Anxiety Gap

Really interesting piece in Slate about how parenting and socialization lead to a situation where women are dramatically more likely to have anxiety orders than are men.  This is not biological, but a clear example of how we treat boys and girls differently has important (and negative for females) consequences:

Yet precisely the opposite is true: According to the UCLA anxiety expert Michelle Craske, in the first few months of infants’ lives, it’s boys who show greater emotional neediness. While girls become slightly more prone to negative feelings than boys at two years (which, coincidentally, is the age at which kids begin learning gender roles),research has shown that up until age 11, girls and boys are equally likely to develop an anxiety disorder. By age 15, however, girls are six times more likely to have one than boys are…  [emphasis mine]

After all, whether parents intend to or not, they usually treat the emotional outbursts of girls far differently than those of boys. “From a socialization angle, there’s quite a lot of evidence that little girls who exhibit shyness or anxiety are reinforced for it, whereas little boys who exhibit that behavior might even be punished for it,” Craske told me.

In my book Nerve, I call this the “skinned knee effect”: 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.

The result of these parenting disparities is that by the time girls grow into young women, they’ve learned fewer effective coping strategies than their male counterparts, which translates to higher anxiety. 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.

Of course I’ll only have an N of 1, but perhaps the reason I’m actually most excited to have a daughter is so that I can raise her in a way that avoids many of these pernicious socialization mistakes parents make.  I know I’ll be far from perfect, but I damn well intend for Sarah to be one self-confident, empowered, anxiety-free, young women 20 years from now.   If she’s not, it won’t be anything I did.


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

One Response to Anxiety Gap

  1. Amanda B says:

    Steve, It’s definitely possible. According to the criteria above, my parents definitely treated my sisters and I like boys. No complaining allowed, we couldn’t wallow but had to solve our problems and disagreements and I heard “life isn’t fair” probably more than any other phrase.

    That being said, my parents also were super loving and supportive, telling us we could do anything.

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