About one in three Americans will have at least one anxiety disorder during the course of their lives. If we look only at women, the number is even higher—about 40 percent.
What is it about being female that makes women more vulnerable to anxiety? Are women born anxious, or are we raised to be that way?
There’s some evidence that women’s fluctuating estrogen levels can fuel anxiety. But differences in upbringing may be even more influential. People—particularly parents—respond to children’s fears in markedly different ways depending on gender. When girls are anxious, adults are more likely to be protective and allow them to avoid scary situations. Boys are told to suck it up. “There’s an assumption that boys should be courageous and face their fears. With girls, we permit this sort of reluctance or avoidance of situations,” says Carmen McLean, an assistant professor of psychology in psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. But this protection, she says, has lasting consequences. “You are teaching the girl, ‘If I feel a little bit nervous, that means I should not do something.’ A boy learns, ‘If I feel this way, I should act anyway.’ He learns, ‘I can do it, and my anxiety goes down.’ He feels more confident and has more efficacy. A little girl doesn’t learn that lesson.”
A large body of dispiriting research shows just how much boys are encouraged to be independent and brave while girls are dissuaded from the same behavior. Parents have been found to be more controlling with daughters than with sons—and controlling parenting is linked to a greater risk of anxiety disorders in kids. In a University of California, Berkeley study, researchers videotaped ten-minute interactions of mothers and fathers with their preschool-age children. The families were told to “create a world” out of a sand tray and small toys. When boys asserted themselves by, for example, telling their parents where to put a toy, parents were more likely to praise them. When girls were assertive, parents were more likely to interrupt, talk over, or disregard them. This gives girls the message that they don’t have control over their environment. And feeling out of control is a core belief among the anxious.
Barbara Morrongiello, a professor of psychology at the University of Guelph, has conducted a fascinating series of studies looking at how parenting interacts with gender to affect children’s risk-taking behaviors. When Morrongiello was on maternity leave in the early 1990s, after her oldest son was born, she spent a lot of time at playgrounds and noticed huge differences in what boys and girls were encouraged to do—and not to do. “I saw much more encouragement [expressed] to boys and caution to girls,” she says. Morrongiello had a hunch that these different messages might be contributing to high injury rates for boys: After age two, boys have two to four times more injuries than girls.
Although Morrongiello isn’t an anxiety researcher, her findings may be critical for understanding the gender disparity in rates of anxiety disorders. Morrongiello and her colleague Theresa Dawber conducted a study that observed forty-eight sets of parents and toddlers on a playground. Parents and kids first played freely on a slide, swings, and jungle gym for ten minutes. Then the grown-ups were instructed to teach their children how to slide down a pole similar to what you’d see at a fire station.
Both boys and girls were just as skilled at navigating the playground equipment. Still, parents more often warned girls about safety and the risk of getting hurt, whereas they tended to encourage independence in boys. They also were more likely to physically help girls, even when girls didn’t ask for assistance. For example, parents spontaneously helped girls during 67 percent of their attempts to slide down the pole. By contrast, they physically helped boys only 17 percent of the time. Incredibly, even when boys requested help, parents often initially denied their requests and urged them to try again on their own. Parents were so hands-off with their sons that several boys tumbled off the pole and onto the ground. While these actions may protect girls from physical injury, they could also instill feelings of vulnerability.
Feeling vulnerable and believing that the world is a dangerous place are common convictions of the anxious mind. If we want to tackle the rates of anxiety disorders among women, we need to increase our efforts to raise brave girls.
Adapted from ON EDGE: A JOURNEY THROUGH ANXIETY Copyright © 2018 by Andrea Petersen. Paperback published in the United States by Broadway Books, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.