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Girls Are Made Of Sugar And Spice And Sad Thoughts

They tend to dwell on unhappy feelings, study says

FRIDAY, Oct. 18, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- If a girl doesn't get invited to a classmate's birthday party, she'll probably spend a lot of time dwelling on it.

If a boy doesn't get invited, he'll probably just go out and play with someone else.

These are generalizations, of course, but the difference in the way boys and girls deal with sad emotions may put girls at higher risk of depression later in life, researchers say.

Some estimates say women are twice as likely as men to suffer from depression.

"For girls, it's OK for them to think and talk about their feelings and even express it through crying," Janet Kistner, lead author of the study and a professor of psychology at Florida State University, says in a statement. "But there are often big negative consequences for boys to cry, so they may learn to distract in order to push those emotions away. It's a coping mechanism that girls may not learn."

For the study, researchers devised a questionnaire to assess how children deal with sad feelings. They gave the questionnaire to 205 fourth-and fifth-graders, ages 9 to 12.

Based on the responses, the researchers found girls tended to think about their feelings more, while boys tended to do things to get their mind of their emotions.

"We asked them if they get a bad grade or don't get invited to a birthday party, do they think about it over and over again, or do they run outside and play a game?" Kistner says. "Girls had a greater tendency to think and think about it, and that's a pattern of behavior that could put them at risk for depression."

The study appears in the October issue of the Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology.

Previous research has shown differences in responses to sad events among adolescent and adult men and women. But this study is among the first to show the trend starts at a younger age, Kistner says.

Several mental health experts say Kistner's research has merit -- and some shortcomings.

Carolyn Saarni, a professor of counseling at Sonoma State University in California, thinks there could be something else at work when it comes to girls and boys and dealing with emotional upsets. Girls' verbal and language skills tend to develop more quickly than boys', she says.

That means they tend to have a greater ability to think about and express complex feelings than boys.

"It doesn't surprise me that girls would think about or talk about their emotions more than boys," Saarni says. "Girls have the conceptual wherewithal to do it. Girls have a larger emotional lexicon."

At about age 10, children develop the ability to compare themselves to others, to understand the pecking order of looks and popularity, and where they fit in it, Saarni says.

In adolescence, girls register a sharp spike up in their feelings about helplessness, hopelessness and a negative self-image, she says.

"In childhood, there isn't much of a difference between boys and girls. But in adolescence, you see a big jump in girls reporting negative feelings about the self," Saarni says. "Their bodies are changing. They're able to compare themselves to others. That's some of what could be happening here."

Peter Goldenthal, a psychologist in private practice in Wayne, Pa., says he does see a difference in how boys and girls cope -- though not always.

Sometimes, boys do the dwelling while girls take action to avoid feeling said, he says.

And there's another thing to keep in mind -- boys may seem OK because they're out playing or focusing intently on a video game, but that doesn't mean they're feeling fine, Goldenthal says.

"Many boys want to engage in activities that they hope will get their minds off of things, but it doesn't mean they're successful," he says. "Sports, Nintendo or doing skateboard tricks over and over again doesn't always work."

Exasperated parents bring their children in for therapy, thinking their sons are addicted to the computer, he adds.

"What they are really trying to do is keep their mind off their feelings," Goldenthal says.

What To Do

For tips on spotting depression in children and for dealing with it, check Oregon Counseling or the National Mental Health Association.

SOURCES: Carolyn Saarni, Ph.D., professor of counseling, Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park, Calif.; Peter Goldenthal, Ph.D., psychologist, Wayne, Pa., October 2002 Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology
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