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Berkeley Expert Addresses 'Triple Bind' Facing Adolescent Girls

Release Date: 04-14-2010

Author: Lee Ann Cox
Phone: 802/656-1107 Fax: (802) 656-3203

A mother emails the morning of the McNeil Prevention and Community Psychology Colloquium to ask about bringing her 13-year-old daughter, a sign of the deepening concern over the issue being addressed, one apparently shared by the overflow crowd gathered late on Friday afternoon in Billings Lecture Hall. Internationally recognized scholar Stephen Hinshaw, professor and chair of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley was here to talk about disturbing statistics on serious depression to suicide among preteen and teenage girls -- and offer potential explanations and solutions.

"It is so important to figure out why it is that adolescent girls are suffering with so much psychological pain," says Kelly Rohan, associate professor and part of the selection committee that invited Hinshaw to speak. "These problems are escalating for girls, yet for boys they seem to be decreasing. This is not a promising trend for girls. It's scary."

The paradox as Hinshaw sees it is that girls should be -- and by many measures are -- doing better and enjoying more opportunity than they ever have. Girls are doing well academically; college admission rates and athletic scholarships are at all-time highs; last year, he says, young women earned 59 percent of undergraduate degrees and 62 percent of masters degrees.

But these advances coincide with a sadder set of numbers. Those include, from the Centers of Disease Control's most recent report five years ago, a suicide rate among young girls age 10 to 14 that had gone up 76 percent over the previous decade and among 15- to 18-year olds about 32 percent. The rate for boys had held level. After citing similar kinds of statics on major depression, self-harm, binge eating and aggression, Hinshaw captures the big picture:

"Even when you control for co-morbidity (individuals exhibiting overlapping problems), by the age of 19 today in the U.S. there is a one in four chance that a young woman will exhibit clinically significant rates of these five things we've been talking about," he says. "If you ease the criteria these rates would easily be a third, pushing 40 percent."

But what about adolescence today puts girls at such high risk?

Based on hypotheses laid out in his book, The Triple Bind, Hinshaw outlines converging cultural pressures that, in his view, are both physically and psychologically impossible to fulfill.

The first strike against girls is what hasn't changed. They are still expected to be nurturing, empathic, caregivers. The second is that along with the increased equality in educational opportunities and in athletics won through Title IX over the last few decades comes drastically increased expectations to be at the top of the class, to be a star on the field or court. This is especially true for girls from affluent families. To illustrate the degree of pressure, Hinshaw notes that UC Berkeley has a nine percent acceptance rate for this year's freshman class.

"That's already a double bind. How can you be best friends forever and number one in your class?" asks Hinshaw. "That's kind of hard to do because if you really cared about how everybody else was doing and feeling you wouldn't rise to the top."

It's the third piece that he believes to be the most recent and maybe final strike. Talking to focus groups of girls, what Hinshaw heard consistently was, "I've got to be perfect, top of the class, top on the playing field and, oh, I've got to look pretty hot while I'm doing it." And, he adds, girls feel it should all appear effortless.

In discussing how girls are "ultra-sexualized" now, he contrasts his own former female tennis hero, Martina Navratilova with players like Anna Kournikova. It's no longer enough, Hinshaw notes, to be a star athlete. You have to be a model, you appear on the court in provocative outfits.

"You can't be all that relentlessly," he says, "without something giving."

When it comes to solutions, Hinshaw disputes popular theories that Western kids are overscheduled. In fact, he says a lot of scheduled activity can actually be protective. The danger is in the expectation of excelling at them all. Girls who believe their parents value them because of their accomplishments are at increased risk for anxiety and depression.

Families having dinner together -- "Grandma's law," Hinshaw says -- is protective. Overcoming a sense of shame or stigma and getting help because treatment works. Teaching kids to think critically about media messages. Fostering a sense of connection and purpose with the community, not for the resume, but because it actually matters. Older girls mentoring younger girls.

"If the goal of adolescence is to become an individual, by definition that means I've got to try out some things I'm both good at and not so good at," Hinshaw says. "I've got to fall on my face a few times. How can I form an identity if I relentlessly try to please others' expectations?"

And one more thing might help.

"Let go," Hinshaw reminds the room, "of the relentless pursuit of perfection ourselves."