Today marks the beginning of Children’s Mental Health Week, and this year’s theme is Healthy: Inside and Out, exploring how our bodies and minds are connected.
You won’t be surprised to hear us say that we see a very clear link between gender steretyping and the mental health of children (and adults!). If you haven’t read the takeaways from Children’s Society’s Good Childhood Report, they are equal parts fascinating and completely unsurprising.
Basically, children who place more emphasis on male and female stereotypes experience worse well-being than others. Researchers asked children about the kind of attributes they thought their friends would say are the most important. The responses differed by gender: ‘Being good-looking’ and ‘being caring’ were chosen by significantly more girls, while ‘being funny’ and ‘being tough’ were chosen by significantly more boys.
We sometimes get challenged on why differences like these are a bad thing. Surely girls and boys are different, and each has its own advantages and disadvantages?
Yes, absolutely. But both boys and girls are harmed when they feel too much pressure to conform to society’s expectations. Across the study, children whose friendship groups emphasised traditional gender stereotypes were shown to have lower well being than others. Those who chose ‘being tough’ as the most important trait for boys, or ‘having good clothes’ as the most important trait for girls, had the lowest well being of all.
The report, and this week, focuses on children. However, when you step back and look at adult mental health statistics — that men are drastically more likely to abuse substances and commit suicide, and women are drastically more likely to suffer from eating disorders and self-harm — it’s hard not to see a connection.
If you’ll be participatinhg in Children’s Mental Health Week with your school, class or child, we’d challenge you to reflect on whether you see evidence of the pressures of gender stereotypes impacting on their physical health, mental health or well being. We’d love to hear your thoughts and observations.
Janeen and Bilkis