For teenage girls, pressure to be perfect carries heavy mental health toll

EXETER, England — When you’re a teenager, making certain decisions can feel like life or death. Some teachers warn that grades will follow you around for the rest of your life, and parents can’t help but scrutinize every choice. Now, new research reports all of those expectations extract a heavy mental health toll on many adolescent girls. Scientists say that pressure from both schools and families placed on teen girls to be “good” and the “ideal girl” can lead to mental health issues.

Even across various backgrounds and demographics, study authors say the general finding remained the same: Both at-home culture and experiences at school contribute to anxiety in teenage girls. More specifically, pressure over maintaining high grades, participating in extracurricular activities, and “being popular and beautiful” can all contribute to the development of mental health concerns.

Moreover, this connection is especially prevalent among teen girls are who fearful over the future, attend an especially competitive school, or face increased pressure at home. The study, out of the University of Exeter, analyzed a collection of relevant peer-reviewed qualitative literature published between 1990 and 2021, encompassing 11 studies in all, to reach these conclusions.

“We hope our work has drawn further attention to the growing issue of girls’ mental ill-health, how schools might be implicated in its production, and might spark further conversation around this important and pressing topic,” says study co-author Dr. Lauren Stentiford in a university release. “We found much anxiety around achievement was grounded in fears for the future – and more specifically, the need to have a ‘good’ future and be ‘happy’. This included getting into a ‘good’ university and securing a high status job with good pay. Girls felt that if they did not achieve high grades at school and be able to fulfill these goals, they would have ‘failed’ and would be unhappy.

“Social class influenced the degree to which girls experienced fears,” she continues. “Those from middle or upper-class backgrounds often felt pressures to ‘live up to’ their parents’ or siblings’ standards and to emulate their successful careers and lifestyles. Those from lower-middle or working-class backgrounds could feel that their parents wanted them to do better than themselves so that they might have brighter futures.”

Power of perfection: Teen girls feel they’ve ‘failed at life’ if they don’t flourish early on

The research finds that older teenage girls are more likely to develop mental health issues than boys of the same age. Most studied data indicates that many of these mental health concerns are sparked by high school and grade-related stress.

All of the pressure placed on young women to simultaneously excel academically, flourish socially, and maintain an active extracurricular schedule shapes how they perceive and understand the very notion of “success and achievement.” Countless young women are being conditioned to believe that if they don’t reach a specific set of goals and conditions they’ve already failed in life.

“Some girls from ethnic minority backgrounds appeared to feel a heavy sense of responsibility to do well at school to reward their parents for the sacrifices they had made – such as moving country to access a ‘good’ education system,” Prof. Stentiford comments. “It was when pressures to achieve academically were felt in the extreme and were ‘imbalanced’ that anxiety and mental health difficulties could be experienced – ranging from relatively mild and self-manageable symptoms, to clinically diagnosable conditions. Factors which helped achieve a balance were eating and sleeping well, socializing, and keeping a level perspective.”

The study also notes how so many schools seem to encourage competition and comparison among students. This is seen in teachers’ expectations and institutionalized “performance” reviews. “The sense of competition among girls to live up to each other’s achievements also contributed, especially in all-girls’ schools,” Stentiford concludes.

The study is published in Educational Review.

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