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Girl Watching

Raising Daughters in Troubled Times

by Marcia Segelstein

Anecdotally, it certainly seems that the difficulties of raising daughters loom large for modern parents. Spend time around mothers of teenage girls and you can expect to hear war stories involving everything from under-dressing and overspending, to alcohol and sex, to psych wards and worse.

Article originally appeared in
Salvo 34

A study published by the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry compared the rate of utilization of mental health services by children and teens in 1989 with the rate in 1999. Researchers found that, in that ten-year period, the use of such services by girls increased by more than 400 percent. Use by boys also increased, but by 70 percent. Another, more recent study found that girls' use of psychiatric services continues to grow at a faster rate than boys', and it is estimated that more than one in eight females in this country are on antidepressant medication.

Leonard Sax, an M.D. and psychologist who practiced family medicine for 18 years in suburban Washington, D.C., is the author of Girls on the Edge. Writing that "many girls are failing to develop an inner life" and that they lack a "sturdy core of personality," Sax lays out the reasons for what he calls the "new crisis" for girls. And while boys are hardly immune from problems, their issues are usually different. According to Sax, boys are more likely to be referred for counseling for issues such as ADHD and oppositional-defiant disorder. Girls, on the other hand, are more likely to be dealing with anxiety and depression. Put simply, he writes that "boys often act out their problems. Girls are more likely to turn inward, on themselves."

The Objectification of Girls

Sax believes that the sexualization of girls at ever-younger ages is a critical part of the problem. Girls are bombarded with the message that revealing their bodies is both normal and expected. He relates the story of a ten-year-old girl who wanted to dress up as a French maid, complete with fishnet pantyhose, for Halloween. It turns out that the costume came in sizes for even younger girls. Such sexualization, Sax writes, "is about being an object for the pleasure of others, about being on display for others." Girls pretending to be sexy aren't being who they really are, and that's not healthy.

Sax writes that, today, it's not unusual for girls to have their first sexual experience (including oral sex) in their early teens. When a 16-year-old girl told him she'd provided oral sex for "maybe a dozen" guys, he asked how she felt about it. "I don't know, it's OK, I guess. It's really no big deal." Sax quotes Dr. Stephen Hinshaw, chair of the psychology department at the University of California–Berkeley, who, based on his own research, has concluded that for many young women, sex is "relatively joyless and impersonal . . . rather than a source of pleasure, intimacy, or fulfillment." Another cultural shift is that girls used to be, as Sax puts it, "the gatekeepers for sexual activity." Boys had to at least pretend to like the girl if they hoped to "get physical." But for girls today, being hip means not insisting on any emotional or romantic connection. "The culture of 50 years ago encouraged romance without sex. Today's culture encourages sex without romance," Sax writes.

Early sexualization, early sexual activity, and the culturally accepted view that sex is meaningless all set girls up for depression and anxiety.

Living in a Cyber World

Many girls live out their lives on social media sites like Facebook—or at least the lives they want their peers to see. And that's the trouble. For many, sharing on social media isn't about expressing who they really are; it's about creating a persona. As one 17-year-old told Sax regarding Facebook, "It's not about being authentic. It's about being cool." There's a kind of hyper-connectedness and a need to track what everyone else is doing, which leaves girls little time to reflect on who they really are or want to become. It also increases the influence of peers over parents.

Another phenomenon of living in a cyber world is what columnist Clive Thompson calls "microcelebrity." Teenage girls getting ready for a party "make sure they're dressed for their close-up," he wrote in Wired magazine. They know there will be photos and that those photos will be posted online. The danger, says Sax, is that girls who get caught up in what he calls the "cyberbubble" will find it hard "to know where they came from, where they are, and where they want to go." Overly concerned about the image they present to the world, they won't feel at home with who they are.

In fact, Sax worries that the result of early sexualization and excessive use of social media is that girls may not know who they really are.

What's a Parent to Do?

His advice to parents? "Let girls have a chance to be girls. Don't push them to be women and sexual agents before they have had a chance to be girls for as long as they need to be." He urges parents to assert their authority when it comes to having their daughters dress appropriately, and to stand their ground and be prepared for the inevitable conflicts.

Sax believes it's imperative for parents to know what their daughters do online, including on social networking sites. He dismisses the concern some parents have about violating privacy. "You wouldn't let your 15-year-old daughter, much less your 10-year-old daughter, go to a college fraternity party by herself. By the same token, although for different reasons, you should not allow your daughter to engage in online social networking without your supervision." The issue, as he sees it, is protection, and he pulls no punches. "There are two devices you need to oversee: your daughter's computer, and her cell phone." Parents should make sure their daughters know they're looking over their shoulders, and the reasons why. Sax recommends a program called NetNanny, which allows parents to track every site their daughters visit, and lets parents limit their time online.

When it comes to cell phones, Sax advises parents to "make it easy for your daughter to do the right thing." He recommends installing software that sends every photo taken to the parents' phone, in real time. Sexting is too widespread, too tempting, and too potentially dangerous not to do everything possible to prevent it.

Searching for Fulfillment

Girls on the Edge is not written from a Christian worldview. However, Sax raises the issue of "an unsatisfied appetite for the spiritual," and its effect on young women. He quotes Courtney Martin, a young author who's written about her own struggles and those of her friends. "Some of us, for lack of a 'capital G' God, have searched out little gods. We worship technology, celebrities, basketball players, rock stars, supermodels, video games. . . . These empty substitute rituals, this misguided worship, intellectualization, addiction to moving fast, has led my generation to a dark and lonely place." Citing various studies, Sax notes that adolescent girls who are involved in their religious communities are less likely to smoke, drink alcohol, use marijuana, and be preoccupied with physical appearance. They're also considerably less likely to suffer from depression. "If girls are not healthy spiritually," he writes, "they may find themselves not so much living as performing." 

For more information on internet safety tools,
see "Porn Blockers: A Primer for Parents by Marcia Segelstein" and check out Enough Is Enough.


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