Girl Brains and Brainy Girls

“Drama. Drama. Drama.” That is how Louann Brizendine, M.D., starts her chapter called “The Teen Girl’s Brain” in her fascinating book The Female Brain. We all know that teenage girls go through a dramatic change with the onset of puberty. The hormonal shifts leave them – and often us, as their parents – confused and frequently upset. The friendly, open, affectionate child who loved to spend time with us may now be moody, secretive, and obsessed with her looks and her friends. She is also certain she can run her own life without any advice from her parents.

“The hormones that affect their responsiveness to social stress are going sky high,” writes Brizendine. Aware of their own attractiveness to boys and passionate about forming social bonds, teenage girls are responding to the first surges of estrogen they have felt since their toddler years. In addition, a complex pattern of other hormones cycles through their systems, seeming to change how they feel about themselves, their families, and their lives on a daily or weekly basis. Of course, hormones by themselves do not really cause them to feel differently about deeper relationships in the long term, but hormones can and do affect their daily reactions and responses.

Over time, a set of new reactions can make everyone, including the teenage girls themselves, think that their personalities are fundamentally different and that their preferences have permanently changed. While these changes may seem negative at times, they also bring out strengths in the female brain that the male brain cannot achieve to the same degree. As an anthropologist, I was fascinated to read that the hormones girls experience in such dramatic amounts lend themselves to the strongest communication skills (stronger than in boys) and increased sensitivity to and ability to read other people’s emotions that is uniquely female.

Understanding the Teenage Girl’s Brain: Parents’ Work

Our first job as parents during this momentous change in our daughter’s life is to learn about these changes ourselves. By educating ourselves, we inform our responses to her and reduce the risk that we will assume that different reactions are “bad” behavior when in fact she may be struggling to compensate for entirely new feelings.

With puberty, the hypothalamic-pituitary-ovarian system moves into action. Estrogen and progesterone surge through teenage girls’ bodies and brains each month. Estrogen peaks right before ovulation and then has a second peak before the period starts. Progesterone surges in the second part of the cycle, as estrogen peaks for the second time, and then both drop precipitously right before the period, sometimes causing premenstrual syndrome.

That is the textbook part that most of us remember from science class. But Brizendine outlines the brain differences that these hormonal surges promote in girls. Her insights can help parents to understand their daughters. Shared at the right time, they may even help our daughters to understand themselves. Brizendine notes the following important brain effects. The teenage girl:

  • becomes more sensitive to other people’s emotional responses and expressions of approval and disapproval
  • can hear a wider spectrum of emotional tone in the voices of other people than ever before (and a wider range than boys can hear)
  • will have increased stress responses, especially in relationship stresses, because of new reactions to the hormone cortisol
  • looks for more ways to calm herself down because she is more easily stressed
  • finds comfort and relief from stress in talking intimately with other teenage girls
  • finds deep pleasure in connecting and bonding with others because of estrogen-activated oxytocin coursing through her brain and body
  • speaks faster than boys, has a larger vocabulary at least in the early teen years, and talks more
  • has some language-related areas in the brain, enhanced by estrogen, that are larger than those areas in boys
  • has a biological basis in the combination of dopamine and oxytocin for her desire for intimacy and its stress-reducing effects
  • fears relationship conflict because it threatens intimacy and connection
  • may show a sharp increase in stress and emotional reactivity a few days before her period starts
  • may have aggressive impulses that fluctuate during the cycle due to the higher amounts of aggression-promoting androgens during the second and third weeks
  • sleeps longer and later as estrogen affects sensitivity to light-dark cycles

Brizendine writes that because “connecting through talking activates the pleasure centers in a girl’s brain. it’s a major dopamine and oxytocin rush” and “the combination of dopamine and oxytocin forms the biological basis of this drive for intimacy with its stress-reducing effect.” (Brizendine, 2006: 37-38). Reading this description, I know that as a parent, it is my job to keep learning and sharing information with my daughter. If she understands what drives her, she will have more control over herself and her choices, and probably a little more patience with herself. The books recommended in the references to this article are a good place to start, but parents should go beyond this list to enrich their understanding as much as possible.

Helping Our Teenage Daughters Understand Themselves

We need to talk to our daughters about these changes. They may not be getting enough information about their own brain biology at school. Or they may not be listening so well in class because they are busy communicating and bonding with friends. It is part of our job as parents to make sure our daughters get this critical information. We can try finding quiet time with them or creating a relaxed time alone, away from the rest of the family. We can quietly observe their behavior and in safe moments, gently and lovingly reflect back to them what we noticed. Even so, given the nature of adolescence, we may encounter too much resistance for effective communication to take place in the intensity of the nuclear family. In this situation, we need to turn to others.

Older women, especially loving relatives – grandmothers and great-aunts – have a wealth of knowledge and insight that too often is untapped. If it is difficult to reach a daughter with our own conversation or even through books and articles we might share, an older relative may have the privileged place in a teenager’s heart that will allow her to share stories and experience freely. If we help to make sure that the older relative or friend can spend time with our daughter, we can share new information with this special person and rest assured that they will pass it on.

If a daughter is particularly resistant or particularly troubled, it may be worthwhile setting up an appointment with a counselor or with another person who works regularly with teenagers. During these teenage years, so tumultuous yet so fleeting, we must stay alert for hints of trouble or despair and act promptly. Teenage girls are at a higher risk of depression than boys and can fall prey to many different expressions of despair, including drug abuse, self-mutilation, and eating disorders. If we are positive, available, loving, and provide enough information for them to understand what they are experiencing, we can help them ward off all of these conditions.

Interacting Together: Sailing Between Scylla and Charybdis

Whether or not we are skilled or successful at communicating with a daughter, we will certainly experience many interactions during each week that she is living with us. Just as Odysseus risked his ship sailing between the two monsters, Scylla and Charybdis, we risk our relationship with our daughter if we veer too far in either of two directions. We can become too silent and distant, having been rebuffed many times (our feelings can get hurt, too!) or the relationship can become a battle zone, full of arguments and hurtful verbal fighting. We must continually steer clear of both of these if we hope to maintain the relationship. The following scenarios, provided by a young teenager from observations of her friends, offer several ways to keep a relationship on course.

  1. The reason girls usually get angry is that they are under pressure to be cool and fit into their environment. So how do they stay cool? They are sarcastic when friends are over and act like their mother is a servant and their real mom is on a vacation somewhere in Fiji. They do this because they are embarrassed that their mom doesn’t realize how it feels to be a teenager.

    Solution: Give a little more freedom at a time. Don’t dump it on the teenager all at once or you won’t know if she can handle the responsibility. Help her set up a personal job if she wants one, as a means to earn more if she feels her allowance isn’t enough to keep up with what she needs to be “cool.”

  2. Mood swings are VERY likely, due to puberty. Mood swings can happen anytime, anywhere – you just don’t know. For example, you have to take your daughter to your meeting on something as boring as, say, the stock market. She suffers a huge mood swing as soon as you get there and gets angry with you while you are talking to your coworkers. “Shh!” you try desperately. She says, “Why did you bring me to this stupid place? I could have gone to a friend’s house and spent the night!” She is furious and bursts out in tears. Everyone is watching, and you don’t know what to do.

    Solution: There are many solutions depending on the girl. You could offer words of comfort and empathy or you could leave the girl alone for a time until the mood swing ends and all is calm. Do NOT be rough – be kind and gentle, showing that anger has no effect.

When teenage girls are calm and their best selves shine through, they can come up with the solutions to the dilemmas that rapid hormonal and brain changes bring. We can support them best by learning, sharing, and loving them right through it all.

The bulk of these effects of hormones on the brain could sound negative to parents and seem to represent a step backward in candid discussions about women’s equality at work and at home. But the giant step forward is the new recognition of girls’ and women’s greater ability and desire to connect, communicate, cooperate, and avoid conflict. It may be that women leaders of every kind are needed now more than ever to bring about a peaceful world. Their larger capacity for reading emotions, experiencing another’s feelings, and for communicating verbally offers a strong alternative to conflict and war.

It is important to note that many of the negative effects, such as increased sensitivity to stress and the heightened relationship to the stress hormone cortisol, may be due as much to exposure to a social environment that is negative for girls in particular as to biological evolution. The sexual harassment common in public high schools and girls’ perceptions of unequal treatment of boys and girls as they get older may exacerbate or even cause this greater biological sensitivity.

The brains of children who are not socially dominant can show similar stress effects. Minority children exhibit similar social talk strategies as one way to handle aggression and domination by members of a majority where there are power differences. Women in societies where inequality between men and women is very obvious have long used gossip and sharing secrets as a way to circumvent the oppressive authority of men. Thus it may be that we, as parents, need to be especially alert as Brizendine brings to our attention brain changes in our daughters that may not all be natural or benign.

Brizendine, Louann, M.D. 2006. The Female Brain. New York: Morgan Road Books.
A must-read book about the realities of brain changes during the lifetimes of girls and women.

Hrdy, Sarah. 1999. Mother Nature. New York: Pantheon.
Another must-read book, especially for mothers. Noted primatologist Sarah Hrdy describes in detail the hormonal effects women experience in the course of motherhood and the evolutionary bases for the biological core of mothering.

Restak, Richard, M.D. 2006. The Naked Brain. New York: Three Rivers Press.
A fascinating book about the revolutionary social changes that new knowledge about the human brain has precipitated.

Trimble, Michael R. 2007. The Soul in the Brain. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
A gripping and revealing book about the relationship between creativity, spirituality, and various common and uncommon brain conditions. Includes several “inside” stories of famous artists and writers.


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