Little Black Swans meet Tiger Mom: Why a toxic combo for girls’ mental health

by | Feb 21, 2011 | Stress, The Big Book of Parenting Solutions

Young girls severe stress levels; Mental health at record low

Parenting alert: Studies show steep rise in girls getting high to cope, as well as eating disorders, depression, suicide, self-mutilation, and perfectionism. Girls as young as 11 say they are “severely stressed;” eating disorders diagnosed in six year olds! Time for a Reality Check!

The Rise of the “Little Black Swan Syndrome”

Over the past years, various studies show a disturbing rise in eating disorders, depression, stress, self-mutilation, perfectionism and even suicide amongst young girls. The studies come top major universities, mental health and medical agencies and cannot be ignored.

Girls as young as 11 say they are “severely stressed.” College freshman admit they are overwhelmed. Eating disorders are now diagnosed in second grade girls! Our girls are not all right folks!

It’s both sad and ironic that while troubling statistics about our girls’ mental health are hitting record high numbers, the media is all abuzz about Yale professor, Amy Chua’s (aka Tiger Mom) parenting philosophy in her now-famous Wall Street Journal article “Why Chinese Moms Are Superior.” Chua’s  regimen for kid success is all for pushing harder and never allowing her daughters to (her exact words) “attend a sleepover, have a playdate, be in a school play, complain about not being in a school play, watch TV or play computer games, choose their own extracurricular activities, get any grade less than an A, not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama, play any instrument other than the piano or violin, and not play the piano or violin.”

Certainly Ms. Chua may raise her daughters any way she chooses. My concern is that other parents–and only out of love and hope for their children’s success–may follow her extreme methods. And by the looks of book sales it appears many are. Beware!

Time to pause. Time to reflect on our parenting on style and potential outcome it may have on our children. Time to recognize that all is not well with today’s young girls mental health. And time for a Reality Check: Our parenting goal is not to raise “Picture, Perfect, Little Black Swans,”  but young women who are authentic and caring and achieve their hopes and dreams, but also are mentally healthy and can cope with life.

Dangerous American Girl Trends

Too many of our girls are at the breaking point. Statistics show that far too many of today’s girls are overwhelmed, stressed to the max, and not faring well in mental health. The alarms are sounding and reveal a disturbing portrait of how our daughters are turning out.

Our first step to doing so is to recognize these dangerous new girl trends. Our next step is altering our parenting so our daughters become strong on the inside and out.

Girl Binging, Drinking and Using Drugs  to Cope

Think drinking is only a “boy” problem? Data from the Partnership for a Drug-Free America may make you think again. The survey results on 3287 teens in grades nine through twelve reveal a troubling trend—especially for girls, and why they are getting high is particularly disturbing.

Study highlights include:

More than two-thirds of teen girls admit using drugs to help them cope with stress at home
Research found alcohol and marijuana use increasing
Half of the girls said that drugs help them forget their troubles
Teens state a key reason for drug and alcohol use is as a way to “escape for a short period of time”

Teen Alcohol Use

53% of girls: in 2008

59% of girls: in 2009

50% of boys: in 2008

52% of boys: in 2009

Teen Marijuana Use

28% of girls: in 2008

39% of girls: in 2009

34% of boys: in 2008

39% of boys: in 2009

US Girls Mental Health At Record Low; Stress at Record High

Last week I shared on the TODAY show a report of incoming US college freshman revealing that this year’s crop hit record high levels of stress. And their mental health plummeted to a 25 year all-time low.

The study surveyed more than 200,000 incoming freshman and found that the highest spike in stress was amongst girls.

The results mark the 45th year of the study, which has involved over 15 million American students. This year’s survey was administered at 279 colleges and universities. See:  US Kid’s Mental Health at Record Low.

Rachel Siimmons, in her glorious book The Curse of the Good Girl warns that “pressure from parents, teachers, coaches, media and peers erects a psychological glass ceiling hat beings to enforce its confines in girlhood and extends across the female life span. The curse of the ‘Good Girl’ erodes girls’ abilities to know, express, and manage a complete range of feelings.” (Read this book! Rachel is a master and offers sound advice to raise our overwhelmed girls).

But today’s girls are suffering more than just stress and feeling overwhelmed and never good enough.

Eating Disorders on the Rise

Eating disorders among children and adolescents appear to be on the rise, especially among younger kids and especially girls.

A report published online last year in Pediatrics estimates that 0.5% of adolescent girls in the U.S. have anorexia and 1% to 2% meet the criteria for bulimia.

The study also finds that more children–especially girls–younger than 12 are being diagnosed with eating disorders.

Depression, Suicide, and Self-Mutilation

Psychologist and researcher Stephen Hinshaw, Ph.D. provides more troubling signs that all is not well with the mental health of our daughters. Here are a few troubling statistics Hinshaw  cites in his fascinating-read book, The Triple Bind: Saving Our Teenage Girls From Today’s Pressures.

Major depression: Up to 20 percent of girls ages ten to nineteen are experiencing episodes of major depression. Over the past fifty years or more, the average age of onset of female depression has fallen from the mid-thirties to the mid-twenties, with a significant portion of young women being depressed by their early to mid-teens.

Suicide: As of 2005, about one-tenth of all teenage girls had made an attempt to end their lives. An increased number are now geniunely trying to kill themselves. Between 2003-2004 the number of girls ages ten to fourteen who killed themselves rose by 76 percent.

Self-mutilation: Self-mutiation among teen girls–cutting, burning, biting, and other forms of serious self-injury-appears to be on the increase.

Hinshaw further states: “…at least one-fourth of all U.S. teenage girls are suffering from self-mutilation, eating disorders, significant depression, or serious consideration of suicide-or are perpetrating acts of physical violence.”

Time to Get Serious!

These are serious and dangerous statistics. Though data on our girls does vary, let’s not ignore the fact that the alarms are going off about our girls mental health. It’s time to listen, learn and help our girls become confident, caring and mentally healthy.

If there is a ray of hope it’s this: Research also shows that the reason most frequently quoted by girls for not drinking is their desire not to harm the relationship they have with their parents. A parent’s caring, involved relationship with their child is the best solution to underage drinking, binding, eating disorder, depression, perfectionism or cyber-cruelty.

Let’s have one joint quest: raising mentally healthier girls and busting that “Black Swan Syndrome” and the quest to be too perfect once and for all.

Get educated. Stay involved in your daughter’s life! And know you do make a difference!

Now go talk to your daughter!


Dr. Michele Borba, Parenting Expert

I am an educational psychologist, parenting expert, TODAY show contributor and author of 22 books.

You can also refer to my daily blog, Dr. Borba’s Reality Check for ongoing parenting solutions and late-breaking news about child development.

Follow me on twitter @MicheleBorba

You can also find dozens more research-based and practical tips in my latest book, The Big Book of Parenting Solutions. For more tips about helping stressed kids refer to specific chapters: Angry (pg 232) Dependent (pg 240); Overscheduled (pg 568); Perfectionist (pg 272);  Stressed (pg 303); Worried About the World (pg 310)