Women are diagnosed with anxiety disorders twice as often as men. There are lots of possible explanations for this, one of the most popular being that women are more likely to seek help. But here's a new and intriguing one: could parents be inadvertently teaching their daughters to worry?
That's the hypothesis Taylor Clark sets forth in Slate. He writes,
Parents coddle girls who cry after a painful scrape but tell boys to suck it up, and this formative link between emotional outbursts and kisses from mom predisposes girls to react to unpleasant situations with "negative" feelings like anxiety later in life. On top of this, cultural biases about boys being more capable than girls also lead parents to push sons to show courage and confront their fears, while daughters are far more likely to be sheltered from life's challenges. If little Olivia shows fear, she gets a hug; if little Oliver shows fear, he gets urged to overcome it.
As a result, he says, "the sexes learn to deal with fear in two very different ways: men have been conditioned to tackle problems head-on, while women have been taught to worry, ruminate, and complain to each other (hey, I'm just reporting the research) rather than actively confront challenges." Clark acknowledges that these are generalizations, but I have to admit to being a little annoyed by his conception of men overcoming obstacles while women just fret about them. We all know women who have confronted some pretty serious challenges — childbirth, for instance, comes to mind. What's more, worrying about something and actually facing it aren't mutually exclusive — if they were, I would never get anything done. And while anxiety can often be counterproductive, sometimes turning over a problem in your mind can point you toward a solution.
All that said, I do think American society tends to treat boys and girls differently when it comes to risk. While most parents do strive to protect their kids from harm, whatever their gender, there is a general sense that boys are supposed to spend their youth racking up experiences, even if these experiences might result in broken bones or bruised feelings. Girls, meanwhile, are supposed to play it safe. The Dangerous Book for Boys (a British import, it should be said) comes to mind, along with its original counterpart, The Great Big Glorious Book for Girls — though a Daring Book for Girls later came along, we're still far less likely to tell girls to live dangerously. And this dichotomy extends beyond climbing trees and riding without training wheels — in love, too, girls are supposed to be careful with their hearts and bodies, while boys sow their wild oats. This is to say nothing of sex ed, which so often makes delaying sex and avoiding pregnancy seem like a girl's responsibility alone. Girls learn pretty early not just to minimize their own risks but to try to keep boys from taking risks as well — it's no wonder that many of us grow up to be worriers.
Many parents do encourage their daughters to take a few leaps in the name of a full life, and (as Clark acknowledges) there are many carefree women and worrywart men. Clark also points out some intriguing evidence that women are sometimes seen as "more emotional" or more anxious than men, even when their feelings may be the same. But there are ways in which families and culture may prime girls to approach life with concern rather than excitement — and while some caution can be a benefit in life, too much can be a burden.
Nervous Nellies [Slate]
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