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Anxiety in Teen Girls is Common: Here’s Why

anxiety treatment for teen girls

Anxiety is among the most prevalent mental health disorders in Americans today. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that close to one-third of U.S. adults will experience an anxiety disorder during their lifetimes. Historically, the rates of anxiety disorder are higher among females than males. This is true for both adults and adolescents.

According to new research from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), about 16% of teenagers report feeling anxious or worried often, and many feel this “all the time.” Teenage girls, says the NAMI, were more likely to say they are anxious or stressed out than teen boys. The National Institute on Mental Health has found similar results, reporting that the rate of anxiety in teen girls is about 45% higher than it is in their male counterparts. 

So, why is anxiety in teen girls so prevalent? And how can parents know if their teenage daughter is showing signs of anxiety? Let’s dive into these answers below.

What Does Anxiety Look Like in Teenage Girls?

It can sometimes to be difficult to spot anxiety in teenagers. As they go through puberty and start to navigate life independently, teenagers experience a clear shift in priorities. They are often more worried about their appearances, fitting in with friends, or performing well in school or sports, than previously. Parents might not know what are “normal” worries and behaviors, and which are markers of anxiety.

In teenage girls in particular, anxiety can manifest itself more obviously (i.e. panic attacks) or subtly (i.e. extreme self-consciousness). As a parent, look for these signs of anxiety in teen girls:

  • Persistent and recurrent worries and fears that can in the way of everyday life
  • Constant overthinking or rumination
  • Trouble concentrating and, in turn, a drop in academic performance
  • Physical symptoms without cause, such as stomachaches or headaches
  • Withdrawal from social activities and friends
  • Avoidance of difficult or new situations
  • Refusal to go to school
  • Severe self-consciousness and/or sensitivity to criticism
  • Constant need for reassurance
  • Irritability and excessive mood swings
  • Problems with sleeping
  • Change in eating habits
  • Substance abuse

If your daughter is showing any of the above signs, it warrants a larger discussion with her and/or a healthcare provider. Do not hesitate to ask your daughter how she is feeling, what is bothering her, and how you can help her navigate the daily challenges that anxiety will often cause.

Learn more about the signs of anxiety in teenagers here.

Why are Teenage Girls More Vulnerable to Anxiety?

Anxiety in teenagers has been on the rise for years. In 2012, less than 12% of teenagers struggled with anxiety. And as of 2021, this has escalated to almost 21% of teenagers battling anxiety worldwide. While this is largely a result of the global pandemic, other modern risk factors are also causing numbers to spike. Both male and female teens are affected by these—but, as reported earlier, teenage girls more so.

Why is this the case?

  1. Teenage girls are more likely to feel unsafe or be abused.

New data of teen demographics, published by the CDC in 2023, found that 40% of teen girls (2 in 5) reported poor mental health in the last 30 days. Poor mental health included struggles with anxiety, depression, and stress. In contrast, only 18% of teen boys reported the same. 

The CDC went on to explain that female high school students fare worse than males when it comes to their experiences with violence and mental health. Many teenage girls today have experienced sexual violence (20%), been electronically bullied (20%) or bullied at school (17%), and have been forced to have sex (15%). And in the 30 days prior to the survey, about 10% of female students admitted they did not go to school because of safety concerns. The trauma and abuse experienced by teen girls and young women are undoubtedly contributing to their simultaneous struggles with anxiety.

  1. Teenage girls are more sensitive to social stressors.

The world is vastly different than it was in years past, and teenagers are growing up alongside some very stark and dark times. Unsettling political turmoil, frequent school shootings, a global pandemic, global warming, racial inequity and violence, as well as a national ban against women’s rights are just some of the many contemporary issues that are top-of-mind for teens. And while these issues can cause feelings of anxiety in any teenager, females are more likely to experience a bodily response.

Author Donna Jackson Nakazawa explores this in her book, “Girls on the Brink: Helping Our Daughters Thrive in an Era of Increased Anxiety, Depression, and Social Media,” showing that teenage girls are having a far more “psychologically disturbing” transition into adulthood than historically.

Puberty is an extremely vulnerable time for teenage girls, due to the powerful hormone estrogen. Estrogen is a potent response to unmitigated stress in females, explains Nakazawa, and helps regulate the female brain. While this is very important for female development, it can put a female’s stress response system in overdrive when exposed to stressors for an ongoing period of time. 

Nakazawa explains in an interview with CNN, “When girls experience overwhelming social and emotional stressors at the same time that estrogen is coming onboard during puberty, this can exacerbate the ill effects of stress on health and development.” She equates the female body’s response to stress to that of experiencing physical harm.

  1. Teenage girls go through puberty earlier than boys.

Now, it’s true that puberty can cause strong feelings and responses in all teenagers, regardless of sex or gender. However, it’s also worth noting that females tend to go through puberty at a younger age than their male counterparts. And, over the years, puberty has occurred earlier and earlier in teen girls.

In the 1900s, teenage girls historically went through puberty around age 15. As of 2020, the average age of puberty for teenage girls was around 11 years old. While researchers are still trying to determine why, Nakazawa believes this is also contributing to the spike in anxiety among teen girls: “More and more girls are going through puberty younger, which means they are having feelings and experiencing increased stress before their brains are fired and wired up to handle it.”

  1. Social media pressures teen girls to look or act a certain way.

It’s no secret that the culture of adolescents has shifted. Today’s teenagers are growing up fast, and “comparison culture” – largely driven by social media – is a major contributor to this. Teenagers are constantly exposed to other people and their seemingly “perfect” lifestyles on platforms like TikTok and Instagram. Not only are they comparing themselves to influencers on social media, but also are taking steps to fit more into the mold. For teenage girls, this might mean adopting a diet, trying out makeup tutorials, buying risky clothes, drinking and using drugs with friends, and engaging in sexual activities. To this end, it’s worth noting that teenage girls are also more sexualized than they were historically, with social media to blame. Nakazawa explains:

“Once they are on social media, the focus on appearance hits girls especially. They are more likely to be “liked” or “disliked” based on their looks, and sexualized, than boys. They learn that the more clothes you take off, the more “likes” you get, and that their bodies are going to get evaluated.”

Overall, she explains, “Social media platforms are created to increase the intensity of emotion. And then we have to layer upon that the stark reality that girls routinely face added threats like sexual harassment, rape and violence against women by virtue of being female.”

Learn more about the negative effects of social media on teenagers here.

Treatment for Teen Girls with Anxiety

If your daughter or loved one is struggling with anxiety during her adolescent years, it can be devastating to witness. Know that she is not alone, and that anxiety among teen girls is actually very common. Perhaps what is most encouraging is the fact that anxiety in teen girls is also extremely treatable.

According to the American Psychology Association (APA), there is good news for parents of anxious teens. “There are effective treatments for anxiety disorders, and those treatments are pretty darn good.” Specifically, the APA recommends cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for teens struggling with anxiety. 

In a major randomized controlled study, about 60% of young people who received CBT for their anxiety improved significantly, and that percentage increased more considerably when anxiety medication was used in tandem with CBT. 

Cognitive behavioral therapy, commonly known as CBT, begins with a holistic assessment of the teenager, to understand their symptoms as well as potential contributing factors and other mental health issues at play. After the initial assessment, the work of CBT begins. Treatment professionals use CBT methods to help teenagers recognize negative thought patterns and emotional responses to stress. Once these are identified, teenagers can then learn to re-frame their ways of thinking. Cognitive behavioral therapy is all about giving teenagers the strategies they need to think about, and respond to, anxiety differently. It has been proven to be one of the most effective therapies for treating anxiety in teenagers and young people. The APA recommends at least 12 to 20 sessions, and sometimes more.

As you look to help your teenager overcome the symptoms of anxiety, and the negative impact it has caused on her life, look for a program that offers cognitive behavioral therapy as well as other therapeutic modalities. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to anxiety treatment, and your teen deserves a customized treatment plan tailored to her needs. The right treatment program will be an expert in the teenage experience, and will offer a range of effective methods to treat her anxiety.

As you begin your search for an anxiety treatment center, you should also consider one that is gender-specific. Teenage girls have very different experiences than teenage boys, and can significantly benefit from an all-female treatment setting. This gender-specificity can put teen girls at ease, which fosters a more positive and comfortable healing environment for overcoming anxiety. Turnbridge is a recognized mental health treatment program with gender-specific programs available for teenagers and adolescents. Learn about our treatment program for teen girls by visiting us here online.