The reality of being a teenage girl today
As a parent, it is easy to make assumptions about today’s teenagers and their lives. However, the pressures faced by teens – and especially by teenage girls – are intense and what we see from the outside is not always what’s going on inside. I asked teenager and aspiring journalist Evie to give her insights on what it’s like being a teenage girl today, what lockdown taught her about teenage anxiety and how parents can help.
As a teen girl over the last 18 months, coronavirus has really put life into perspective for me. The act of isolating and sitting alone with my thoughts allowed me to come to an epiphany – nothing matters more than my mental health. I know, controversial! Maybe it seems even a little selfish? But being frank, it’s true.
Since the age of five when I started school, I developed a very common mental illness called anxiety all revolving around the school environment. And whilst I climbed my way up the educational ladder, it began to spiral out of control.
My school attendance was constantly fluctuating as I went through periods of depressive episodes and constant panic attacks. After 10 years of ignoring and exhausting my brain mentally, it sent a neurological signal forcing my body to give up, as if crippled. Four years ago, in 2017, I was signed off school and diagnosed with severe anxiety, depression and PTSD.
The label of mental illness isn’t what bothered me, it was the fact that I couldn’t get out of bed. I couldn’t shower, I couldn’t speak, and I just didn’t care about anything anymore. I was absolutely exhausted. Throughout my year of severe mental illness, I experienced many physical side effects daily including chronic pain, hair loss and episodes in which my body would shut down due to anxiety causing me to pass out.
Mental illness not only ruined my life but also affected everyone in my family too. Sitting here writing this now I can’t even begin to imagine the depressive cave I created for my family to live in, and I am thankful for my recovery.
Having a lot of reflection time in lockdown allowed me to understand that my mental illness not only consumed me, but also my whole family. Since going back to school, it is obvious how one’s mental health struggles can affect the people we socialise with too (here’s where my epiphany comes into place!). If you are struggling mentally, it’s more than likely going to rub off on those around you. So, taking care of yourself is not selfish or weak – it’s heroic.
Think of it like coronavirus – when we’re infected, we isolate, we stay home, we take care of ourselves until we are well enough to re-emerge back into society so that its safe not just for us but others as well. Mental illness is just like any other physical disease and we must help ourselves cope with it.
I’m not saying we should lock away the ‘crazy’ and separate them from the rest of humankind like they did back in the day. What I’m saying is that if your child or someone you love is struggling, treatment is the way – whether that’s self-care, professional help or just a mental health day – because one day off school to sort out your head is a lot better than negative thoughts and feelings swarming your head for weeks on end. Trust me, it’s a vicious cycle that will only get worse.
What parents get wrong
Understandably, I think parents get confused about the best way to deal with the mental health of their teens. I’m no expert but the biggest complaint I hear from my friends is when they express negative thoughts to their parents and they are met with “you’re just really emotional and sensitive”. Or “don’t be so dramatic it’ll all be fine when you go back to school tomorrow” and (my personal favourite) “your period is probably due soon that’s why you feel so emotional”.
Please don’t say these things. It takes courage to express feelings and show weakness. Dismissing your teen’s feelings is never going to help.
The pressures teenage girls face
When I look at my friends, almost all of them have some sort of mental health problem – whether that’s low self-esteem, anxiety, body image or disordered eating. And that got me thinking about the reality of being a teenage girl today. Why is everyone in my generation struggling? I don’t know the answer but all the reasons I see revolve around pressure, comparison and critique.
The biggest pressure a teenage girl faces is body image and appearance. We exist in a world of unattainable and unrealistic beauty standards and, unfortunately, skinny is all the rage. When I first started my new school, I would sit with a group of girls at lunch. One girl was extremely self-conscious to the point where she wouldn’t wear short sleeved tops as she thought her arms were ‘too chubby’. I never saw her eat lunch. Then I realised the other girls stopped eating lunch too and I began to think maybe I shouldn’t eat lunch either. I began to take notice of other girls outside my friendship group at lunchtime and realised that hardly anyone eats lunch. By 2pm everyone is moody, starving and walking around like a zombie! I began to return to old ways of thinking and in flooded my negative depressive thoughts.
I was petrified of the possibility of turning back into the old sick girl I used to be, so I took a mental health break that lasted three days off school.
Knowledge is power
Personally, what helped me was educating myself, getting a sense of perspective and accepting that those pressures won’t just go away. During this break I logged off social media so I could escape school and the teen world – allowing me to focus on myself. I realised that fleeing the situation was only going to fix my problem temporarily. I knew that as soon as I went back to school, I’d be surrounded by girls comparing and commenting on each others’ figures.
So, I turned to google. I decided that if I was going to deal with these thoughts and struggles, I needed information. I learnt that food is fuel and the metabolism needs three meals a day to work. I learnt about body positive influencers and health foods as well as using exercise to boost mood and destroy negative thoughts.
Girls my age will always have body image pressures no matter how many times you tell them they’re perfect and beautiful. But there’s always a way to deal with it. That might be cooking a special healthy meal together that they want to eat, teaching them exercises to target an area of their body they feel uncomfortable about or teaching them the biology of how the body works and that food is fuel.
Work with your teenager don’t battle her. Being proactive is so much better than a confrontational and tense argument or simply ignoring it. Nobody wants these scary thoughts but, unfortunately, in our generation they come when you hit your teen years. So, be the agony aunt and lifeboat to your child. Don’t judge. Help them find positive coping mechanisms – whether that’s education, self-care or just a mental health break.
This is a guest post. At the time of writing, Evie is studying for her A Levels and applying for university courses to study journalism. We are truly grateful for her taking time to share her insights on the reality of being a teenage girl today.
For more information on how to support your teen through mental health challenges, including organisations offering support, please see our Supporting children’s and teenagers’ mental health resource list.