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Exploradio brings you captivating stories about science worth discovering and examines powerful questions worth answering.

Exploradio: How Research Is Helping Stressed Out Girls Build Resilience

Girls today are under enormous pressure.

Pressures from social media, sexism, school, sports, peers. All of it has made what should be an exuberant time of life overwhelmed with stress and anxiety.

Researchers in Cleveland are finding ways to help teens manage stress and other issues.

In this week’s Exploradio, we meet the women behind the country’s first school-based center for research on girls.

Lisa Damour has seen a radical shift in adolescence since her teenage years.

“I am so glad there is no documented evidence, no recordings of all of the dumb things I thought and did!”

Damour is a psychologist and author of two books on girls.

She says, thanks to social media, every misstep or awkward phase of today's adolescent is under enduring public scrutiny.

picture of lisa damour
Lisa Damour, Ph.D. is the author of "Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood" and "Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls."

“Our kids are not being afforded the same blank slate that we had the joy of entering adulthood with,” says Damour.

It’s another layer of stress for kids concerned about the world they will inherit.

“Young people worry about the political landscape," says Damour. "Young people worry about the climate, their safety, about guns in schools.”

Being judged by their looks is yet another cultural pressure on girls, whom Damour says tend to internalize stress more than boys.

“Girls sleep less than boys, and girls sleep less now than they ever have.”

She says a recent study shows that 31% of girls report symptoms of anxiety, compared to 13% of boys.

Girls today, according to Damour, are dealing with ever increasing levels of stress and anxiety.

Luckily she has a laboratory to study ways to help them combat it.

Damour is executive director of the Center for Research on Girls at Laurel School, a private girls school in Shaker Heights.

Research based resilience
Laurel, in 2007, became the first school in the country to have an in-house research center.

Head of school Ann Klotz says, “the idea was to put the world’s best research to work for girls.”

The center has taken part in more than a dozen published studies.

She says one in particular has had a transformative effect.

picture of tori cordiano
Tori Cordiano, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and director of research at the Center for Research on Girls at Laurel School.

Students at Laurel, along with girls at a private school in Boston, in 2011 were subjects in Boston University’s21st Century Athenas study, a project partly inspired by the increasing suicide rate among high achieving students in the U.S.

Klotz uses the results to teach young people tools to cope with the pressures of modern life.

“From that study we identified five components of resilience," says Klotz, "and they can be taught and amplified in a school curriculum." 

They are purpose, self-care, creativity, relationships, and growth mindset.

A growth mindset is when students develop strategies to succeed. It’s based on the well-known work of Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck.

Purpose, she says is vitally important. "It means you're not just all about you," says Klotz. "It can be as simple as reading to your grandmother, or being a drummer in a rock band."

Psychologist Tori Cordiano is research director at Laurel School.

She says stress is not all bad.

“We want to keep stress at healthy levels and we want to equip girls to be able to manage it," says Cordiano, "and that's where the alignment of expectations comes in.”

The research shows that for high-achieving girls, parents need to back off.

picture of ann klotz
Ann Klotz is head of Laurel School and founder of the Center for Research on Girls.

“So if we have girls who are expecting a certain amount from themselves, but parents are expecting a great deal more," Cordiano says, "that's where we see big levels of stress in deficits to their well-being.”

Cordiano says simple things like eating right, exercise, down time, and sleep are especially important for girls well-being.

“Self-care is like the bedrock. This is the foundation of what we have to have.”

Today's teens miss nothing
Researcher and school counselor Lisa Damour says girls today have a lot on their plates.

“They are athletes, they are musicians, they are leaders, they are scholars, they are doing it all and that comes with some real wear and tear,” says Damour.

picture of girls
Laurel School has an in house research center.

It’s not just the rigors of adolescence that’s stressing today’s teens, it’s the same pressures we all feel in this plugged in and rapidly changing society.

“Things move faster with teenagers than I think they ever have," says Damour. "They're processing more information than any generation before them ever has.”

But Damour says kids today are woke.

“They miss nothing." she says. "And I feel like they process better and faster and more than I remember processing and certainly that I can process now.”

She says the research center at Laurel School conveys another important message to students.

“It is the most formal way and official way for the adults to transmit to the students that we don't have all the answers either.”

Damour says despite the pressures, girls today are killing it, and she has the research to show it.

Jeff St. Clair is the midday host for Ideastream Public Media.