Teen Girls: Depression, Anger and Powerlessness

This post was originally published on the Huffington Post and is cross-posted with permission.

Growing up, lots of girls get the message that the phrase “angry woman” is an oxymoron. A little like boys might get the message that “sad man” is. Girls are taught that overtly expressing anger threatens their relationships. Depression, on the other hand, does not.

New data from a national survey conducted between 2008 and 2010 reveals that between the ages of 12-15, the number of girls experiencing depression triples. This happens at a rate of three times that of boys. Girls attempt suicide in greater numbers but boys, who tend to use guns more, succeed more often. As last week’s Huffington Post article about the study explained, before puberty, boys and girls typically experience depression at the same frequency. “Social pressures” appear to be greater for girls and, of course, we’ve all been schooled on the impact of “hormones and emotions.” Doctors believe it is vital that we teach teenage girls coping skills and social support systems so that they can better avoid depression. But girls aren’t just depressed when they are teens. Remember that 2009 study ”Why are Women Increasingly Unhappy?” They grow up to be more depressed in their 20′s, 30′s, 40′s and beyond.

Depression is a complicated business. As is the case with many things, there are genetic factors, hormonal issues and environmental circumstances. But do you know what clinicians think a large component of depression is? Anger.

The first thing is that this type of anger is caused by a perceived or actual loss or rejection, as described by Dr. Fredric N. Busch in Advances in Psychiatric Treatment:

Patients struggle with the experience and expression of angry feelings. Anger in people with depression often stems from narcissistic vulnerability, a sensitivity to perceived or actual loss or rejection. These angry reactions cause intrapsychic conflicts through the onset of guilt and the fear that angry feelings will disrupt relationships. These conflicts lead to anger being directed inwards, further lowering self-esteem, creating a vicious cycle.” The second thing about it is that the most common aspect of female anger is powerlessness.

I keep hearing and reading that there is something inherent in girls and women (biology, hormones) that predisposes them to depression and that as a result, their interactions with the world are more likely to lead to depression because they can’t cope. They are dating and having sex too early, they are the children of divorce, they watch too much TV. Generally, they are incapable of dealing with the world as it comes to them as young girls and women. They need better self-awareness and coping mechanisms to deal with the pressure. What pressure? The pressure of being.

To become a woman, especially a woman of color, in our culture is cognitively dissonant, and girls respond differently to that experience. Girls, like boys, feel fully human, but culture tells them that they are not. Even the most privileged girls, those that can afford doctors, psychologists, good schools excellent teams, etc. etc. get this message. Sometimes they rebel, sometimes they compartmentalize, sometimes they agitate for change, sometimes they bury their heads in the sand, sometimes they conform, sometimes they get angry. Sometimes their anger is pathologized instead of given free expression because we’d rather call it anything but anger. When girls get older and are, as women, also inclined to be unhappier then men, feminism’s threats to the traditional male head of household apparently do them in. If we just shame them early, maybe they’d grow up to be happier women. In any case, we need to fix them, right? If we fix them they will get better.

Being a girl under constant pressure can lead to anger, and, according to Carol Tavris, Ph.D., author ofAnger: The Misunderstood Emotion, “Anger externalized can turn into violence and aggression; anger internalized can cause depression, health problems and communication difficulties.” Perhaps turning the anger inward is an attempt to retain some semblance of power and control.

I’m not sure why more people aren’t talking about anger and power and teenage girls in the news we read about skyrocketing rates of depression. Girls have the right to be angry. We need to allow them to be angry, powerful, physical and popular in “nonsexual and nonmaterialistic” ways. Not acknowledging anger and powerlessness or trivializing it only makes things worse. I’d suggest we’d have a lot less girls to “fix” if we started looking at how anger can impact depression in youth, acknowledged that anger and sought its causes.

Photo Credit Eleanor Ryan via the Creative Commons License.

You know what else happens in the buildup to puberty besides the “hormonal problems” that beset girls? Girls have to come to terms with a broad assault on their sense of self. They face a daily virtual avalanche of micro-aggressions whose messages would anger and sadden any thoughtful, sane adult. Think about what girls experience as young children and they enter puberty:

    • Repeatedly processing the information that our culture thinks being you or like you. (a) Is the ultimate insult. What girl hasn’t heard “cry like a girl,” “throw like a girl” or “scream like a girl?” and (b) Means you’re untrustworthy, catfighting and backstabbing (ie. Pretty Little LiarsGossip GirlDon’t Trust the Bitchall of reality TV)
    • Watching females disappear in public culture in jarring comparison to private life.  Children grow up in domestic spheres where women have authority and are granted moral competence, power and authentic legitimacy. But what they learn in lower school and into high school is that those attributes are reserved for men alone in government, religion, media and entertainment . It’s not a gender gap, it’s a chasm on which girls stand on the precipice. It confounds them.
    • Coming to terms with rape and physical vulnerability. How does it feel to realize, after years of “girl power,” that you are about to go out into a world where you or one of the five friends sleeping over tonight will be raped before you turn 18? Girls don’t know these statistics, but they realize that their physical safety is constantly at risk, that they need to restrict themselves and that, should something happen, it will more likely than not be construed as their own fault. Especially if they slip and make a mistake a boy might make, like drink too much.
    • Knowing that you will never be perfect or good enough if you don’t try. Hearing that charities are paying for girls to change how they look in order to conform to the desires of others doesn’t help.
    • Watching adult women adapt and trade for power in a system that oppresses them. Seeing them compromise themselves and their bodies and act against their and your long-term self interest because they are adapting in ways that seem to make no sense but are necessary.

Girls have to filter their existences through these messages of powerlessness and literal cultural worthlessness. Is this depressing YOU? Girls might be more inclined to depression because coming to terms with your own cultural marginalization and irrelevance is depressing. Boys have their own woes, I know. For those readers and commenters that feel obliged to turn every discussion about girls into one about the plight of boys — please look elsewhere today. I know, girls are doing SO well in school, will “soon” be the richer sex and men are coming to a crashing end! I will write another post when that happens admitting my error.

What happens when an alert, thoughtful young girl looks around and sees invisibility in her future? What happens when she feels a loss of relevance? A cultural disenfranchisement? What happens when her bodily integrity comes to be an issue on many fronts? Consider how obsessed we are with bullying in this conversation about depression and explode that idea to consider how sexism in culture is just bullying writ large. It’s an existential dilemma to be alive and realize you are not important and that your body, the one you believe belongs to YOU, in fact may not. It may belong to your father, your mother, your boyfriend, your girlfriend, a stranger, your state. It makes some people angry. But good girls don’t get angry, do they? It’s so unattractive. But depression, that’s a different thing.

Honestly, it’s small wonder that more girls aren’t depressed. I have three teenage daughters. So far, none has tried to hurt herself in any of the infinite ways available. This is not an accident of fate necessarily, and we are still in the early days. I am hopeful it is at least partially the result of very hard work undertaken by our family and hundreds of people working diligently and with passion to change the culture that sends these messages (see below).

What I hear when I learn about depression in a young girl is a quiet plea to be considered whole and legitimate, central and valued as an individual. To grow up knowing that your society respects you and recognizes your sense of your own worth and moral agency. After we’ve done that, then we can come back to biological determinism. Until then it has zero legitimacy.

Girls need to know that they are sufficient as they are. That their bodies belong to them. That they are moral agents in their own lives. That they are not sick or defective or deviant from a long-established but entirely unnatural male norm. They need to know that they are powerful, but that their powerfulness in the world as adults is not yet recognized. We have a chicken and an egg problem.

There are hundreds of great organizations, started by parents, teachers, coaches and girls themselves that are finding ways to give girls the confidence they need to counter corrosive cultural messages. The key is not to wait until your daughters are depressed. Here are some great organizations (there are many more, and these are in no particular order):

Spark Movement
Girls on the Run
Girls Inc. (good resource guide, too)
She Heroes
7 Wonderlicious 
Black Girl Project
Adios Barbie
Princess Free Zone
Powered by Girls
Black Girls Rock!
Miss Representation
Pigtail Pals
Girls’ Leadership Institute 
Healthy is the New Skinny
The Body Project
Rachel Simmons Leadership For Life
Keep Her In the Game

Also, check out the many organizations with similar goals internationally that you can find here at Amazing Women Rock.

Keep Her in the Game from Womens Sports Foundation on Vimeo.


Soraya L. Chemaly writes about feminism, gender and culture. She writes for The Huffington Post, The Feminist Wire, BitchFlicks and Fem2.0 among others. Follow at @schemaly.