Teenage Anxiety and Emotional Disorders in Female Youth // Alexis Hershfield, M.Ed.

Women are twice as likely to develop an internalizing disorder than men, a statistic that has given way to the term “the stressed sex.” All stress, however, is not created equally and some women may be at greater risk than others.
Emotional disorders seem to gain their prominence in adolescence, a period of rapid maturation and change. The prevalence of emotional disorders in female youth has also doubled in the last 20 years. This finding reverberates concern over the fate over our stressed sex.
Interestingly, in comparison to their lower and middle class counterparts, affluent teen girls – those whose families earn three times the American national average of $50,000 – were found to be three times more likely to report clinically significant levels of depression and anxiety. While some may scoff at the struggles of the privileged, research indicates that teenage girls of high socioeconomic backgrounds may be at significant risk for developing an emotional disorder.
Contrary to traditional thinking, privilege does not connote psychological well-being, as wealthy youth are confronted with a number of unique risk factors that make them especially vulnerable and prone to negative developmental pathways. Symptoms such as excessive worrying, difficulties sleeping, agitation, feeling of withdrawal, sadness, lack of interest, and restlessness have become commonplace for this female teenage group.
 Results from a study conducted by Luthar and Becker (2002), found that academic pressure on affluent youth was often strongly positively correlated with emotional disorders in affluent girls. The findings revealed that pressure from parents to succeed and excel in academics for long-term prospects, such as securing a spot in an elite top college, often caused significant distress in youth. Moreover, the findings indicated that “children with high perfectionist strivings – those who saw academic failures as personal failures – had relatively high depression [and anxiety], as did those children that indicated that their parents overemphasized their accomplishments, valuing them disproportionately more then their personal character”(Luthar & Latendresse, p. 2, 2005).
Many argue that this culture of hyper-achievement has fueled the rise of suicide clusters in elite academic communities. Research cites two distinctly different factors that may contribute to these startling rates (1) isolation from parents and (2) helicopter parenting, notably at two opposite extremes.
In a study of 374 seventh graders, Bogard (2005), found that parental closeness was the best predictor of adjustment for both males and females. Many affluent families did not have concrete family time, often as consequence of the busy nature of the children’s and the parents’ schedules. Girls that did not perceive their relationship with their parents as close tended to have significantly more depressive symptoms than their peers and we significantly more prone to suicidality. On the contrary, helicopter parenting, has also sounded many alarms. Among the children of the over-parented, high rates of psychological problems including suicidality, academic issues and life dissatisfaction prevail.
The jury is still out on the extent to which genetic, hormonal, biological and developmental differences of men and women differently predict the course and presentation of psychological disorders. However, there is no doubt that social and cultural factors influence adaptive functioning, as indicated by the case of the affluent teenage girls. It may seem illogical to stress about stress, but perhaps that is our first step forward.


Bogard, K. L. (2005). Affluent adolescents, depression, and drug use: The role of adults in their lives. Adolescence40(158), 281.

Collishaw, S., Maughan, B., Natarajan, L., & Pickles, A. (2010). Trends in adolescent emotional problems in England: a comparison of two national cohorts twenty years apart. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry,51(8), 885-894.

Finkel, E. & Fitzsimons G. (2013, May 10). When Helping Hurts. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/12/opinion/sunday/too-much-helicopter-parenting.html

Luthar, S. S. (2003). The culture of affluence: Psychological costs of material wealth. Child development74(6), 1581-1593.

Luthar, S. S., & Becker, B. E. (2002). Privileged but pressured? A study of affluent youth. Child development73(5), 1593.

Luthar, S. S., & Latendresse, S. J. (2005). Children of the affluent challenges to well-being. Current directions in psychological science14(1), 49-53.

Scelfo J. (2015, July 27). Suicide on Campus and the Pressure of Perfection. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/02/education/edlife/stress-social-media-and-suicide-on-campus.html

Written by Alexis Hershfield, M.Ed.


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