5 Responses to the Crisis in American Girlhood

I was chatting with my daughter about some of her friends, and I asked, “Where’s Jenny been? I haven’t seen her around in a while.” Jenny was a cheerful young woman who was a stellar athlete and student. She’s the kind of person you want your daughter to be friends with. A look came across my daughter’s face. “She’s in the hospital,” my daughter replied. “She tried to commit suicide.”

Maybe you’ve had similar conversations with your daughters. There’s a crisis among American girls. I don’t think that’s hyperbole. According to a CDC survey released in February of this year, nearly one in three high school girls claim they have considered suicide. Nearly 15% reported being forced to have sex and almost 60% reported being so sad or hopeless they stopped regular activities. We are absolutely in the midst of a girls’ mental health crisis. What can we do about it as dads? There are no silver bullets, but here are 5 essential responses to the crisis in American girlhood.

1. Be present with her.

It’s really easy to get the impression that your teenage daughter doesn’t want to spend time with you. Especially when she tells you that explicitly. But there’s no substitution for being present in your daughter’s life. It doesn’t guarantee she’ll talk to you and, even if she does, she may not share how she’s feeling. However, being present enables you to get a sense of her mood and her patterns (like social media usage and sleep) and to communicate your love and care to her in practical and consistent ways.

If we’re going to address significant issues in girls’ mental health, we have to listen to our daughters.

2. Listen to her.

While you’re present, be sure to listen. And listen to what she’s really saying. This certainly means listen to the words she’s using, but you should also listen with your eyes. What’s her demeanor like? Is she more sullen than normal? Is she anxious? Ask her what she’s thinking and how she’s feeling. You don’t need to “fix it.” Just don’t minimize it or dismiss it as “drama.” Take her seriously. If we’re going to address significant issues in girls’ mental health, we have to listen to our daughters.

3. Reduce social media usage.

The data is clear. Significant social media usage is just bad for everyone—especially teens. According to psychology professor and researcher Jean Twenge, one of the big problems is that social media has replaced face-to-face time with friends. And social media is much more prone to creating an environment of judgment and comparison. The combination of isolation and comparison is toxic for girls’ mental health.

4. Encourage sleep.

As a dad of four teenagers, we’ve had some epic battles around bedtime. And while we’ve definitely compromised a few times, by and large, we’ve emphasized our kids’ need for a decent night’s sleep. The research is clear that there is a direct connection between sleep and mental and emotional well-being in all of us, but especially in teens. Lack of sleep contributes to an increase in anxiety and depression not to mention creates a scenario where sickness is far more likely. It truly is amazing what a good night’s sleep can do for girls’ mental health. Encourage your teenage daughter to sleep.

5. Believe her.

One of the most tragic things about the experiences of many teenage girls who are wrestling with these challenging issues is how difficult it is to get adults to believe them. Whether it’s because we’re in denial (no one wants to believe their daughter has considered killing herself or that she cries herself to sleep at night) or because we confuse comfort with well-being (How can she be depressed? Look at all she has!), dads often further isolate their daughters by choosing to not take them seriously. If you really care about your daughter’s well-being, you need to take her seriously. When she tells you she’s depressed, anxious, or fearful, choose to believe her.

Sound off: What are other ways you could respond to this crisis in American girlhood?

Huddle up with your daughter and ask, “What is the biggest thing on your mind right now?”