Do Parents Teach Girls To Worry?

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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]

Image via Andy Dean Photography/


Sorcia MacNasty

My experience was pretty unusual, re: girls cry=coddling, boys crying=suck it up. For one thing, I didn't cry much unless there was a hamster death or similar. Also, I was always the more assertive child between my brother and I, and my mother used to tell him how to "fight back" when I was picking on him (he is three years older). I don't deny that I was probably far more volatile than he was prepared for in a sibling, but Mom's suggestions to him, "Pull her hair when she pinches you! Call her that name you know she hates!" — it suggested to me that it was ok for a boy to be cruel if I "started it." When my brother had a mental break-down his senior year of high school, he was completely unhinged, violent and verbally abusive. My parents calmly allowed all his behavior and told me (along with other family members) to just deal with it... rather than getting him some psychological help that he clearly needed. When I suddenly found myself in a verbally abusive marriage, I was shocked. I remember telling my therapist, "But I've got plenty self-esteem! I AM NOT THIS PERSON."

But I was. Because I learned early-on that guys got a pass at violent behavior while girls were punished for it. Not that ANY violent behavior is ok — totally NO. But the double-standard in my early home-life certainly established in my mind: girls losing their temper: PINCH HER, PUNISH HER; boys losing their temper: EVERYTHING IS FINE.

That said, I have a great relationship with my family now. We've all been through therapy in various stages. I adore my parents, my brother and now, post-counseling, my once-verbally-abusive husband. I hate stereotyping by gender, but it can't be denied that generationally, many of us were subjected to certain expected behaviors and it leaves an indelible mark.