College of LAS « Illinois

Psychology

High Anxiety

Girls' Higher Grades Come With Emotional Price Tag

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Girls generally make better grades than do boys, but a new study in LAS shows that girls also experience more internal costs—worry, anxiety, and depression—despite their academic success.

"Although girls may have the edge over boys in terms of their performance in school," says Eva Pomerantz, a professor of psychology and lead investigator, "this edge is lost when it comes to the experience of internal distress." The long-term cost may be that as girls get older, despite their stellar academic performance, their internal distress stops them from pursuing higher education and careers in fields such as engineering and science, says Pomerantz.

The study followed 932 fourth through sixth graders in a predominantly white school district over one year. Researchers gathered grades in language arts, math, science and social studies.

Girls outperformed boys in all four subjects, although the gap narrowed slightly as children entered seventh grade. Regardless of their grades, girls reported more internal distress than did the boys, with lower-achieving girls suffering the most. "When they fail to get good grades, we think that they feel like they have really disappointed their parents, and they question their own abilities, leading to anxiety and depression," says Pomerantz. Perhaps most notabable, she says, is that "even the highest-achieving girls were more anxious and depressed, and perceived their abilities more negatively, than did the high-achieving boys."

Pomerantz speculates that girls are more concerned than boys are when it comes to pleasing adults. Educators, parents, psychologists and policymakers need to be asking what they can do to help boys do better in school and to help girls feel less distress, she says.

Spring 2003