What are girls thinking? New GEN survey finds stressed, savvy girls

Kensington Jordan dances to a DJ with other girls at the Girls Empowerment Network’s “We Are Girls” conference in 2015. DEBORAH CANNON / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

As it hit its 20th anniversary of supporting girls last year, Girls Empowerment Network set out to get some more qualitative answers about what is going on in the lives of girls in Texas. It did an indepth online survey of 28 girls ages 11 to 17 that were across socioeconomic lines.

What it found from that survey were some surprises, but also some things its leaders and parents probably already knew.

The big surprise was how these girls have and use empowerment language, but yet, are still struggling, even if they don’t admit it on the surface.

It was almost as if on the surface they would give the answers that they thought the adults wanted to hear, but then follow up questions revealed what they really thought.

When asked about role models, they would give answers like their mom or their sister, but also Frida Kahlo and Michelle Obama. While they didn’t mention reality show stars, they did mention celebrities they felt were safe, like Beyoncé and Emma Watson. “They filter,” says Jeanne Corrigan, founder of market research firm Mosaic Insight Group, which did the study. What would be more interesting is who they are following on Instagram and what type of influences they are encountering every day, she says.

Girls also weren’t as likely to say they worried about their appearance because they know they shouldn’t be, yet in some of the answers to their questions, it became very clear that appearance mattered and insecurity about appearance was prevalent. They would talk about a friend that was tall or that they wished their hair was longer.

“That empowerment vernacular makes it not that cool to say that you don’t feel beautiful,” says Julia Cuba Lewis, executive director of GEN. Girls have been given the message that they have to be like Beyoncé and love their bodies, yet who can really be like Beyoncé?

Corrigan also found a clear division between middle-school age girls and high-school age girls about how much friendships worried them. The middle school girls were still trying to figure out how to fit in and find friends. The high-schoolers already had weeded out fake friends from real friends and were less likely to have “frenemies.”

The division was also pronounced in the parent-daughter relationship. “As they begin to get older, their relationship with their parents kind of begins to dwindle,” Lewis says. “Friendships get better. They figure out who’s the right friend for them, but they stop telling their parents as much.”

The girls talked about wanting interaction with their parents that was around shared experiences like watching a TV show or sharing the same sense of humor. They didn’t want parents talking at them with advice or a thousand questions about when their homework assignments were due. One girls said that she likes when her parents talk to her about anything other than important issues, Corrigan says.

It became very clear that they don’t believe the compliments their parents are dishing out. They were looking for more than “you’ll do great,” or “you’re smart” compliments. The girls would tell Corrigan that they felt their parents had to say that.

It meant more to them when they would hear from a teacher or another adult that they were doing great or they were smart, because they weren’t expecting those compliments. “It came out of the blue and was given freely,” Corrigan said of one girl’s story of an art teacher who was supportive of her.

What this study reiterated was what the folks at GEN were already seeing. Our girls are stressed out. Ten to 15 years ago, girls were talking about feeling depressed, Lewis says. Now they are using words like “stress” or “anxiety.”

They felt a lot of pressure from their parents and what was expected of them. One of the girls talked about that everything just gets harder and harder every day, Lewis says. “It really reminded me that they are living an adult life.” They had to help out at home, do well in school, work a job, have friendships and relationships and extracurricular activities. It all felt like too much.

One girl talked about whatever she did was not going to be good enough, Corrigan says.

They also talked about wanting to have the courage to do something, to try something new.

GEN will use this information to add more stress management techniques into its workshops and school groups. Whenever it offers that content, girls gravitate toward it and really absorb it. “Girls come home and train their parents,” Lewis says.

She is also hoping to bring more training about stress management to schools and to parents.

Based on this study, parents can do these things:

Model stress management. Let your daughters see you handle stress in a positive way by taking a break, going for a walk, talking about it.

Model failure. Let your daughter see that you aren’t always successful and how you handle it and move on.

Give real compliments, not compliments all the time. Really have some backbone to why you like their behavior or why you are proud of a job they just did.

Encourage girls to have downtime. Let them stop doing an activity if it no longer interests them. Make sure they have time with friends and some alone time.

Realize success isn’t everything. The girls talked a lot about wanting to be successful, but also craving peace. Encourage a balance.

Talk to girls about everything, not just creating a to-do list for them. Share experiences, share humor, share your feelings and thoughts. Try not to be judgmental or worried about their success or failures. Remember: “Not everything has to be a learning moment,” Corrigan says.

Give fast forgiveness. Recognize that they are learning all the time and will make mistakes. Let them learn from those mistakes, but don’t hold them over their heads. After all, would you want to be remembered as that kid who didn’t turn in her algebra homework after you’re already in pre-calculus?

Encourage girls to have a passion. The girls who were happiest had some interest or passion that motivated them. Let them take a fun class, not just all career-advancing classes.

Make sure there are other caring adults in their lives. Your compliments just don’t mean as much. Sorry Mom.

Start letting go. You want them to be strong and independent. You have to start giving them more space more responsibility. Be encouraging but not controlling.

Learn how to really listen. Listen and don’t feel obligated to offer a solution to every problem. Sometimes she just needs to share her thoughts and figure it out for herself.