Group of teenage girls
Children, young people and families, Mental health, Sex and gender

#girlhood – teens take mental health into their own hands

Dr Beth Mosley MBE on how today's young people are finding ways to express and discuss the challenges they face.

07 September 2023

Girlhood is a trend that has gone viral on Tiktok, captivating the hearts and minds of girls all over the world. Inspired by Greta Gerwig’s Barbie movie, girls explicitly name what makes girlhood unique on their posts, in a way they may not have done before.

Whether you have watched Barbie or not, as an adult, you have a sense that ‘girlhood’ brings unique challenges to young people of this generation. My 14-year-old daughter’s dilemmas and preoccupations are similar to mine at the same age, but somehow seem more complicated. Social media and increased expectations have made being a young person more multi-layered than ever.

As a clinical psychologist working in children’s mental health services, I am seeing the fallout of these challenges on a daily basis. With the explosion in mental health difficulties in young people over the last few years – compounded by the lack of services to support these children and their families – it is still a surprise that it takes an average of ten years for a young person to get the mental health support they need. If you are a parent or a young person, this is ten years too long to wait.

Teenagers I talk to tell me that they don’t trust adults to give them the help they need; instead, they turn to the online world for answers. This is not just in the realm of mental health, but in other areas too. They also hugely rely on each other for support and advice. The challenge is that their fellow teens, whether they are known to them or not, may struggle to provide wise advice despite being able to relate to their challenges. The cost is that young people get stuck co-ruminating (making each other’s problems/worries bigger), key members of a group may take on the psychological burden of their friend’s struggles (often resulting in them struggling with anxiety or related difficulties), and young people may be sharing unhealthy and unhelpful ways to cope with difficult situations or distress (like self-harm).

The challenge is that the teenage brain is wired to be more influenced by peer group (other teenagers) than adults. So as wise as us adults might be – teenagers are more likely to listen to their peers than us.

The Girlhood

As a psychologist and a Mother I have been waiting for the time that adolescents might take the challenges of their time into their own hands… the moment the influencers realise that they can provide a narrative that gives a space for young people to be honest about their struggles and provide non-dramatical, balanced advice (so counter the way even as adults we are behaving on social media). 'The Girlhood: Written by girls, read by girls' seems to have done that with surprising ease this summer.

The simplicity of the concept (a blog dedicated to being able to share the highs and lows of being a girl) is touching and brave. Two 18-year-old girls (in the USA) Mia and Sophie, who have been through tough times, have created what they see as a safe space online to share stories, offer hope, and provide balanced advice for shared challenges and feelings that many young people are facing at this time.

I have read the dilemmas that young people are sharing and can see how these dilemmas are totally relatable to so many teens across the world. I have been surprised by the balanced wisdom of the responses of the founders of the website and encouraged to see they offer real nourishment in their guidance. Based on their own experiences and learning, what is intuitive advice to them seems to be grounded in lots of the advice I might offer as a parent or in my role as a mental health professional.

They cover topics and dilemmas like “How do I become okay with not having a lot of friends?”, “I feel like I haven’t achieved enough?”, “They have a separate group chat without me?”, “My best friend got a boyfriend”, “I don’t know how to get over my ex”, “I like him but I don’t want to ruin our friendship”, “I’m 19 have never been in a relationship”, “Over these past few months, I think I’ve fallen for her”.

They take real questions from young people and offer guidance that encapsulates many of the things we would encourage as parents or in the self-improvement world. They are recruiting other advisors to support as they recognise the demand is outstripping their capacity. Whether these advisors are able to offer such grounded advice – time will tell.

They make it clear at the beginning of their website what they are not (mental health professionals) and clearly signpost to organisations that can support if this is needed.

It is important that Mia and Sophie get the support they need to hold so many of the world’s girls' worries and challenges – it can feel like a huge responsibility and pressure and they may get questions that they feel are out of their depth to answer (they say they signpost people to specialist help when this happens). I wonder if a voluntary sector organisation could team up with them to provide additional support for them.

Step into their world

Our young people describe feeling let down by a generation of adults who do not understand their issues and lack the mental health knowledge they have, based on their learning on this in school and their online interests. Most young people have someone they follow who provides mental health guidance or encouragement. The surge in interest in this site and @msgirlhood on Instagram suggest young people are desperate for good, relatable advice and help.

As adults, we have a responsibility to find ways to step inside the world of our young people and consider how we can support them to make sense of the challenges they face. We need to understand what mental health is (not just something we talk about more) and how to give our children meaningful answers and support in the areas they are feeling alone and lost in. Loneliness is a huge challenge for the youth population – it literally kills.

We are competing with an addictive online world that offers instant answers and round-the-clock availability. If we want to give our children a balanced experience of childhood we have to step up to offer them the opportunities they need to not only be supported by their peers, but us too. It is not an either, or, it has to be both.

Having watched Barbie with my daughter, I was surprised by the different emotions it evoked in us. For my daughter, she described sadness, which surprised me. She said her friends felt that too. Is there something about the nostalgia these girls are feeling as they grow up too fast in a world preoccupied with values that don’t deeply resonate with them – but they get caught up with the social pressure to conform? It’s complex. I think we can have more conversations to help make sense of the complexity, without judgement. There are things for us to learn from our young people as they navigate the challenges of being a teenager in this ever-changing world.

I wonder if we can see a similar phenomenon for boys – boyhood – that gives the boys who have ended up following Andrew Tate, or other controversial characters, something to be influenced by positively and help make sense of where boyhood fits in with this changing world. Again, boys describe the complexity of making sense of who they are, and who they are pressurised to be or become. They face similar challenges and may need different ways of coping with them.

Happy Families: How to Protect and Support Your Child’s Mental Health by Dr Beth Mosley MBE is out now (Bluebird, £16.99).