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Girls On The Brink: How to Support Our Daughters in An Era of Increased Anxiety, Depression, and Social Media

Most of us are fully aware that our daughters, students, and girls next door are more anxious and more prone to depression and self-harming than ever before. And many of us struggle and are at a loss as to what to do and how to support them. 

In this episode, I’m talking with my special guest, award-winning journalist,  internationally-recognized speaker, and mental and physical health expert Donna Jackson Nakazawa, who has recently released her latest book “Girls On The Brink: Helping Our Daughters Thrive In An Era Of Increased Anxiety, Depression, And Social Media.”

Donna shares cutting-edge research as to why this is happening developmentally and neurologically so we can better understand our girl’s challenges. It makes so much sense, and when we can understand why and what is going on, we will have greater empathy for supporting them.

And she also provides us with strategies to help our girls overcome the pressures our daughters face, such as the damaging effects of constant comparison and unrealistic beauty standards on social media, and what to do to improve our girl’s mental health and well-being and help them to thrive. 

This is a meaningful conversation for anyone with a tween or teen girl in their life.

Let’s dive in!

What You Will Learn: 

  • How does estrogen affect the female brain differently than the male brain?
  • Why is estrogen so powerful, positively and negatively?
  • We’ve stolen away the “in-between years” for our kids and what this means for them. 
  • The adolescent brain is wired to be hypervigilant around assessment and evaluation.
  • Why raising a “happy” child should not be your goal.
  • Creating an atmosphere where your daughter can hear her own internal voice.  
  • What is the number one sign that your child will flourish in adulthood?
  • How to bring down your child’s body and brain stress.
  • A couple of the strategies from her book that we can use to help our daughters with stress and to develop long-term resilience.

Where to find Donna:

Find more encouragement, wisdom, and resources:

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And here is the episode typed out!

Welcome to the Moms of Tweens and Teens Podcast. If some days you doubt yourself and don’t know what you’re doing. If you’ve ugly cried alone in your bedroom because you felt like you were failing. Well, I just want to let you know you are not alone, and you have come to the right place.

Raising tweens and teens in today’s world is not easy. And I’m on a mission to equip you to love well and to raise emotionally healthy, happy tweens and teens that thrive.

I believe that moms are heroes, and we have the power to transform our families and impact future generations. If you are looking for answers, encouragement, and becoming more of the mom and the woman that you want to be, welcome. I am Sheryl Gould. And I am so glad that you’re here.

Hi Friend, Welcome to the show today. I’m so glad that you are here listening in.

Most of us are fully aware that our daughters, students, and girls next door are more anxious and more prone to depression and self-harming than ever before. And many of us struggle and are at a loss as to what to do and how to support them. 

In this episode, I’m talking with my special guest, award-winning journalist,  internationally-recognized speaker and mental and physical health expert Donna Jackson Nakazawa, who has recently released her latest book “Girls On The Brink: Helping Our Daughters Thrive In An Era Of Increased Anxiety, Depression, And Social Media.”

Donna shares cutting-edge research as to why this is happening developmentally and neurologically so we can better understand our girl’s challenges. It makes so much sense, and when we can understand why and what is going on we will have greater empathy for supporting them.

And she also provides us with strategies to help our girls overcome the pressures our daughters face, such as the damaging effects of constant comparison and unrealistic beauty standards on social media, and what to do to improve our girl’s mental health and well-being and help them to thrive. 

This is a meaningful conversation for anyone with a tween or teen girl in their life.

SHERYL: Donna, welcome to the show. I am so happy to see you and to have you here.

DONNA: Delighted to be here with you. I’ve been looking forward to this. So thanks for having me.

SHERYL: Thank you for coming on. I am so excited for moms, caregivers, and teachers. We have a big audience here to hear about your latest book, and we’re going to be talking all about girls and their mental health. And your latest book, I’m going to hold it up for those that are here on video, “Girls On The Brink: Helping Our Daughters Thrive In An Era Of Increased Anxiety, Depression, And Social Media.”

We need this book. We’re going to dive in. But I would love for you to share a little bit about your background. I was fascinated reading all about you and the different books you’ve written. So can you tell us a little bit about you and your background?

DONNA: I think that if I put it all in a bucket, the bucket is looking at that intersection of neuroscience and immunology and really our lived h  an emotion. How this sort of science that’s been emerging over the last two decades of neuroscience meeting immunology, meeting emotion, there’s a word for this. It’s a big word. It’s called “psychoneuroimmunology.”

It’s how our psychology affects our neurology and our synapses and how this talks to our immune system. And really, what we’re talking about here is that interplay between our thoughts and our feelings and our cells. And as that science is really emerging, my feeling with my background as a science journalist – I did a triple major undergrad at Duke, in public policy and creative writing and literature. I didn’t know what I was doing. I just knew that these things all go together. Maybe I’m the only one who thinks so. But to me, they do.

I went to the Radcliffe program and publishing, where you kind of fine-tune your interest. I also grew up in a family that, on one side, we were a newspaper family, and my father’s family always the newspaper business, and I ran around his office, and they would give me probably a bad thing because it was a lead type, but they give me those reverse lead types to make my own little newspapers. The good old days, right?

And so there was the power of words. And then my mother’s family were some scientists. Her grandfather had been head of cancer research at NIH for many, many years. So we would go over to NIH, and there was this big science side, minus the writing side.

And somehow, for me, it brought together the best of what I have to contribute, which is to think about science and think about connecting dots in ways that break down the silos of science and use that power of words, the magic of words, to bring what’s happening in labs, which often takes 20 years to get into the clinic, physicians office, to the reader to the person who’s suffering to these discrete groups of people, be they people working through autoimmune disease, or struggling to figure out chronic illness or, today’s epidemic of mental health concerns for girls, and to bring that science forward in a way that’s usable and palpable and meaningful and resonates through story and facts and metaphor. That’s what I do.

SHERYL: Well, I loved the book because you bring all of those together. And it’s so focused on relationships and tangible things, and we’ll get into what we can do as parents to really help our girls. But I want to talk at the beginning of the book. You talk about what’s happening to our girls today. And I don’t think any of us are surprised.

The statistics that you share are one out of four suffer from symptoms of major depression, and you share the suicide rate. We are really in difficult times with our girls. You say they’re more anxious, more prone to depression and self-harming than ever before. And I’m hearing this from the parents that I work with. And it really is off the charts. And you talk about the neuroscience behind this. Why is this that we’re here?

DONNA: Yeah, so we understand a lot more about that than we did just a few years ago. And as I write in the book, it might not shock you, you it should be shocking. But I think it won’t shock us as women immersed in this area of mental health and female well-being to hear that it was only a few years ago that the NIH even requested or asked, this is not a demand, asked that female models of neuroscience be used in the understanding of mental health across health and development.

Prior to that, and imagine my surprise, everything that I had reported on for magazines, writing books, I’ve written a few books, was based on a model of development that was based on a male brain. And so after 2016, after this request went out, a few female neuroscientists who are in the book and whose work I obviously followed very closely, and who really kicked butt and were ready to break down silos in medicine and health, began to investigate the question of whether across health and development, the female brain might process stress and adversity in high quantities.

I want to be clear; we’re talking about unrelenting ongoing stress, similar to what we’re seeing our young people suffer with today. How that might affect the female brain differently than the male brain? And it turns out there are really big differences across puberty. No one had looked at them, and they have a profound effect on female health and development in the same way that we’ve come to understand.

I wrote a whole book about it, that after puberty, our immune systems respond very, very differently to outside stressors, leading to women having an autoimmune disease at three and four times the rate of men.

So we’ve understood this about the physical body, that when we have too many environmental insults, that’s the technical word, and that means things coming from outside of the female body after puberty, and we’ll talk about why this is, is three to four, and in some autoimmune diseases, nine times more likely to develop autoimmune disease, but no one had to look to the female brain, and how the environment and environmental insults, which include unrelenting chronic toxic stress might play differently in the female brain.

And when we begin to look at this discreetly at puberty, when estrogen comes marching in, it turns out that this affects all kinds of processes in the brain. And we’ll break that down in a really minute way so that it’s really understandable for people, and this is not a scary thing.

I want to be clear; estrogen is so powerful in such a great way. If you think about it, it’s estrogen that, across evolutionary time, allows females to do everything a male can do. Think about it; we’re in smaller bodies with much smaller organs because not only are we generally usually smaller physically, we have to make room for this uterus. We have to make room to carry another life.

But I can stay awake 17 hours a day, just like my husband, I can do everything he can, or any woman can do anything any man can do in their physical body, because why? Because estrogen gives us this amped-up response in the body to be able to respond to what we need to respond to. That is an evolutionary advantage.

It made us able to do everything in the tribe but also carry another life. It’s also the reason why women have a bigger vaccine response. Then it ramps up our response to external stimuli in a healthy way, allowing us to do more on less, but it’s also it can flip into unrelenting stress. Bringing environmental insults to an evolutionary disadvantage.

It’s also why women are more likely to have long COVID, an autoimmune disease. So I could fill nine chalkboards with how this positive becomes a negative. But I think to sum it up, what we want to say is that in the face of a society that is too stressful, in the face of unrelenting stressors, unremitting adversity, which is what I believe girls are facing today, that evolutionary advantage, that superpower of female adolescents have estrogen coming in, and helping the brain to reshape, and helping all the neurons to connect in really wonderful and juicy and cool ways.

In the adolescent female, the corpus callosum is extra rich and extra fine-tuned. The female brain has such a great Spidey sense. It’s got all kinds of evolutionary advantages through puberty and adolescence. But when there is too much stress, when there is adversity piled on top of adversity, we see that flip happen; we see it become an evolutionary disadvantage.

And then what we see is very different. Instead of being a superpower, it becomes an amplification of the ill effects of stress in a way that leads to the immune system getting too ramped up. And this affects the brain and brain health and synaptic connectivity in ways that look on brain scans, like depression and anxiety.

SHERYL: Wow. You use the word adversity in this culture that our girls are experiencing. What are some in your research? What did you show as the adversity that they are experiencing? And is it different than when we were growing up? Because I know we have social media, but in what ways is it different?

DONNA: Right, so the world that our girls are growing up in, the world that my teenage daughter grew up in, doesn’t look anything like the world I grew up in for two major reasons. One is, as I write in the book, we’ve really stolen away what I call the in-between years.

What do I mean by that? Well, at least when I was growing up, and I don’t know about you, those years of eight to 13 were a time when you were somewhat free to kind of figure yourself out. I mean, you were hanging with friends in the backyard, you were learning how to respond in friendships, what to do, if somebody said something rude to you, or how to think about what you wanted to do with your summer or small moments of boredom, maybe I will read a book or write in my journal.

Today, we’ve replaced that time where we think of it as kind of coming to terms with the beginnings of your personal identity and your personal sense of uniqueness in the world. And we’ve replaced it with a time in which we have added so much hierarchical competition.

So, we’ve made Middle School much more like high school, where the stakes are much higher. It’s sort of the pre-college determination of: are you in the Honors Program or not? And if you are in the Honors Program, well, you’re much more likely to be in the AP studies and go to an Ivy League versus if you don’t get on that track.

A lot is happening during those years. On the playing field, in sports, and in activities after school. It’s too late to start soccer if you haven’t started by 10. It’s too late. You haven’t developed the footwork. So all the things we were finding about ourselves in the in-between years socially, emotionally, physically, a lot of that has been ramped up so early that during those same years now, it’s about competition, comparison, and hierarchy.

And in comes social media, which is about, and believe me, the girls I followed told me, it is about competition. It is about hierarchy. It is about being judged for how popular I can be. It’s no longer happening in the lunchroom or the backyard. It’s happening online, where girls are many times more likely to spend more time than boys and are much more likely to receive negative criticism and evaluation starting at the age of eight.

Even though social media platforms are telling technically, for 13 and older, most girls are starting between eight and 10. If not on their own phone, on the computer or their friend’s phone, or on their Apple Watch. And here, too, they meet comparison.

Girls talk to me about how to be popular today. You have to be popular on social media, which drives everything. And to be popular on social media, you need to be able to handle the scrutiny of being evaluated for your face, your body, and your sexuality. So the more sexual you are at an earlier age on social media, the more popular you are in the world that matters to you, which is among your peers.

This is why we see on Tik Tok that the more clothes a girl takes off, the more followers she has. We blurred the line between being a female that is a woman and what it means to be a girl. We’ve blurred that line by sexualizing girls as if they are women and hanging their value and their popularity upon it.

 And girls are more likely than boys to feel that scrolling, comparing, and despairing. And to do what we call upward comparison, which is finding themselves at the bottom of that comparison scale. So we talked about the in-between years disappearing, bringing in this hierarchical comparison and evaluation.

And girls are getting it from every direction. And here’s the kicker at an age where the brain is not wired and fired up yet to handle and discern what is really important.

SHERYL: Wow, it makes so much sense. And underneath that, and this is another beautiful thing about your book that you talk about, is underneath that the needs and the desires aren’t wrong. It’s like the desire to be seen, what you talk about, the desire to belong, all those things are happening, and they’re good, but they’re going about it in this way to get those needs met. That isn’t satisfying what they need. And they call it the Twinkie of belonging.

DONNA: It’s like the food industry figured out a long time ago how to make you keep coming back for that perfect mix of fat, salt, and sugar. That’s really terrible for you. It’s why people go to fast food drive-throughs. But social media platforms have very distinct algorithms that are developed to make you come back. We can see what’s happening in the adolescent brain. When a child or adolescent is on social media, it lights up areas of the brain the same way an adult. When we think about whatever floats your boat, a bite of chocolate, winning the lottery, a glass of wine at the end of that, whatever that is for you.

That is what is lighting up in a child’s brain on social media to see if they belong. But it’s fake. It’s not a sense of belonging. It’s not a sense of mattering. It doesn’t actually give us nutrition. It’s empty calories of belonging.

So we also know that on social media, over time, when kids see other kids getting liked, for things that you and I as parents, I know you have three kids, and I have two kids, would consider high health risk behaviors, early indiscriminate sex using alcohol or drugs, self-harming, that the “be careful filter” in that prefrontal cortex starts to go offline. Literally, time spent on social media can turn off that “pre-be careful filter.”

And yes, our kids can say to us, “sure, when I go to that party tonight, I’m not going to drink alcohol. You can trust me.” But that filter, the more they’re exposed through visuals, which are 60,000 times more powerful to the human brain than words, the more they’re exposed to that on social media and in the media, the more likely that filter is to go off the minute that they’re outside of that sphere of influence where they have every intention of not having a drink or not having sex or not self-harming.

SHERYL: Did you say 60,000?

DONNA: Yes. 60. So yes, 60,000. So I have to look that up in the book because, as I said, I just had surgery. So anesthesia is in my brain, but I have to look it up.

SHERYL: Well, it’s a lot. I’m just saying even if it’s not, that’s a lot. Wow.

DONNA: There’s a famous experiment where you show a video of happy images to people. But in the meantime, the overlay is very ominous, in a nice, friendly voice: “we’re killing you with this, we’re doing that.” And in the end, you still feel good. From all of the images, you saw, even though the words are really dire.

SHERYL: And there’s hope you give in the book.

DONNA: Oh, my gosh, I couldn’t write a book if there weren’t hope, I couldn’t. Could you spend two years researching and interviewing 40 scientists and following girls for years if you didn’t feel like you would end up in a good place?

SHERYL: Yeah, yeah. And you write about 15 strategies to help them to develop to help them with stress and to develop long-term resilience and help them to thrive. Now, I want people to get your book where they can read about all of them because there’s so much good stuff. I have like three pages. And dog-eared pages. But can you give a couple that really stand out to you?

DONNA: Sure. So I think you mentioned this earlier, which I thought was wonderful that so much of this if we’re going to help to bring in strategies and ways of being with girls that are an antidote to all of the external stressors that we talked about, we have to be mindful of making sure that we’re doing everything we can to bring down their body and brain stress machinery.

And so one of the most crucial places we can begin is with ourselves and with our level of connection to our child, which we all want. Who doesn’t wake up and go to bed every day thinking first and foremost about their kids?

So I have news for you younger mothers; guess what? If you’re doing it at two and seven, you’re still doing it at 23 and 27. That is how it is. We all want the best, and we’re all doing the best. I mean, a shout-out to every parent. The last few years have not been easy. Parents are the heroes of the story. We’re all doing our very best. And don’t love anything more than we love our kids.

That said, in the world we live in, the ways neuro protectively to help bring down that body and brain stress machinery. And one of them is by making sure that we’re offering up the level of parent-child attunement and connection for our children as they meet these extremely difficult times. And the things that we learn growing up may not be serving us in this era in which we live. And if we have a history of trauma and adversity, which many people know, I wrote the book childhood disrupted about the effects of childhood adversity on our own reactions, our own responses, how we are in family life, how we are with ourselves, how we talk to ourselves, in our own minds.

If we haven’t had the kind of parent-child attunement, growing up or the sense of mattering and belonging and safety, we may not have the skills that we want to offer to our children. So I start with really taking a keen look at what makes us react in family life. And how our reactions, as well-intentioned, loving as they may be, and our hearts are actually read by the brains of our children in these times of overwhelm.

I kind of walk parents through how to redo that for the times in which we live so that your child, within this overwhelm, can come to you and talk to you about anything, no matter how difficult, because studies show the number one sign that your child will flourish in adulthood is if, across adolescence, your girls can come to you and talk to you about anything, no matter how hard.

When families can answer yes to that question: this child can come and talk to her parent about anything. We see that the likelihood of flourishing goes up by 12-fold. It’s not easy to make that happen when the world out there is full of the complexity of sexting, climate change, and school shootings.

But there are ways to do it so that when our kids come to us, we are saying and doing the right things, sending the right vibe message, which they can read very clearly so that we can figure out what they’re thinking. And we can respond in ways that allow them to return to us and unload so that we know what’s really going on with them. And that’s the beginning, there are 14 others.

SHERYL: Yeah, I just love that so much – that’s my jam with my mom’s community is looking at ourselves and where we get triggered, and you talk a lot about trauma. I love that you have a workbook and all kinds of stuff around that with your other book that you wrote, and how important that is, so that we can tune in so that we can be calm and not be parenting out of fear.

Because when we talk about social media, sexting, and all of those things, we get really scared. And then our daughters, we find out that they sent a sext, and it’s so easy to freak out and to react. And, it’s funny, you mentioned that because I have it written here the odds of our child flourishing through adolescence, it’s that question: How well can your child share ideas or talk about things that really matter? And how we answer that question makes all the difference.

DONNA: Here’s the thing. I have parents in some of the parent groups that we’ve done, the family, the action networks across the country on book tour, they’re doing things like taking pages, and photos, taking screenshots of pages of the book, and putting them in their special file on their phones, so they can pull them up.

And there are hundreds of scripts in the book, like ways to come back so that after you’ve grounded yourself after you’re in that state of parent, child attunement or bio synchrony is what, the neuroscientists call it, you are able to come forward with the right words that we all longed to hear when we’re confused.

But you longed to hear them even more when you are going through this bombardment that our kids are going through, at an age where the brain isn’t even equipped to know what is serious, what is not, what will hurt me, what won’t, whether I will be okay tomorrow, or whether I will, on top of how to even ask or articulate the question of can you help me because of x.

So this is the first step. And I started with it today. But there are dozens in the book, where once you build upon that, there are other neuroprotective strategies during this age of puberty, pre-puberty, and adolescence, so that we can build the brain back better to meet the times that we’re in.

SHERYL: And I love how you talk about how much we want to have happy kids. And that is not a helpful goal to have, is it? Even though we want our kids to be happy, if we focus on the happy, we’re going to not be able to really attune to them and really be there in the ways that they need us to. Can you touch a little bit on that as well?

DONNA: Sure. So as I write in the book, we want to make sure the brain has a little wobble. We don’t want to protect our kids from everything. And the brain doesn’t want that either. We want to send our kids the message that they’re going to be able to go out there and do this on their own. They don’t need to live at home until they’re 40.

We don’t want to be telling them what to do to fix it. Who doesn’t need to do that when your kids are five, right? Of course, we were the fixer. You fall or skin your knee, and we can fix it. We’ve got the band-aids, and we’re there, and that’s our job.

But as kids come toward puberty, we want them to begin to develop that kind of critical thinking, that sense of competency, and we want their brains to fire up for it. Those are actual synaptic connections that tell a young person, “Oh, I can do this. I’ve done this before. I know how to do this.”

And we can only do that by stepping back and inviting them to be the hero in their own story, not turning to us to fix everything. But asking them questions, very simple scripts like, “hey, sure, I’ll tell you what I think. But first, I really want to hear what you think. Because what you think right now is more important than what I think. This is what you’re going through.”

I’m here and pausing and letting them talk. And then before we jump in to fix, instead of, “Oh, I know, we’ll call so and so” or “who told you to send it? Didn’t I tell you a text last forever?” To just sit down and say, “Hey, I have a few thoughts. Would it be okay with you to share them?”

And to dial back on evaluating and judging because girls are getting it all the time they’re getting in our society just judges girls from the minute they develop breasts for the rest of their life, so much more than we evaluate men and in more negative ways more of the time. So bringing about a kind of atmosphere in which your daughter can begin to hear her own internal voice.

And I have ways of doing that in the book. So what helps her going forward is her own discernment, whether on social media, “Hey, I wonder what kind of algorithm is getting pinned up here so that x is happening? I wonder how this person makes money by posting these pictures of themselves, or I wonder what they do when they’re not doing this 24 hours a day?”

Or, “Hey, I wonder why Sally sent that picture of her cleavage to John?” To build up that sense, but so often as parents, in our desire to fix and keep them safe and protect them from everything, we take away their opportunity to wobble and yet not fall down.

SHERYL: Yeah. Oh, Donna, thank you. I just love your book. I hope that anybody that has a daughter or is in a girl’s life that is listening will get your book. It is so good. I want you to tell them where to find you. Because I’ve already been sharing your  – we call them memes, but your quotes and I love the rainbow that you share.

It’s just a cool drink of water. And maybe it’s a warm drink. Now that we’re in winter here in the United States. A cup of hot chocolate, so you have to follow her. Tell them where to find you.

DONNA: Sure. So you can certainly find “Girls on the Brink” with an easy Google search. It’s available wherever books are sold or your local independent bookstore or wherever you’d like to shop online. And you can find out everything about me on Instagram at Donna Jackson Nakazawa.

You can find me on shaky Twitter. We don’t know what’s happening with Twitter these days. But on my website at https://donnajacksonnakazawa.com/. And there you can look at past appearances and things that I’ve been doing looking at my online courses, and certainly, there is a book-by-page there as well.

I hope people will get the book and read it because as much as I love spending this half hour with you, those two years, I put everything I thought you might ever hope to know in those 300 pages, and it’s a lot more than we have time here today to get into, but I would say that I wish with all my mother’s heart that I had written this when my daughter was eight or nine or 10. And that is my wish for you, the listener, that you can have this now.

SHERYL: Yeah. So powerful. Well, Donna, thank you so much for coming on. Thank you for what you’re putting out in the world. Our girls need this, and we need this as well. So thank you.

DONNA: Thank you so much for having me. It was a pleasure.

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