Living as a Chameleon – understanding girls’ anger

Girls are taught from a young age to suppress their anger. Anger is unfeminine and could lead to rejection by friends and family, they’re warned. So they swallow it, silencing their authentic selves. Many get depressed, especially during the turbulent, identity-seeking adolescent years, and end up on medication.

“Countless girls now list being prescribed an anti-depressant as a component of their adolescence,” notes nursing Prof. Cheryl van Daalen-Smith. As a former public health nurse, she became concerned about over-medicated girls. “I was frustrated at the number of girls on Prozac.”

Now she’s published a handbook, Living as a Chameleon, A Guide to Understanding Girls’ Anger for Girl-Serving Professionals. In it, she says simply: Don’t silence angry girls, don’t turn them away, don’t dismiss them, don’t medicate them. Listen to them. That’s the strongest message in her four-page monograph. And van Daalen-Smith hopes girl-serving professionals will hear it and apply it. Allow girls to express their anger and fewer would get depressed, she argues. “It’s a very upstream, preventative strategy that we can use always when working with girls and anyone else,” says van Daalen-Smith.

The guide grew out of a ground-breaking two-year study van Daalen-Smith conducted as part of her PhD thesis. Interested in examining anger as one component of young women’s depression, she interviewed 65 girls across the country. She held focus groups with teen moms, with rural, native, lesbian, disabled and homeless girls, with young women of colour and daughters of new immigrants, then interviewed nine individuals extensively.

“While the young women in the study had continuously heard that they needed to learn how to manage their anger, they had never been asked to describe their experiences with expressing anger, or the emotional impact of having their anger suppressed,” noted van Daalen-Smith. Many professionals told her such a study was long overdue.

“Anger has rarely been studied,” says van Daalen-Smith. There are a few studies in the US but this is the first in Canada, she said. Rhonda Lenton, dean of the Atkinson Faculty of Liberal & Professional Studies, not only helped fund the nursing professor’s cross-Canada study but paid for publishing the guide. “It’s kind of cool for York,” says van Daalen-Smith, who didn’t want her thesis to languish on a shelf where it was of no use to anybody. Now it’s available in booklet form and downloadable from York’s Web site.

The title, Living as a Chameleon, comes from a phrase used by one of the young women van Daalen-Smith interviewed. Girls, like the reptile that changes colour to blend in with its environment, are expected to live up to others’ expectations of who they should be. If they speak about what’s making them angry, they are judged, dismissed, not believed, or told that their perception of and response to a situation are invalid, she says. If they don’t talk about it, they become sad, depressed, unsure of themselves. “It’s a catch -22,” says van Daalen-Smith.

Anger is about being real. “To be disconnected from anger is to be disconnected from self,” says van Daalen-Smith, a volunteer street nurse and professional anger-story listener. “Authentic self-knowing is critical to mental health,” she argues in her guide. “Rather than accepting a ‘pill-for-every-ill’ mentality, girl-centred professionals can listen, advocate and stop the cycle of denied anger, depression and widespread use of anti-depressants as an antidote to societal gender straightjacketing.”

Van Daalen-Smith urges girl-serving professionals to reframe anger from something that is negative, sinful and wrong to something that brings with it agency, affirmation and authenticity.

“Together we can stop the cycle in which girls and young women are taught to be chameleons, and free them to become who they are most deeply.”