CDC Says Teen Girls and LGBTQ+ Youth Are at Risk

Is gender-based socialization part of the problem?

A recently published CDC report found that teen girls and teens that identify as LGBTQ+  are experiencing increasingly high levels of sadness, hopelessness, and violence, including sexual assault. One in ten girls and one in four LGBTQ+ teens attempted suicide in 2021. Over the past few weeks most media outlets have picked up this story and shared an alarming set of statistics.[i] But what I haven’t seen are some important missing pieces to the story. What is putting teens at risk? And why are we not looking at what is happening to teen boys?

There are many theories about why young people are struggling. Family structures have changed. Scandal, hypocrisy, and intolerance has undermined faith in religious and political leaders. Teens are coming of age at a time of tremendous social and political upheaval and environmental threat.  Like most of us, they are feeling unmoored, uncertain, and rocked by almost two years of isolation brought on by the pandemic. During this period, they became even more reliant on social media for contact and support than before, and the rise in depression among teens has paralleled the rise of technology and social media. Suicide rates among teens began increasing in 2007, then took a big leap between 2014 and 2017.[ii]

We know that teen boys are struggling, but the questions that would elicit information about their experience were not part of the CDC study. Teen girls tend to experience depression as feelings of sadness and hopelessness. But depression in teen boys tends to manifest as irritability and anger. While girls are still more likely to think about or attempt suicide, The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) reported that beginning in 2015 the suicide rate among boys began increasing at a faster rate than that in girls.[iii]

Coming of age in today’s America requires a kind of resilience and self-reliance that is different from previous generations. It requires that young people find and embrace a full array of options for facing challenges. It is worth looking at how gender-based socialization and expectations limit options and are negatively impacting the mental health of teens.

Self-defense is about expanding your options to be safe and strong. We provide the training, you choose how to bring it into your life.

Girls, boys and the wasteland of misinformation

Sexual orientation and gender identity are fluid in many people and fall somewhere in the middle of a spectrum. Understanding and expressing one’s sexual orientation and gender are an important and normal part of development. While there is much we don’t know about the complex intersection of biology, social mores, and gender identity, we do know that socialization is a teachable set of behaviors and skills that help people get along in a group. When we tie these important skills to gender, everyone is shortchanged.

There is psychological research that links differences in the emotional and behavioral development of girls and boys to a greater risk for depression in teen girls and that some girls began struggling with depression as early as age 11.[iv]

Girls learn early to care for others. While girls and boys both socialize in groups, girls are more concerned with the interpersonal relationships within the group and balance a more complicated and risky set of social demands. Girls are highly sensitive to distress in others. They place more importance on the status of their relationships, spend more time on social media, and are more willing to share their feelings publicly, which puts them at risk for public shaming and rejection. The CDC found girls are twice as likely as boys to experience cyber bullying. We encourage girls to develop empathy along with problem solving and communication skills. But they are not encouraged to be assertive and act on their own behalf which leaves them vulnerable to feelings of helplessness and increases their risk for sexual assault.  

Boys are not immune to downside of gender-based socialization. Boys are expected to be independent, courageous, invulnerable, competitive, strong, and stoic. While boys are group oriented, they learn to be more concerned with their own status within the group than with maintaining smooth interpersonal relationships. While boys experience the benefits of being assertive, focused and goal oriented, they are not encouraged to develop the emotional intelligence to express their feelings and empathize with others, which makes it harder for them to create and sustain meaningful relationships. Boys are likely to equate lack of control over their circumstances, or inability to live up to masculine expectations, as personal failure. They have few outlets other than aggression to express feelings of isolation, loneliness, insecurity, and frustration. They are prone to impulsivity, are more likely than girls to engage in high-risk behavior and more likely act out with anti-social behavior.

Rigid gender-based socialization does not meet the developmental needs of any of our children, but it particularly increases risks to the mental health and physical safety of the many young people who are unsure of their gender identity. For teens, a critical part of exploring and establishing identity is being part of and accepted by a group. LGBTQ+ teens have a hard time finding groups that understand and reflect their experience. If they are unable or unwilling to fall in line with social norms, they are seen as different by peers and given little or no protection from discrimination. They have few role models and limited access to information and resources to answer questions. We have literally abandoned many LGBTQ+ youth in a wasteland of confusion and misinformation and set them up to be targets of aggression.

This isn’t new

We have been studying, identifying, writing and speaking about the problems inherent in gender-based stereotypes and socialization for more than 30 years. At the end of this post, I include a list of books I have read and remain in my personal library that date back to 1990 because they are still relevant.[v]

We have been documenting the risks to LGBTQ+ youth for more than 20 years. In 2001 The Human Rights Watch published Hatred in the Hallways: Violence and Discrimination Against Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Students in U.S. Schools. This report identifies widespread violence, bullying, and discrimination against LGBTQ+ students in our schools and offers concrete recommendations to federal and local officials to make schools a safer and more equitable environment for all students. Still, 22 years later, in many parts of the country, teachers and LGBTQ+ youth lack any protection from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.[vi]

Changing outcomes

If the problems of depression and violence matter, if we want to change outcomes, boys cannot be left out of the equation. Teen boys face the same pressures and uncertainties as girls, but they are raised with the expectation they should be in control even though much of what is happening around them and to them, they can’t control. They are taught to suffer silently and often see anger as the only acceptable response to feelings of helplessness. Boys who are depressed are more likely than girls to act out and harm others.

Boys and young men are almost always the perpetrators of sexual violence. If more girls and LGBTQ+ are being assaulted, most likely males are being more violent. Gun violence is another area where male violence is increasing. The Gun Violence Archive reports there have already been 80 mass shootings in the United States in 2023. Young men are almost always the shooters and boys are much more likely than girls to be victims of gun violence. The anger young men are feeling is dangerous to themselves and others.

Schools: the great equalizer

While there is much we can do in our homes, neighborhoods and communities, schools offer the best, most far-reaching hope for change. No matter how difficult a child’s homelife may be, no matter how uninformed or unsympathetic a child’s family or community may be, almost every child attends school.

We can and should make schools the safe haven our children and teens deserve. The CDC found that ten percent of LGBTQ+ teens regularly do not attend school because they don’t feel safe. Until we stop the politics and rhetoric that is banning books, hamstringing teachers and counselors, and promoting division, we are denying teens the right to equal education, free expression, and personal security.

Jennifer Hirsch and Shamus Khan in their book Sexual Citizens, talk about ways schools can provide safe space and education that help young people develop their sexual identity and show respect and empathy toward others.

Richard Rhodes looks at the groundbreaking work of Lonnie Athens in his book Why They Kill and concludes that children are not born violent, they become violent through a process that generally takes place in their home or community, and schools are the most likely place where the process can be interrupted and future violence prevented.

Schools can help our young people unlearn the restrictions of gender. Educators and counselors can give them the tools and support to explore who they are and accept others for who they are. Socialization is nothing more than teachable skills and behaviors that help people get along in a group. If girls can learn to be empathetic, they can learn to be assertive. If boys can learn to be assertive, they can learn to experience their wide range of emotions and show empathy toward others. Gender-based socialization limits options. Self-reliance and resilience require that we expand options.

The crisis the CDC identified is one of our own making and it cannot be addressed piecemeal. Girls, boys and everyone who is questioning or transitioning is in this together. Let’s help them find their way out together.

In my last post I listed some local resources available for LGBTQ+.


Endnotes

[i] In 2021, three out of five teen girls felt persistently sad and hopeless, an increase of 60% since 2011. One in four considered suicide and one in ten attempted suicide. The risk of sexual violence for girls has gone up 60% since 2019. One in five girls experience sexual violence in 2021, and more than one in ten said they were raped. 

The risk for LGBTQ+ teens is even higher. 75% experienced persistent sadness. Almost half seriously considered suicide, and 25% attempted suicide. Nearly one in four LGBTQ+ teens were sexually assaulted and one in four were bullied. Over 10% regularly miss school because of safety concerns.

[ii] Carroll, Linda. U.S. teens suicide rising, especially among boys. REUTERS, June 18, 2019.

[iii] Carroll, Linda. U.S. teens suicide rising, especially among boys. REUTERS, June 18, 2019.

[iv] Levine, David. Why Teen Girls Are at Such High Risk for Depression. US News, August 27, 2017.

[v] The following books look at problems inherent in gender-based socialization and expectations.

Pipher, Mary, PH.D.  Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls. Random House, Inc. New York. 1994.

Simmons, Rachel.Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls. Harcourt Inc., New York, San Diego, London. 2002.

Kindlon, Dan, PH.D and Thompson, Michael, PH.D. Raising Cain: Protecting The Emotional Life of Boys. Ballantine Books, New York. 2000.

Pollack, William, PH.D. Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood. Henry Hold and Company, New York. 1998.

Stoltenberg, John. Refusing to be a Man: Essays on Sex and Justice. Penguin Books, New York. 1989.

[vi] Human Rights Watch. Walking Through a Hailstorm: Discrimination Against LGBT Youth in US Schools. December 7, 2016.

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