Teenage girls see sharp decline in wellbeing compared with boys - here's how to support them

Laura Hampson
·5-min read
A new study has found that teenage girls experience a sudden drop in self-esteem by the age of 14 (Getty)
A new study has found that teenage girls experience a sudden drop in self-esteem by the age of 14 (Getty)

A teenage girl’s wellbeing and self-esteem takes a sharp decline by the time she is 14, a new study has found.

Research from the Education Policy Institute (EPI) and the Prince’s Trust found that, while wellbeing and self-esteem are similar in boys and girls at the end of primary school and both decline as they become teenagers, girls see a greater decrease by the age of 14.

The study also found that, while around one in seven girls (15%) report being unhappy with the way they look at the end of primary school, this rises to nearly one in three (29%) by 14.

Girls experience more depressive symptoms such as hopelessness as well.

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These findings were released after researchers analysed data from 5,000 young people born around the year 2000, who are in the Millennium Cohort Study. They were asked questions about their mental health, wellbeing and self-esteem at the ages of 11, 14 and 17.

The research stated that, on average, the wellbeing of all young people drops as they move into secondary school and continues to fall through adolescence, with girls seeing a far greater decline.

However, self-esteem tends to stabilise for girls as they reach their late teens, but it continues to fall for boys.

How to support a young woman’s wellbeing

Stevie Goulding, parents helpline manager at YoungMinds told Yahoo UK that young women can face a “wide range” of pressures which can affect their mental health. These include school stress, difficult relationships with family and friends, and problems accessing the support they need

“Girls who have a difficult start in life, including those growing up in lower income families, are often most likely to struggle with their mental health,” Goulding added.

“We know that concerns about body image can also have a significant impact on mental health, and can be associated with low self-esteem, anxiety or depression.

“Young people go through huge changes during adolescence and puberty, and this can make them more anxious and aware of how they look and other people’s bodies. Pressure on body image can also be exacerbated by social media, advertising and comments from others.

“As a society, we need to do much more to help young people feel positive about who they are and how they look, and to promote authentic and diverse body images.

“If you’re worried about how you look and it’s affecting your mental health, be kind to yourself and talk to someone you trust.

“If you are a parent or carer worried about your child’s self-esteem or body image and you want support, contact the YoungMinds Parents Helpline.”

The pandemic is thought to have increased mental health issues among young people (Getty)
The pandemic is thought to have increased mental health issues among young people (Getty)

Covid-19 has led to an increase in mental health issues for young people

Focus groups for the study were carried out in November 2020, allowing researchers to include the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on Generation Z.

The report said the pandemic has led to increased issues in mental health, with the number of young people with a probable mental illness rising from one in nine in 2017 to one in six in 2020.

Mental health and wellbeing were linked to a number of factors in the research, including family income, frequency of exercise and poor maternal health.

It also found that heavy use of social media was associated with declines in wellbeing and self-esteem in girls ages 14 and 17, and worse wellbeing for 14-year-old boys.

Jonathan Townsend, UK chief executive of the Prince’s Trust, called for quick action to “prevent scarring this generation’s future”.

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He said: “The transition from childhood to adolescence can be turbulent, and the findings of this report underline why addressing and supporting young people’s mental health will only become more crucial as the impact of the pandemic unfolds.

“Young people are among the hardest hit by the pandemic, so it is more important than ever that they can access support with their mental health during this critical time in their lives.

“In particular, the decline in young people’s wellbeing and self-esteem as they go into their mid to late teens shows the need for early intervention and ongoing support to prevent future harm and potential mental health crises.”

The report called for an increase in mental health teaching, the publication of a plan for rolling out four-week waiting times for specialist mental health care, and ensuring all young people can take part in physical activity.

Richard Crellin, policy manager at The Children’s Society, said the findings were shocking but not surprising, adding: “The Government cannot ignore these figures and it is time for drastic action, without it we risk a generation of young people facing a lifetime of poor mental health.”

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A Government spokesperson said: “We are absolutely committed to supporting the mental wellbeing of children and young people, particularly through the challenges of this pandemic which have uniquely impacted this generation.

“Early intervention and treatment is vital and we are training a new dedicated mental health workforce for schools and colleges across the country as well as teaching what good mental and physical health looks like.”

Tools to support children and young people’s mental wellbeing were available through the Every Mind Matters website, they said, adding that mental health services for children and young people were being expanded through the NHS Long Term Plan “to support an additional 345,000 individuals by 2023/24, backed by record investment of an extra £2.3 billion per year”.

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