If you’re like me and have struggled to put your finger on exactly why it’s so damn hard to be and raise a girl or young woman these days, I have the book for you. Girls on the Brink is required reading for anyone desperate to understand the scientific, environmental and social causes that are creating a mental health crisis among girls and young women.
Using new brain science to explain how our modern lifestyle is completely at odds with our girls’ unique psychological needs, author Donna Jackson Nakazawa provides crisp, digestible insights and advice that are easy for the layperson or the stressed-out, at her wit’s end parent to understand and put into action.
Why do we need this book?
It is estimated that one in four adolescent girls suffers from symptoms of major depression. Girls and young women are also twice as likely as their male counterparts to suffer from anxiety and, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that suicide attempts among this cohort recently increased by 51 percent.
According to Jackson Nakazawa, it wasn’t until 2016 that mental health studies began to factor sex differences into their work. Until then, it was assumed that male study subjects would provide results that applied to everyone. But —surprise, surprise—female biology does affect how stress is processed by the brain, especially during puberty and adolescence when girls’ brains are undergoing rapid development and significant changes are happening.
Recalling a study conducted by researchers at Johns Hopkins and Harvard medical schools, Jackson Nakazawa notes that the three-way link between cortisol stress levels, epigenetic shifts in genes that lead to greater susceptibility to stress, and increased feelings of despair, exists only in women and teenage girls.
Why is raising girls harder now?
To answer the question “why is being and raising a girl so much harder now?” Jackson Nakazawa argues that pressure to perform, compete, and to present a certain image on social media has robbed our girls of the time and space to develop emotionally, socially, and physically. She writes:
“Early exposure to external judgement, hierarchical evaluation, and critiquing is happening during the most vulnerable window in brain development.”
Add to this, environmental fears like school shootings, climate change, and the never-ending reality of violence against women, and it becomes clear that an entire generation of girls is growing up in a toxic, trigger-rich environment.
It’s more than the anti-social media debate
But Girls on the Brink does more than pile on to the anti-social media debate. It adds valuable context by explaining how brain science and environment create a perfect storm for adolescent girls. Quoting a prominent neuroscientist in the study of sex differences in early brain development, Jackson Nakazawa connects the earlier than ever onset of puberty to the loss of “a crucial period of safe developmental maturity.” In other words, “Now, suddenly, hormones come in too early, during a very sensitive time, and begin to revamp everything before the brain is developmentally ready to go through that rewiring process.” Girls’ brains, therefore, may be opening up at the wrong time.
In addition to describing the relevance of brain science, Jackson Nakazawa also explains how a lack of social safety (namely, interpersonal stress and social rejection) can be a strong predictor of depression in teens. And once again, it’s girls who feel this most acutely. The biological imperative to have and look after children helped females evolve with a keen sense of alertness to social threats. And while this was helpful when we relied on our fellow tribe members to stay safe, sheltered and fed, it can have a negative effect on today’s girls by sending their immune systems into overdrive at even the slightest hint of ostracism from the group. Feeling unsafe—no matter how she interprets that, can change a girl’s brain.
The reality is especially troubling for girls who experienced early adversity. Through a process known as gene expression, or epigenetics (find additional information on how it affects childhood development here), it is now known that our experiences and our biography can become our biology. And the two most crucial times for this are during fetal development and puberty. And for girls, the effects of adversity may not be known until the onset of puberty, thanks to estrogen’s ability to ignite any underlying inflammatory processes that cause chronic stress to begin manifesting in the brain.
The old adage ‘what doesn’t kill you makes stronger’ may not actually be true when it comes to children, argues Jackson Nakazawa, writing:
Twenty-five years of literature on adverse childhood experiences tells us that toxic stress in childhood doesn’t give kids grit or make them stronger or tougher. It reduces their well-being for life by slowly shifting the nervous system to a high-alert response and breaking down the immune system. Over time, this affects not just the body but also the brain, in harmful ways that can alter a child’s promise across a lifetime.
The good news is positive stimuli can have just as powerful impact on a girl’s brain as negative stimuli. Which means there are things we can do that will make a difference, and Jackson Nakazawa helpfully describes 15 such strategies in the second half of her book. She also cautions parents not to overestimate their ability to know what their child is thinking, pointing to studies that prove parents can’t always distinguish between normal ups and downs and depression.
Understanding our girls is the key to raising them. Understanding what they’re experiencing and coping with is the key to raising them with compassion. Knowledge is power. Without it, we may be left in a constant state of fear and frustration over confounding behavior and alarming mental health problems. If you read one ‘parenting’ book this year, make it Girls on the Brink.