NEWS

Pressure to be High Achievers Impacts Mental Health of Teen Girls

teen girl putting her head on her desk

Carol Yepes

Key Takeaways

  • A review of research studies found that the pressure girls face to excel can often lead to poor mental health.
  • Factors such as the COVID-19 pandemic, sexism, and climate change can exacerbate these problems.
  • There is a shift needed away from equating girls' self-worths to what they produce.

In high school, everything feels like the end of the world—and it doesn’t help that most adults around you act like it is. There are so many things to balance. Each feels monumentally important, from how you do on your SATs to making your chosen sports team. These stressors can impact any high school student. But for girls, in particular, the mental health impact can be immense and long-lasting, as they may face pressure to be popular, look a certain way, and excel after school in a world that still chooses (and pays them) less.

A recent report from Educational Review looked at a series of studies surrounding pressure on girls to excel in school and the resulting mental health impact. Across the research, being accepted to a top college and getting a good job (pays well, high status) were the two biggest anxiety-triggers for the future. Participants saw the former as a direct link to achieving the latter. Success was also seen narrowly as whether they achieved material success, prestige, and wealth. Many girls saw themselves as failures if they did not reach these benchmarks.

“They’re tying their worth as human beings to this: if they don’t achieve, it’s entirely due to them being inadequate,” says Dr. Aimee Daramus, a clinical psychologist and author of Understanding Bipolar Disorder. “They’re living in some of the most uncertain times any of us can remember. Besides COVID, people are becoming much more aware of social issues like income inequality, continuing sexism, and climate change that will profoundly affect their ability to succeed. At the same time, they’re getting the message that if they don’t manage to excel in spite of all of this, it’s all their fault.”

Other stressful factors discussed in the report included feeling a need to do better than your classmates, racial discrimination despite excelling, trying to live up to unrealistic ideals of having it all, and making the sacrifices their parents made—such as immigration—worthwhile. 

Why Might Girls Feel More Pressure In School? 

Elisabeth Netherton, MD

We often say things like ‘boys will be boys,’ allowing room for messiness, misbehavior, deviations from what we as adults might like to see. However, we focus on girls being ‘good,’ saying and doing the right things, and achieving academically.

— Elisabeth Netherton, MD

Of course, these worries are not all unique to young girls and impact people of all genders. But, there are certain reasons why girls may sometimes feel additional pressure, such as the notion that girls must be “perfect” in order to succeed. “We often say things like ‘boys will be boys,’ allowing room for messiness, misbehavior, deviations from what we as adults might like to see,” says Dr. Elisabeth Netherton, a psychiatrist with Mindpath Health. “However, we focus on girls being ‘good,’ saying and doing the right things, and achieving academically.”

According to Dr. Sabrina Romanoff, a clinical psychologist and professor at Yeshiva University in New York City, girls may also struggle with still present societal notions that three things entirely determine their worth: physical appearance, how they help others and receiving approval. Each of these requires external elements to go their way and leaves much up for interpretation.

Repercussions Can Last Into Adulthood

A girl may grow up, go to her top college, start a big job, and hit those marks she was once so scared of missing. Yet, those fears may not disappear, and the success may feel fragile. “We know that for so many girls, the messaging they hear, from adults around them and from our society at large, is that their value is not innate, and not embedded in their positive qualities, but rather conditional and dependent on their performance,” says Netherton.

Their sense of worth has been tightly tied to external successes that can be “measured” and regularly reviewed. “These girls will grow into women who believe in order to be accepted, they must be perfect,” says Romanoff. “They will exhibit an all-or-none mentality, where if they fall short of their sky-high expectations in a single area, they will consider themselves to be absolute failures. This leads to a highly unstable sense of self.”

Aimee Daramus, PsyD, a clinical psychologist

They’re tying their worth as human beings to this: if they don’t achieve, it’s entirely due to them being inadequate.

— Aimee Daramus, PsyD, a clinical psychologist

On top of that, there is the possibility that they are now living a life they were told to want, but “they didn’t really want because they’ve been promised happiness if they follow expectations,” explains Daramus.

Support And Changes Needed As A Society

These pressures on both girls and women can have detrimental consequences on the person absorbing them. Things need to change to give girls the space to find their passion and do their work without fear of being a complete failure.

Part of that stems from altering what society values as success. Currently, more weight is often placed on the final outcome (high score, college acceptance, a promotion) instead of the long process it took someone to get there.

For example, Netherton recommends looking at a child who scored low on a test. Instead of honing in on their grade, applaud them for taking the time to study, working on something difficult, and asking for additional help when needed. “Outcomes are finite — they often create immense pressure because in our minds once past they cannot be redone,” says Netherton. “Focusing on the process as the important component allows for grace, practice, and an opportunity to try again tomorrow.”

This shift includes people in authority positions, such as teachers and parents, paying attention to girls’ needs and well-being, as well as helping them realize that their self-worth is not dependent on any specific outcomes, says Romanoff. 

As Daramus puts it: “They need to have more human expectations put on them, that it’s ok not to be perfect and that their lives belong to them, not to everyone else but them.”

For both girls and women, it’s critical to set boundaries whenever possible — albeit a potentially tricky thing for children to do and have taken seriously. Know that what you can produce does not define who you are and what you are worth. Take time to do things that make you happy and fulfilled outside of school or work, says Daramus. Personal satisfaction can not be overlooked.

What This Means For You

Whether you're a girl or all grown up, keep in mind that you are so far from the only one dealing with this. Others may put on a face that says, "everything's fine" but that isn't always the case. "Girls are left in a world where they feel like they’re barely making it, but they don’t always know how many others feel the exact same way," says Daramus. Try speaking with your peers and friends about it and you may be surprised how many people you have ready to support each other.

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2 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Stentiford L, Koutsouris G, Allan A. Girls, mental health and academic achievement: A qualitative systematic review. Educational Review. 2021:1-31. doi:10.1080/00131911.2021.2007052

  2. Salon. What women know about the science of perfectionism.