Mental Health Awareness Month Reads: Reviving Ophelia & Raising Worry-Free Girls

Recent stories in the news have highlighted the struggles of teenage girls that are possibly surprising and definitely concerning to adults who are caring for them. These stories raise important questions: what shaped these struggles that our girls are living with? What can we do to help? With that in mind, here are two books that I can recommend that help us to understand the world of teenage girls and what we can do.

Reviving Ophelia

Originally published in 1994, therapist Mary Pipher was one of the first to ring the alarm based on the girls she was seeing in her counseling practice. In 2019 she revisited Reviving Ophelia with her daughter Sarah Pipher Gilliam (who was a teenage girl in the 90’s) to chart the trajectory of girls from the 90’s to the 10’s. The basic finding of the original edition is the same for the modern edition: the junk values of our culture encourage girls to abandon their true self in favor of a false self that struggles to meet contradictory demands: “Be beautiful, but beauty is only skin deep. Be sexy, but not sexual. Be honest, but don’t hurt anyone’s feelings. Be independent, but be nice.”

Pipher organizes the books around many of the issues girls are facing (relationships with parents, eating disorders, depression, self-harm, anxiety, drugs and alcohol, sex, violence) and offers the stories of teenage clients and their parents that she has worked with. This means that the reader is confronted with true stories of real families much more frequently than statistics, making Reviving Ophelia a tough read at times. It’s not an overwhelmingly hopeful book as the issues that Pipher raises are often deeply embedded in modern culture, but she does share stories of girls who are navigating the teenage years well. More often than not they are products of families that model and teach autonomy and decision-making based on strong values rather than cultural whims.

Raising Worry-Free Girls

Raising Worry-Free Girls is a mirror-image of Reviving Ophelia. Both authors are therapists, but where Ophelia is 90% description and 10% prescription, Worry-Free Girls is more focused on what parents can do and gives far less time to cultural commentary (it’s also a about half the page count too). Sissy Goff works primarily with children and their parents in a private practice based in Nashville and the book reflects what she teaches them about understanding and managing anxiety. Goff’s work does a great job of bringing together modern research on the brain and behavior that explains the causes and consequences of anxiety. This is paired with techniques parents can use from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Also different from Ophelia is that Goff writes from her perspective as a counselor and a Christian, combining theology and psychology by centering the book on God’s love for humanity and how that anchors hope, faith, and trust in God. For Christian parents, there is a lot in this book that is encouraging and I appreciated the lens that Goff’s faith provides, even if her theology isn’t a 100% match for mine.

While the title of the book implies that this book is for parents of girls, there’s quite a lot here that would apply to parents of boys too. Where things get specific to girls reminded me of Ophelia because of the way that Goff draws out societal expectations for girls and how those get internalized. Because CBT is a combination of cognitive (thinking) and behavior (actions), the advice for parents is very practical at discovering what messages that girls have taken in and providing them with the support and tools to start acting from more healthy messages.