Emotional Development of Adolescent Girls and How They Experience Emotions
People rarely go through adolescence without problems. The transformation from a child into an adult is a painful experience. Teenagers undergo rapid changes in social, physical, and emotional aspects, which often lead to behavioral and psychological problems in the future.
Drug and alcohol abuse, violence, crime, academic failures, sexually transmitted diseases, and pregnancy are among the most undesirable consequences of adolescent behavior. Despite the negative image of teenagers created by media, the majority of adolescents are creative and energetic. Both girls and boys need support and understanding from adults who would help them during their development.
Girls tend to focus on their problems more than boys and face more risks during this period. They are influenced by social class, ethnicity, race, and gender issues that try to impose on them contradictory viewpoints on the image of an ideal woman. It is possible to understand the way adolescent girls experience emotions only after examining a complicated set of factors that influence them.
Girls usually begin changing physically earlier than boys do, approximately at the age of 12-13, while the boys experience it around 14-16. Teenage girls stop being androgenic, their breasts start growing, and they begin to have periods (menstruate). Their pubic hair begins to grow, and even the traits of their faces change. The level of estrogen rises, turning a girl into a young woman, but it is not stable and leads to emotional shifts from deep depressions to loud protests against all authorities. The majority of girls feel uncomfortable with all these rapid changes. They feel awkward in their “new” bodies. Some girls try to hide their growing breasts by stooping, which later negatively affects their posture and walking style.
The process of physical development passes differently for the representatives of different nations. The shift in the time of maturation leads to emotional distress among the girls. There are also the cultural differences in treating this process. For example, some parents do not consider it necessary to talk with their 12 year-old daughter about sexual relations, believing she is too young for such discussions. Parents often think that as long as this sensitive issue is not mentioned their child has no desire no start her sexual life. Nevertheless, other people may still regard the girl as a sexual object. It may lead to certain problems, such as a sense of alienation if the girl refuses to have intercourses, or to pregnancy and even sexually transmitted diseases if the girl decided to start a sexual life.
Hormonal burst often leads to gaining weight. Adolescent girls are very concerned about their appearance and when their body image does not correspond to the popular beauty trends (nowadays, it is a thin woman) they try to change it. Their attempts often lead to extreme dieting and result in bulimia, anorexia nervosa, and other eating disorders.
According to the survey conducted by Dounchis, Hayden, Wilfley (2001), between 0.5% and 1% of all adolescent girls in the United States from 12 to 18 years old are anorexic, from 1% to 3% are bulimic, with approximately 20% having unhealthy dieting behaviors. Even though boys sometimes also suffer from these eating disorders, the 90 percent are comprised of adolescent girls. Among the factors that put girls at an increased risk for bulimia and anorexia are the poor interaction skills, low self-esteem, perfectionism, childhood sexual or physical abuse, and early sexual maturation.
Influence of Ethnical Background
It is difficult to find a more heterogeneous and multicultural country than the United States of America. People have been coming to the USA for centuries, having created a unique American culture that consists of multiple ethnic identities. Even though the 21st century is the age of globalization, the traditions are still very important in the US. Ethnic minorities guard their traditions as something that makes them original helps to stand out from the crowd. Each ethnic minority has its own distinct ways of sexual upbringing and attitudes towards maturation. For example, it is impossible to imagine Muslim parents who tell their adolescent daughter about contraception in case she would have sexual intercourse with her boyfriend at school.
Ge X (2001) writes that the girls of African American origin experience less distressing emotions about their maturation than the Caucasian girls. He also notes that African American adolescent girls are more psychologically prepared for the challenges of adulthood and feel more excited about it. However, the scope of the research was too small, so it is not enough to point out serious differences in psychological attitude to maturation depending on the ethnic background.
However, the psychologists note that those adolescents who have a strong feeling of ethnic identity have fewer problems in finding their personal identity. Their self-esteem is often higher comparing to those, whose parents do not talk about ethnic background at home. National traditions and shared values give adolescents the desired sense of belonging to the community that should not be underestimated.
For example, African American families tend to value spirituality, family, and respect. Native Americans highly value harmony with nature and family ties(Attneave, 1982). Asian American parents value the needs and desires of the group over those of an individual andconsider the avoidance of shame to be an important value to convey to youth (Yeh and Huang, 1996). Latino families emphasize the importance of cooperation, respect for elders and authorities, and the importance of relations with the extended family (Vasquez and de las Fuentes, 1999). Families from the White culture may stress independence and individualism.
Finding self-identity in a group of peers is one of the most important issues of emotional development of adolescent girls. Erik Erikson defines the teenage period as the time of finding identity instead of identity diffusion. According to his description of stages of socio-emotional development, mostly every teenager tries to show delinquency and rebellion. Adolescents are disturbed by self-doubts and try to answer the question: “Who am I?” The institute of Child Development writes:
Erikson believes that during successful early adolescence, mature time perspective is developed; the young person acquires self-certainty as opposed to self-consciousness and self-doubt. He comes to experiment with different – usually constructive – roles rather than adopting a “negative identity” (such as delinquency). He actually anticipates achievement, and achieves, rather than being “paralyzed” by feelings of inferiority or by an inadequate time perspective. In later adolescence, clear sexual identity – manhood or womanhood – is established. The adolescent seeks leadership (someone to inspire him), and gradually develops a set of ideals (socially congruent and desirable, in the case of the successful adolescent). Erikson believes that, in our culture, adolescence affords a “psychosocial moratorium,” particularly for middle – and upper-class American children. They do not yet have to “play for keeps,” but can experiment, trying various roles, and thus hopefully find the one most suitable for them (n.d.).
Adolescence is a lonely period for many girls. The transition from the childhood they are used to the adulthood scares them. Teenagers may also build emotional walls between their family and themselves. In some cases it happens gradually. For example, many teenage boys start talking to the family members more and more rarely and spend most of their time in a separate room. This behavioral pattern is not very common among girls, who, in turn, usually experience a stormy, emotional, and painful process of separation. Adolescent girls try to challenge their mothers because they are comparing themselves to their female parent. It is also an attempt to rebel against authority and increase her self-esteem.
The sense of belonging to the group of friends is a crucial aspect of the socio-emotional development of an adolescent. It gives a teenager a sense of belonging. Close intimate friendship is very important for girls. Friends can talk on the phone all evening even after spending the whole day at school together. The change in language and expressions is another way teenagers try to challenge the authority of their parents. In fact, it reveals that their peer group is more important to them than the relatives, who are not in the “mainstream”.
According to the research conducted by American Psychological Association (Johnson, 2002), the social development of adolescents can be summarized in the following table:
Early Adolescence (ages 9-13)
Middle Adolescence (ages 14-16)
Physical and socio-emotional changes are important in understanding the behavioral pattern of adolescent girls. However, the cognitive development is also very important. The way teenagers think and perceive the world around them becomes more dramatic than it used to be in their childhood or might be in their adulthood. No matter how clever the adolescent girl is, it becomes challenging for her to analyze the situation relying on logic alone, as the emotional component of her behavior increases by several times. Such changes and the overall nervous state can be explained by the hormonal shifts and low self-esteem that push adolescents into doubting everything.
Eccles and Barber (1999) write that in the teenage years girls and boys start to differ in their academic inclinations. Adolescent boys tend to show a taste for math and athletics, while girls usually lean to socializing and reading. However, the stereotypes, like the one that girls are not good in technology, are actively cultivated by the society. An adolescent girl relies greatly on the public opinion and does not want to become an outcast. That is why even if she is interested in math she would rather participate in community service, because the society expects her to behave this way. Such loss of opportunities might lead to depression and lower self-esteem, because it is difficult to be good at something the person does not enjoy doing.
Ohannessian and Lerner (1998) noted that it is crucial for parents to give their adolescent children multiple opportunities to try studying in different areas. Adults can gradually nurture the sense of competence in teenagers by talking to them, giving advice, encouraging, and praising them even for small successes. Adolescents try hard to show that they are independent enough to manage their life on their own, but in fact they need reassurance that they are doing things right. Teenage years become a great challenge both for parents and educators, who need to interact and talk wisely with an adolescent, being careful not to hurt her/his self-esteem, or provoke the rebellion.
The psychological dichotomy of introversion and extraversion is another important factor that refers to cognitive development of adolescent girls and the way they express emotions. Benziger (n.d.) defines extraversion as the psychological type that needs higher than normal stimulation from the surrounding to make a person “feel alive”. The typical ways extraverted people seek stimulation is by controlling others, controlling their environment, being in the loud crowd, or engaging in competitions. Introverts, to the contrary, need stimulation that is lower than the norm. Otherwise, they feel tired and overwhelmed. Introverts are more quiet and meditative than extraverts. They prefer reading, thinking, dislike competitions and crowds.
The educational system in the United States is created for extraverts. It tries to cultivate leadership, team spirit, and good social skills. The atmosphere of never-ending competition becomes a serious problem for adolescent girls who do not feel inner desire to be leaders. Even though such introverted girl may be highly intelligent and capable of studying well, no one gives her a possibility to express herself in a calm way. This leads to low self-esteem and motivation to study further.
Susan Cain in the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking describes the real stories of adolescents who are introverts and feel uncomfortable in noisy American schools. Cain writes:
“The school environment can be highly unnatural, especially from the perspective of an introverted child who likes to work intensely on project he cares about, and hang out with one or two friends at a time. In the morning, the door to the bus opens and discharges its occupants in a noisy, jostling mass. Academic classes are dominated by group discussions in which the teacher prods him to speak up. He eats lunch in the cacophonous din of the cafeteria, where he has to jockey for a place at a crowded table. The structure of the day is almost guaranteed to sap his energy rather than stimulate it” (Cain, 2013).
She wrote a story of a calm girl in the fifth grade. A teacher divided the class into groups of students, who had to brainstorm ideas, sitting in a circle. In the group where Maya, the introverted girl, was participating, a loud and active girl became the leader and the speaker. When Maya’s turn came to share her ideas with the classmates, she was embarrassed and could only say that she agreed with everyone. The report of the group leader was poor, but her confident manner of speech has brought her a good mark and the public appraisal. Unlike the speaker, Maya sat at the back of the classroom and kept silent, as she was not able to talk in the loud classroom atmosphere. Afterwards, the teacher noted that Maya is a very talented student and her essays are full of new ideas, but the majority of her classmates do not know it. As a result, this adolescent girl does not receive the desired support from her peers and does not experience the “sense of belonging” at school.
It is necessary for both parents and educators to understand that those girls,who are introverts, do not need to be pushed to speak up often and to work in large groups. There is nothing wrong with them and the adults need to show it with their behavior. Perhaps, it would be better if all students in class would have an individual program for studying that fits their psychological type. Introverted adolescents usually have several interests that are not popular among their classmates and their interests should be supported. Introverted adolescent girls are very unsure in their personality and need the words of encouragement and support.
Introversion is not something that has to be cured or regarded as a problem. However, it is important to note that adolescents may have learning disabilities that result in backwardness, behavioral problems, or bulling. According to Neuwirth (1993), learning disabilities refer to disorders that affect the ability to interpret what one sees and hears or to process information from different parts of the brain. The problems can appear in various areas, including memorizing, reasoning, writing, spoken language, reading or arithmetic. It often leads to anti-social behavioral problems. The learning disabilities do not appear in the adolescent years, but it becomes difficult for teenagers to hide them, considering the increased academic demands at school and the hormonal changes in their bodies. Problems with cognition also lead to inability to establish positive relationships with classmates.
Svetaz, Ireland, and Blum (2000) write that those teenagers who have learning disabilities experience serious emotional distress three times more often than their peers. In addition, adolescent girls suffer from it more than boys do. Teenagers with cognitive problems are reported to commit suicide and participate in violence more often comparing to those who have a normal level of intellectual development. The state of emotional distress increases these negative tendencies. The adolescents with learning disabilities need even more support from their family. The also need to have a religious identity to lower the risks of anti-social behavior and suicide.
Santrock (2001) notes that emotional development of an adolescent is not full without establishing a coherent and realistic sense of identity in the context of her/his surrounding. Teenagers need to learn how to manage their emotions and cope with stress. The notion of identity includes both current real image of the adolescent, how she/he perceives her/himself right now, and how she/he imagines the “possible self”, which refers to the desired image an adolescent wants to achieve.
The concept of identity is created based on self-concept and self-esteem that consist of the following components:
Personal attributes (consist of characteristics like “intelligent, tall, skinny”);
Goals and roles (future occupation);
Values and beliefs (political, religious).
Global (perception of self as a whole);
Specific (feeling about certain particular issues like looks, athletics, academics) (Zimmerman, Copeland, Shope, and Dielman, 1997).
Ways of Expressing Emotions
There is also a correlation between the emotional perception of self and cognitive abilities: the better intellectual abilities are, the better an adolescent can generalize abstract information. As a result, it is easier for a cleverer teenager to understand her/himself. For adolescent girls, their physical appearance is the major issue that determines their self-esteem. If the girl does not have serious psychological problems with self-esteem, she starts experimenting with looks, behavior, and expressions of emotions. Adopting various styles and behavioral models is an indicatorthat the girl does not have problems in expressing her personality and searching for herself. It means that she feels secure enough to be creative.
However, many adolescent girls have problems with self-esteem. It happens due to the gap between their desired image of self and their real one. Jaffe (1998) emphasizes the following expressions of the low self-esteem of a teenage girl:
Being extremely shy and avoiding expressing her point of view;
Having unrealistic expectations of herself;
Rejecting compliments and disliking her looks;
Feeling anxiety regarding the future;
Lack of energy;
Depression and apathy;
Feeling insecure and odd.
Adolescent girls need to be taught to express anger and be more assertive, especially those, who have serious problems with self-esteem.
Adolescent years are the time when girls learn to recognize and cope with their emotions. They often have more problems with it that boys do because of their emotional nature and complicated feelings. Some teenagers intentionally drive attention to themselves, so that they could have a possibility to name each feeling accurately. If the adolescent does not fully understand the nature of her feeling, she can simply say that she is “bad”, “good” or “Ok”. It is difficult for adolescents to separate emotions. For example, if a girl has a romantic problem with her boyfriend, she cannot think about studying at all. It is the reason why the majority of teenage girls are overwhelmed by confusing emotions. In addition, adolescents have problems dealing with their anger unless they understand its reasons. The reasons are often unclear or absent, and the teenagers feel exhausted, lonely, and depressed.
The majority of women are better than men in understanding the emotions of other people. Girls actively develop empathy during their teenage years, because they usually communicate with a large number people. Understanding the emotions of others helps them manage their own inner world.
Adolescent girls can cooperate better with others that the boys do. They do not show that much aggression and are more open for a constructive dialogue. However, they often lack competitiveness, so they need to be motivated more.
Ways to Improve Emotional state of Adolescent Girls
There are several important issues that might help adolescent girls to learn how to express their emotions in the right way. As it was mentioned before, the teenage girls have problems with defining the nature of emotions and managing them. The first thing they need is a facilitating environment that helps a lot in developing the healthy understanding of the real self. For example, it can be a dance school, where the trainer will be perceived as the second mother of the adolescent girl. She can come up to her and ask for advice on the themes that are not related to the choreography. The notion of the facilitating community also includes communication with peers and learning to solve the problems in a reserved and civilized manner.
The next issue that is crucial in formation healthy ways of expressing emotions is setting consistent and clear limits and rules that regulate the girl’s life in the facilitating environment. For example, the students in the dance school are not allowed to practice difficult pas when the teacher is not in the classroom. The adolescent girls need to understand that this is made for the safety reasons. If someone violates the rules, she loses some of her privileges. This system allows teenage girls feel free in the stable environment and understand that they have certain autonomy, but they are also responsible for overall situation.
Adolescent girls feel anxious in the unpredictable environment. That is why their parents need to create a stable atmosphere at home. This predictability can be reflected in maintaining rituals, traditions and daily routines. A simple dinner with all family members gives the teenage girl the sense of connection, identity and stability. The girls might understand that even though they are changing, nothing bad happens in their environment and the basis of her experience is true and solid.
Another important issue that needs to be considered in the way of developing a psychologically healthy nervous system is physical exercising. Sports improve the overall state of the girl’s body and physical activity gives the girl an opportunity to get rid of extra emotions. In addition, it helps her to stay fit and it is difficult to overestimate the importance of good looks for an adolescent. When the teenage girl does not have problems with her real image and desired image, she does not suffer from extremely low self-esteem.
Teenage years are definitely one of the most difficult crises each person needs to go through. Many adolescents experience deep and long depressions, lack of love and attention, lack of socialization, and low self-esteem. It is impossible to analyze the age of adolescence as a set of separate parts. It is a so-called “package deal”, where every detail depends on another. Physical changes lead to frustration and put a young person into the transition from childhood to adulthood. The hormonal burst makes the nervous system unstable and leads to shifts of emotions. This is especially difficult for adolescent girls, who are emotional by their nature and have many doubts about their self-look. In addition, adolescents do not have enough experience to manage and understand the origins of their emotions. For this reason, many teenagers try to provoke people around them. Their reaction helps them to define how the particular feeling looks like.
Even though there are many problems teenage girls face during their adolescence, they are usually very creative in their attempts to find their style, role, and define their goals. They also communicate much, and this helps to learn how other people deal with their emotions. In the end, the adolescence is a great time to make experiments, and teenagers can do it without serious problems if they receive support and encouragement from their family, educators, and friends.
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