According to a recent CDC report, adolescent girls are fighting for their lives. This might sound hyperbolic but based on the 2021 findings from the CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS), it is more than accurate.
The YRBS serves to monitor health behaviors that contribute significantly to the leading causes of death, disability and social problems among youth in the United States. The latest report, which shows trends spanning from 2011–2021, is sounding the alarm and for good reason.
According to the latest survey, the first since the start of COVID, teen girls are confronting the highest levels of hopelessness, sadness and sexual violence ever reported.
There are a number of complex factors that contribute to these findings including social media, academic pressures, COVID factors and social influences.
According to the report, here are some of the most notable findings:
- 1 in 5 girls experienced sexual violence in the past year – a 20% jump since 2017.
- 3 in 5 girls felt persistently sad and hopeless – a 60% increase from 2011.
- More than 1 in 4 girls reported that they have seriously considered suicide – up 60% from 2011.
- More than 1 in 10 girls reported having attempted suicide.
It is important to note that LGBTQ+ youth are at an elevated risk for sexual violence and mental health problems.
- 1 in 4 experienced sexual violence.
- 1 in 4 experienced bullying at school with 1 in 10 avoiding school because of safety concerns.
- 3 in 4 reported persistent sadness or hopelessness.
- Almost half considered suicide while 1 in 4 attempted.
These findings are alarming. They call for collective attention and action. As parents, caregivers, teachers, coaches and mental health professionals, we play a critical role in supporting the safety and mental health of our girls. If we act now, we can significantly change the future well-being of adolescent girls.
What can parents look for?
While signs of distress are not always easy to recognize, there are some things you can be aware of that may help you spot distress before things get worse.
Behaviors such as:
- social isolation
- withdrawal from activities
- engagement in high-risk behaviors
- drop in grades
- lashing out
are just some of the signs of distress to be on the lookout for.
Most of us know that it is not unusual for teens to spend a lot of time in their room, experience friendship difficulties, engage in impulsive and sometimes risky behaviors, and act irritable, defiant and argumentative. However, you know your child. If the behavior seems sudden, dramatic, or out of the norm for your daughter, do not ignore it. Our daughters need us to be checked in, connected, and unafraid to intervene when needed.
What can parents do?
- The most valuable thing you can do is be a safe, supportive connection for your daughter. When girls struggle, they tend to either struggle on their own or turn to their friends. While social support is important, it is not always helpful, accessible or safe. What you want is for your daughter to be able to come to you as a trusted adult to share her experiences and get help. Staying connected gives you a window into her world and the opportunity to support and intervene early if there are concerns.
- Staying connected requires parents to use two important communication skills. The first is talking less and listening more. As parents, when our daughters come to us, we often want to share our wisdom or fix their problems. While you are no doubt coming from a good place, teens can often end up feeling judged, criticized, lectured, or invalidated when you take those approaches. The goal is to encourage your daughter to open up. You do this by making space and listening. If they feel heard, they will ask for your help in due time.
- The second skill is validation. Validation is one of the most important communication tools you can use when talking with your teen. Validation communicates, “I hear you, I understand you and I care.” Validation does not mean agreeing. You can validate without condoning their behavior or agreeing with their stance. When teens feel validated, they are much more likely to open up and, more importantly, be receptive to your feedback.
I’ve listened and validated, now what?
Now, you take action. There are a number of things you can do to do to help your daughter if she is struggling.
- Encourage self-care. Self-care is critical to mental well-being. Help your daughter get in the habit of regular self-care. Things like good sleep habits, reading, exercise, spending time with friends, journaling, getting outside, mindfulness, and watching their fav Netflix show are all examples of self-care.
- Encourage (and enforce) social media breaks. Encourage your daughter to take breaks from social media regularly. Learn about her social media use (with a non-judgmental open mind) and help her find a healthy relationship with technology. It would be a great idea if you modeled this too!
- Encourage school and community connections. The CDC report stressed the value of school connectedness on current and future well-being. Help your daughter find a club, sport, or organization within her school to get involved with. Schools have a number of great extracurricular offerings and many even allow students to start their own. Nothing for her at school? Find something in the community.
- Get help. If your daughter is struggling, don’t hesitate to reach out to your pediatrician, school counselor, a therapist, or a psychiatrist for help. Parents are critical support for teens, but doctors and therapists have training and experience in treating things like depression, anxiety, trauma, self-harm and suicidal ideation. Some things are bigger than you and require a professional. The time to act is now. As a society, we can no longer stand idly by as our children struggle. Our girls need us to fight for them and that fight starts now.
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, call or text 988 to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.