By Suniya S. Luthar, PhD (Foundation Professor of Psychology at Arizona State University)
Viewed against the backdrop of developmental research, recent reports on middle school girls being recruited for college athletic teams are alarming to say the least. College coaches attend “club tournaments” of soccer, lacrosse, and field hockey in sprawling facilities across the country, drafting promising athletes even before they have started high school. This occurs more at tournaments for girls than boys, partly because girls reach physical maturity earlier, and partly because Title IX requirements have resulted in more college sports scholarships for women so that coaches have widened the talent pools from which they recruit.
These recruiting trends are alarming given research evidence on likely adjustment problems and pressures among girls in affluence. For the last twenty years, my students and I have been studying students in upper-middle class communities — probably the home of many if not most 14-year olds who travel to college-recruiting club tournaments. In these upwardly mobile communities, both girls and boys show more adjustment problems than national normative samples, leading to the label of “privileged but pressured”. At the same time, several findings show that girls in these settings are particularly vulnerable – even more so than their male counterparts.
To begin with, girls in these communities report high levels of symptoms across multiple symptom areas.
They show elevations not just in the “typically female” types of problems such as depression, but also in those that are more “typically male”, such as delinquency and substance use.
In high-achieving schools across the country, we have found that girls are one and a half to two times as likely as national normative samples to report significant levels of depression and anxiety.
They show similar elevations in rates of serious rule-breaking behaviors, and of alcohol use, binge drinking, and use of marijuana and hard drugs.
Girls who experience coexisting elevations across multiple symptom areas should cause great concern, as they have poorer prognosis for long-term mental health problems than girls with problems of just one type.
Underlying the diverse adjustment disturbances are multiple, competing pressures and expectations. More so than their male counterparts, these girls face high performance demands across several spheres. Our studies have shown that like boys, they face parents’ expectations of excellence in academics and multiple extracurricular activities. Much more so than boys, however, they are also expected to be polite and “nice”, and to stay out of trouble.
Expectations from peers further up the ante, with an enormous emphasis on physical attractiveness. Far more so than boys, girls’ popularity with peers is directly linked with peers’ views of their physical attractiveness; girls who are seen as unattractive are ignored if not overtly scorned. What’s more, girls must walk a very careful line between being somewhat of a “bad ass” among peers, but not too much so. Drinking and smoking weed is linked with popularity among both girls and boys, but among girls only, substance use is also associated with negative peer ratings. The same is true of casual sex, with frequent “hooking up” earning respect for boys, but disdain for girls.
Another major risk factor for girls in these settings is threats to close friendships, given high competition for major accolades. Adolescence is a time when intimacy with friends is of great importance for well-being. And it is difficult if not impossible for young girls to be trusting confidantes, truly supportive of each other, if each is vying for the same coveted spot of debate or soccer team captain.
There are two very unfortunate fall-outs for young women in these high-achieving settings. One is “effortless perfectionism”. Much more than boys, girls feel the need to be smart, maintain good grades while remaining well-rounded, pretty and desirable while well-liked, and to accomplish all this without any visible effort. In turn, this engenders envy among girls of others seen as more perfect than themselves. In a recent study, we found that girls in elite private schools reported higher envy levels as compared to private school boys (and also compared to high-achieving girls from low-income families). Needless to say, chronic perfectionism and envy both bode ill for personal happiness.
One might assume that once these young women get into their coveted college of choice, the pressures will ease as will their symptoms. Unfortunately, this is by no means the case. Early findings from our longitudinal research are entirely consistent with what Hara Marano reported in her 2008 book: there continues to be an alarmingly high rate of disturbance among “privileged” young women across the country.
Title IX was welcome legislation, allowing young women with athletic talents to hone, use, and enjoy their skills as much as their male peers. But to have girls compete to sign up for college admissions by the age of 14 is an egregious mistake. Knowing what research has shown about the serious vulnerabilities among girls in achievement-oriented communities, we must — proactively and firmly — put a stop to this trend. It is a trend that is entirely inappropriate when it comes to their development. And for too many young girls, it will only further exacerbate the high pressure they already contend with as they negotiate the myriad challenges of adolescence in affluence.
Suniya S. Luthar, PhD, is Foundation Professor of Psychology at Arizona State University. Her research is reviewed in “I can, therefore I must”: Fragility in the upper middle classes in Development and Psychopathology.
Luthar, S. S., Barkin, S. H., & Crossman, E. J. (2013). “I can, therefore I must”: Fragility in the upper-middle classes. Development and Psychopathology, 25th Anniversary Special Issue, 25, 1529-1549.
Marano, H. E. (2008). A nation of wimps: The high cost of invasive parenting. New York, NY: Broadway Books.