Girls' Versus Boys' Susceptibility to Depression (page 2)
Why should adolescent girls be more susceptible to depression? It is possible that sex differences in circulating hormones directly contribute. But most developmentalists argue that sex differences in social experience are likely to play a large role in the mix of causes. Remember that both boys and girls are more subject to depressive moods in adolescence than in the preadolescent period and that each gender experiences increased stress of various kinds. But on the whole, it may be that girls face more challenges to their self-esteem and more problems in living in early adolescence than boys do (Petersen, Sarigiani, & Kennedy, 1991). That is, girls must deal with more stressors simultaneously. In comparison to their male counterparts, females report experiencing more stressors from early adolescence onward (Compas, Howell, Phares, Williams, & Giunta, 1989; Wichstrom, 1999). Here are a few:
- By age 11 children are aware that the female gender role is less valued than the male role. They believe that there are greater restrictions on behavior for females and that there is gender-based discrimination (Intons-Peterson, 1988). As they integrate these beliefs into their self-concept, girls may begin to feel less worthwhile than boys, or at least less appreciated. Many studies have found a decline in self-esteem in girls after age 9, whereas boys’ self-esteem tends to stabilize (Ruble & Martin, 1998).
- Although both boys and girls are concerned about body image (their concept of, and attitude toward, their physical appearance), girls also worry more than boys about appearance and weight after puberty (e.g., Barker & Galambos, 2003; Jones, 2004; Smolak, Levine, & Thompson, 2001).
- Girls more often have lower expectations of success than boys (Ruble, Gruelich, Pomerantz, & Gochberg, 1993).
- Girls may be more stressed by the burgeoning of their sexuality and their sexual desirability. The traditional double standard, by which female sexual behavior is judged more harshly than male sexual behavior, has clearly diminished over the last half century, as the rates and acceptability of premarital sex have increased among teens of both sexes (Astin, Korn, Sax, & Mahoney, 1994). Yet, American college students still consider girls who have multiple sexual partners to be more immoral than boys who do(Crawford, 2003; Robinson, Ziss, Ganza, Katz, & Robinson, 1991), and among adolescents who have intercourse, girls are more likely to judge themselves to be bad or unlovable than boys are to judge themselves negatively (Graber, Brooks-Gunn, & Galen, 1999). Thus, even though girls’ acceptance of and experience with sexuality is increasing rapidly, they are still more subject to ambiguous messages about the acceptability of sex and seem to be more uncertain about what is appropriate for them in a world of shifting values. In addition, the physical and social consequences of sexual activity are greater for girls: They are still the ones who get pregnant.
- After puberty, girls and boys start interacting more in mixed-sex groups and in heterosexual dyads. In these contexts, the differences in their discourse styles may create more stress for girls. Girls acquire a more cooperative discourse style and boys a more domineering style during childhood. One result is that when adolescent girls socialize with boys, they are less likely to influence the outcome of a discussion (see Maccoby, 1990). Also, in heterosexual pairs boys do not offer as much support to their partners as girls do (Leaper, 1994b). As a consequence, these relationships may be less affirming and satisfying for girls than for boys (e.g., Pipher, 1994).
- Because puberty comes earlier for girls, they are more likely than boys to simultaneously face both the changes of puberty and the difficult transition to secondary school (i.e., junior high or middle school; Petersen, Kennedy, & Sullivan, 1991).
Girls may be more subject to depression than boys not only because they face more challenges but because they often adopt a coping style, rumination, that increases the risk of depression (Nolen-Hoeksema & Girgus, 1994; Petersen et al., 1993). Rumination (Morrow & Nolen-Hoeksema, 1990) or self-focused attention (Ingram, Cruet, Johnson, & Wisnicki, 1988) may be defined as a stable, emotion-focused coping style that involves responding to problems by directing attention internally toward negative feelings and thoughts. Ruminating about problems includes both cognitive (self-focused cognitions) and affective (increased emotional reactivity) elements. Ruminative strategies may include isolating oneself to dwell on a problem, writing in a diary about how sad one feels, or talking repetitively about a negative experience with the purpose of gaining increased personal insight. In general, however, ruminative focusing on problems while in a depressed mood may actually make the depression worse.
Experimental studies have found that this type of heightened self-focus increases the duration and intensity of depressive episodes, particularly in adolescent and adult females (Greenberg & Pyszczynski, 1986; Ingram et al., 1988; Morrow & Nolen-Hoeksema, 1990), who are much more likely to exhibit this style of coping than are males (Butler & Nolen-Hoeksema, 1994). Adolescents and adults who ruminate are more likely to experience depression than those who use distraction (Nolen-Hoeksema et al., 1993; Spasjevic & Alloy, 2001). Distraction as a coping style involves deliberate focusing on neutral or pleasant thoughts or engaging in activities that divert attention in more positive directions. Distraction can attenuate depressive episodes (Nolen-Hoeksema et al., 1993).
To qualify as a gender-linked preexisting risk factor, gender differences in rumination and distraction must be shown to exist prior to adolescence, before the rise in levels of depression. A study of the coping styles of fourth- and fifth-grade children revealed that girls are more likely than boys to endorse ruminative coping choices when confronted with academic, family, and peer stressors, even though at these ages girls and boys show no differences in rates of depression (Broderick, 1998). Similar to Nolen-Hoeksema’s (1987) finding that older males are more likely to dampen their stress-related negative affect, boys in this study were somewhat more likely to choose distracting or avoidant ways to handle problems than girls were. Girls, on the other hand, were prone to amplifying negative affect by providing responses to stressful situations that were both very negative (“I felt like I was going to die”) and persistent (“I’d be in a bad mood all day”). Thus, it appears that when girls at puberty begin to face increased stress, they, more than boys, are more likely to bring to the task a coping style that puts them at greater risk of experiencing depression (Broderick & Korteland, 2004).
However, gender role also influences how children and early adolescents cope with problems. A ruminative coping style is most pronounced among girls and some boys whose gender roles are stereotypically feminine. These individuals identify themselves as relatively passive and nondominant and are less likely to cope by using active problem solving or distraction. Having a ruminative coping style, or being uncomfortable with or incapable of psychological distraction, may be a particularly heavy burden for feminine-identified boys, for whom such behavior is clearly contrary to the peer group’s expectations for appropriate masculine behavior (Broderick & Korteland, 2002).
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