When pop stars sing about hopelessness and feeling stressed, girls get it. While we’d like to think of girlhood as a time for carefree fun, friendship, and adventure, the numbers show it’s currently anything but.
On December 7, 2021, the U.S. Surgeon General released a report warning of the devastating effects of a youth mental health crisis that has been growing well before the COVID-19 pandemic. U.S. Surgeon General advisories are typically reserved for the most pressing public health issues and call for urgent action.
The 53-page report addresses the unprecedented challenges and trauma youth have faced before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Since the pandemic began, symptoms of anxiety, depression, and other mental health concerns have increased among young people,” explains the Surgeon General.
Even pre-pandemic, girls in a national survey reported the highest rates of loneliness on record. Then in 2019—months before COVID-19 was even a blip on most people’s radar—more than one in three girls in the U.S. said they felt extremely anxious on a daily basis. Most tragic of all, suicide rates in girls ages 10–14 tripled between 1999 and 2007 and have risen by 13 percent since then.
“Girls were definitely experiencing loneliness and isolation, even when they were able to be with their peers,” says Amy Kaufman, a clinical therapist in Southern California who specializes in teen and tween girls. “It can be hard to feel like you really fit in or are wanted when most interactions outside class are taking place over social media or online. Plus, virtual communication is actually exhausting. Part of your brain might acknowledge that your friend texted or liked your post, but you’re not going to have the same biological brain reaction to that attention as you would if they were there in person. When people show up for you physically, there’s a different level of effort put in than just clicking on a photo or replying with emojis—and kids respond to that.”
Now, with many schools needing to be online for safety reasons, Ms. Kaufman says girls are facing even more isolation. “It can be hard to make friends in school in the best of times, but it’s nearly impossible to make actual friends in an online classroom with 30 other faces on the screen.” Your girl can see she’s part of a large group in a way, but there’s no opportunity for her to make a real connection. Even if her school is meeting in person, she can’t just lean over to a friend and share a joke or ask for help with a math problem, because people need to remain at a social distance. Beyond that, younger girls who are just starting to form social skills are missing out on formative experiences with sharing, playing together, and working as a team.
The bottom line? Girls need to feel a sense of belonging—now more than ever—and you can help.
Having the camaraderie and friendships that come from being in some kind of local group or club can help show your girl that others are having similar issues to hers and that she’s not alone. “Community makes people feel safer. And girls desperately need that right now,” says Ms. Kaufman.
Sadly, no side ponytail, cool sunglasses, or randomly inserted slang can make your girl see you or other caring adults as a replacement for friends her own age (honestly, she might think you look silly and roll her eyes), but you can help bridge that gap in a meaningful way.
“If she doesn’t have one already, help her start a social group with other girls her age,” Ms. Kaufman suggests. “This might be a film club where the girls watch movies at the same time and talk about them, a book club, or some other kind of structured time she knows she can count on.” She recommends socially distanced in-person meetings if they can be done safely, because people bond differently and more easily when they’re physically together, but says even regular virtual meetings can make a big difference.
“Having a space she can depend on, even online, that’s dedicated to her having a social outlet and being a social support to others in her community—a space where making friends and having fun is the priority—can combat feelings of alienation,” says Ms. Kaufman, who recommends finding ways to do activities together, even if girls can’t be in the same space.
Girl Scouts, whether in person or virtual, has been a key support for many girls right now, both younger and older. “I’ve felt the stress of uncertainty most days this year, but I’m also more thankful than ever for Girl Scouts,” says 15-year-old Lizzie. “Having a sisterhood I can depend on to share serious thoughts and silly photos with and a community that nurtures my confidence has made such a difference. When one door closes, I know I can find and open another. When plans get canceled, I know I have the power to make new ones.”
Parents of younger girls say the structure and community of Girl Scouts has made a difference in their families as well. “When the pandemic began, our Girl Scout troop leaders did not think twice about continuing and immediately set up online meetings that continued through the summer,” says Stephanie Samperi-Gonzalez, mom to a nine-year-old girl. “It made a dreary time in quarantine more bearable, because my daughter knew she would ‘see’ friends, even without seeing them in person. The troop leaders even talked to the girls about the reality of the pandemic and other issues in a way they could understand and be a part of the conversation. In that way, by discussing, never ignoring very important current events, I feel Girl Scouts hasn’t only supported our daughter but also her parents.”
Coordinating social meetups for girls might not seem like the most important thing right now, but it’s actually more vital than ever. “It’s so important for girls to see that parents and other adults care,” says Ms. Kaufman. Even if they don’t tell you how much it means, or if they act like it’s not a big deal, you’re giving them a sense of safety and love—something that, in these times, could truly make a meaningful difference in her life.