By Paula Dunn

It’s not an easy time to be a teenager.

For starters, they’re grappling with the uncertainty of a pandemic along with everything else in their lives.

But teenage girls are dealing with three major issues that can’t be ignored: stress, school problems and mental health.

Some girls might be battling just one of these, but imagine managing all three at the same time.

A recent study by UNICEF Australia found teenage girls are more anxious during the Covid-19 pandemic than boys. Even outside of lockdowns, there are countless reasons why teenage girls are feeling less-than-fabulous.

As a cognitive scientist, I spend a lot of time looking at how teenage girls think and feel, as well as the meaning behind those thoughts and feelings.

I work with some beautiful souls, many of whom simply care too much about what other people think of them.

They care about pleasing their friends and parents, getting good grades at school, fitting in with their peers, and worrying about the future.

Sometimes teenage girls get a bad rap; they’re accused of being overly dramatic. But we need to understand that they have many burdens resting on their shoulders.

Self-esteem is absolutely critical for teenage girls. There’s an old saying that ‘perception is projection’. In other words, how a girl perceives herself determines her level of confidence.

Research on gender differences in self-confidence reveals that if girls and boys are both participating in a certain activity – and they both fail – girls will have a higher prevalence of internalising their failures. A boy is more likely to say, “That wasn’t my fault”.  Girls will usually blame themselves.

However, when it comes to success, girls generally feel like it was just luck – while boys take that success and internalise it as their own achievement.

Self-esteem is absolutely critical for teenage girls.

There are several things parents can do to help their teenage daughter thrive:

  • Parents need to help their daughters understand not who they are, but who they want to be.
  • Keep her eyes on the prize. Help her move forward and never give up in spite of failure and adversity.
  • Help her navigate past her fear zone and into a learning and growth zone.

Importantly, be her champion. It’s crucial to embrace the unknown, with optimism. Help her gain control out of the chaos.  This will allow her to step into her future self.

It’s also a good idea to get professional help and partner with cognitive scientists to navigate her beliefs, biases and behaviours in a positive way.

I see many teenage girls who come to me because they know they’re anxious, and they’re uncertain about the future. They worry intensely about how their life is going to be. It’s very fulfilling to offer them certainty and confidence, without the need for medication.

Parents need to help their daughters understand not who they are, but who they want to be.

I want to educate parents that if their daughters are having mental health issues (separate from mental illness) the standard treatment is not always to go to the GP for anxiety medication.

Of course, I have no problem with that regime. But, what I’ve discovered is that by the time anxious girls go to a psychologist or psychiatrist, they’re already thinking there’s something wrong with them

So when the teenage girl comes to me, it’s because parents want to try an alternative approach. I’m passionate about giving them the confidence and positive tools that are missing in their lives. Once we help fill in those gaps, we give them the certainty to be able to thrive.

What’s incredible for me is when the girls have a huge sigh of relief, even after our very first conversation. By the time they leave, they realise there’s nothing wrong with them at all. They just need reassurance, then they’re on the way to feeling great.

Paula Dunn is a cognitive scientist, teenage resilience expert, and author of The Limited Edition Leader: Create Confidence To Conquer Life.