Teenage Girls, Tech and Trying Times

teenagers brain

As a parent, how often do you find yourself saying to your teenage daughter “for heaven’s sake – will you put that phone down!”

Or hear yourself remarking on the fact that “we didn’t even have mobiles or laptops in our day!” And indeed we didn’t. We had the luxury of going home and shutting the bedroom door on what might have been a dreadful day at school, burying ourselves under the blankets until we were ready to face the outside world again. All the while, our self image was developing but was never under the kind of scrutiny of today.

Now more than ever, young women are exposed to a lot more intrusive situations affecting their mental health and all the while in the midst of a brain ‘shake up’ and a hormone maelstrom?! Young girls and teenagers are firmly in the firing line and three times more vulnerable to experiencing mental health problems than their male counterparts. With fierce competition for excellent school grades, entry to University is now to be expected – and all achieved with A* if you please!

In my child counselling practice I often see teenage girls who are bending over backwards aspiring to be ‘perfect’. They are desperately trying to radiate an uber-confident exterior and pursuing a ‘Fakebook’ lifestyle on Snapchat, Instagram and Tik Tok. Talk about pressure! Not surprisingly, they may suffer from ‘burn-out’, develop extreme anxiety and then respond to all of this with some forceful retaliation at home.

They are under enormous stress believing that they should be the flawless finished product. The young mind is overwhelmed whilst in it’s most revolutionary phase. Feeling competitive and constantly comparing oneself increases in puberty as girls try to find their rightful place, in training to galvanise their strengths and wanting to look attractive for their love interests.

There is an impetus to achieve excellence, and whilst there is nothing wrong with trying your best, there seem to be somewhat troubling, unhealthy aspects to this urgent thrust towards an impossible ideal.   Problematic smartphone usage during the very vulnerable ages of puberty has and is dramatically affecting young women today. Unrealistic mirroring of aesthetics with no real accounting for the ‘touch-up’ applications has resulted in ridiculous standards on waistline measurements and ‘booty’ proportions, thus leading to a lack of positive body image for many. An ever-inceasing range of cosmetic injections, implants and surgeries has now become the norm – and all before 20 years old in some cases!  ‎The darker side of the internet often exposes girls to porn & online grooming, with no restrictions or control at times to unsavoury contact and aggressive or inappropriate imagery. Again, this relentless attack on the ‘self’ can feel incredibly traumatic to a young girl. Churning out good grades, posing for the perfect ‘selfies’, in pursuit of attaining that ‘queen bee’ status in their social group to be seen as being ‘in control’ as opposed to being seen as weak is all that matters. It is undeniable, the pressure is on! Low self-esteem, depression, addictions and other mental health conditions are on the rise under the stressful weight of such social scrutiny so naturally, something has to give! Self-harming or developing an eating disorder can often seem like the solution to taking back control of the situation.

These are impossible standards to live by, so of course young women give themselves even more of a hard time. The tendency for natural dysmorphia – with both hormones and brain tuned to being more alert to communication and to remembering every detail – can create further self-flagellation.

Relationships and verbal communication are hard-wired in the female brain. The female brain has enhanced brain circuitry with more heightened awareness to remember conversations, tones and communications in comparison to the male brain. This would explain why young women end up having ‘fire storm’ arguments and obsessing over a ‘frenemy’ comment about them on Insta!

Hormones certainly play an important part in this dynamic mood shift. In the first trimester of the female cycle, there is a tidal wave of Estrogen. This ‘feelgood’ hormone sends confident signals like “I’m ON it and ready for anything!” and self-assured messages to the brain so “I can conquer the world because I am the QUEEN Bee”.

Progesterone, keeping a low profile, comes to the fore during the second trimester‎. This can feel like it is slowly undoing all the ‘sassy’ attitude and positive feelings of Estrogen – albeit while acting as the leveller, representing the mellower and calmer sister. Productivity and starting to feel a little bit slower can explain why girls need some ‘down time’.

The Estrogen/Progesterone cocktail explains the ‘high’ one day and the ‘low’ the next. And then, both these hormones will drop dramatically before a period in the third trimester of a cycle. This is when women can suffer PMS, a real dirth of darkness, feeling highly sensitive, physically aching and some finding it nigh on impossible to control their more difficult, complex feelings. It can feel like a being sucked into a black hole in the universe. Oh the joy!

To further exacerbate and really ‘stick the boot in’, THP (tetrahydropegnanolone) the sedative hormone that helps us to calm down when we are adults, actually does the reverse for teenagers! So again, it would seem that hormones and brain development cannot always contain the stress and anxiety and therefore explain the DRAMA, DRAMA and more DRAMA.

So how we help young women to not crumble under such stressful conditions?

By explaining to them the different influences that will seem to be taking over. And by reassuring them. Of course you are likely to hear responses such as “…but you don’t understand what‎ it’s like!”, and indeed it’s true that we don’t really know what it is like for the modern teenager these days dealing with some of the terrifying tech issues they face.

But with our built-in system and wiring in our brain, these have not changed. The hormone effects we had as a teenager were similar. The themes of insecurity, feeling self-conscious, worried about our skin, clothes and our friends/girlfriend/boyfriend are the same. This is where we can reassure them.

And, if at crisis point, then seeking professional help is highly recommended. When observing your daughter having a particularly tough time, try seeking out a good mentor/advisor/adult at school – someone who can be a sympathetic ear, perhaps an older girl who has the right support skills to explain well and lead by example.