to be physical, and their outspokenness didn't bother people. They lived much more lively lives. Suddenly they're being told to be more restrained, more ladylike. When we asked girls if they ever had a time when they thought things were different from what others were saying was happening, they said, "All the time."

What role do schools play in the problems girls confront?

A 1991 study by the American Association of University Women, called "How Schools Shortchange Girls," showed that boys and girls are treated differently in classrooms. Boys are encouraged to take risks and to speak their minds. Girls are often graded on how neat their papers are, and when they challenge authority, it's considered impertinent. Even the most vigilant teachers seemed to have higher expectations of boys.

How about television and movies?

Often they convey an image of the superwoman -- tall and thin, perfect hair, a woman who works full-time in a gratifying job, who comes home to a prince of a husband and wonderful children. Girls see her everywhere and want to be her, but it is impossible.

Is there a connection between early teen turmoil and eating disorders?

There is no one simple, direct causal link. But studies show a relationship between depression, self-esteem and body image. Society tells girls not to act out their anger, so they turn it inward -- sometimes through abuse to their bodies.

What can adults do to help prevent some of these problems?

Teachers and parents need to take seriously the issues of gender bias in their own lives and relationships. So often I hear, "Let boys be boys." We found that parents often would be more specific about what boys are going to be in the future but would say to girls, "You can be whatever you want as long as you are happy." This may sound good, but it can be anxiety-producing for a young girl, especially when confronted with the superwoman image. The better approach is to find out what your daughter is interested in and then to encourage her, and to help her question the images and unfairness that she sees around her.

What is your advice to young girls struggling toward adulthood?

Pay attention to the things that make you uncomfortable, angry or fearful. Try to identify what's going on and why. Then find someone you trust to talk to. The person beside you may be having the same feelings but be afraid to speak. Remember: You are not alone.

CAPTION: "I struggled a lot as a girl," recalls researcher Lyn Mikel Brown (at Colby College).