MOST teenage girls love to talk to their friends. And talk. And talk.
As Debra Lee, the Brooklyn mother of a 13-year-old, observes about her daughter Tessa and Tessa’s teenage friends: “They just keep talking. All day. On the phone all night. Sometimes I think they just like to hear each other breathe.”
Virginia Woolf said, “Some people go to priests; others to poetry; I to my friends.”
Female friendship, in all its lovely layers and potentially dark complexities, is inexhaustible grist for film, television and literature – from “Heathers” and “Mean Girls” to “Thelma and Louise,” “Sex and the City,” “Gossip Girl” and “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.”
And who has time to keep up with all the falling ins and falling outs of celebrity BFF’s and Frenemies?
But recently female friendship and girl talk, particularly among adolescents, has drawn growing interest from psychologists and researchers examining the question of how much talking is too much talking. Some studies have found that excessive talking about problems can contribute to emotional difficulties, including anxiety and depression.
The term researchers use is “co-rumination” to describe frequently or obsessively discussing the same problem. The behavior is typical among teens – Why didn’t he call? Should I break up with him? And, psychologists say, it has intensified significantly with e-mail, text messaging, instant messaging and Facebook. And in certain cases it can spin into a potentially contagious and unhealthy emotional angst, experts say.
The research distinguishes between sharing or “self-disclosure,” which is associated with positive friendships and positive feelings, and dwelling on problems, concerns and frustrations. Dwelling and rehashing issues can keep girls, who are more prone to depression and anxiety than boys, stuck in negative thinking patterns, psychologists say. But they also say it is a mixed picture: friends who co-ruminate tend to be close, and those intimate relationships can build self-esteem.
For boys, such intense emotional conversations, which tend to occur less often, did not contribute to heightened anxiety or depressive moods, according to research by Amanda J. Rose, an assistant professor of psychological sciences at the University of Missouri, Columbia.
“When girls are talking about these problems, it probably feels good to get that level of support and validation,” said Dr. Rose, whose latest study on co-rumination was published in the journal Developmental Psychology last year. “But they are not putting two and two together, that actually this excessive talking can make them feel worse.”
Teenage girls are particularly vulnerable to co-ruminating – and depression and anxiety – because “there are so many stressors in adolescence and a lot are ambiguous,” Dr. Rose added. “So things like starting dating or starting serious relationships with boys, concerns about cliques, being popular – these very social stressors, they can be really hard to control and they really lend themselves to rumination.”
Dr. Rose first published a paper on co-rumination in 2002, in the journal Child Development, and has, along with other psychologists, continued to study it. In her study published last year, she followed 813 third-, fifth-, seventh- and ninth-grade girls and boys over six months. Researchers at the State University at Stony Brook will soon publish another paper on co-rumination. Both studies confirm Dr. Rose’s earlier findings.
The relationships the experts looked at will certainly be familiar to many teenagers and parents.
Ms. Lee’s daughter Tessa Lee-Thomas said she sometimes felt worse after talking to friends about problems. “Sometimes we get into disagreements,” said Tessa, who lives in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. “And we have to settle them. My friends think that my other friend did something wrong, but she didn’t do something wrong. Sometimes it makes the situation worse than where we were when we began. It spiraled into something bigger than it was.”
Patricia Letayf, a sophomore at Tufts University, said she tended to overanalyze situations and ask many different friends for advice about the same problem, which at times made her feel more anxious.
“It’s like you want to solve a problem whatever it may be, but the advice of one person never satisfies you and you’re constantly on the hunt for more advice,” she said. “I think a lot of times you are looking for empathy and you want someone to feel the way you do. You want your feelings to be justified. In the end, I hope to feel better. You want them to say, ‘It’s O.K. he dumped you, you failed the test.’ You’re seeking reassurance.”
Ms. Letayf, 19, spent the summer as a camp counselor and said she noticed that the nine-year-old girls at the camp were already starting to obsess about their problems – talking about the boys at the camp and about conflicts between two groups of girls.
“I could see it starting already,” she said, adding that she has made a concerted effort recently not to dwell on her own problems with friends and to try to stop negative thoughts. “From sixth grade, it’s boys are stupid, boys have cooties,” she said. “And then it progresses to boys have cooties but 20-year-old cooties. So you might as well change it when you can.”
Trish Gilbert, a Brooklyn mother of 11-year-old twins, a boy and a girl, and a 16-year-old daughter, said she worried sometimes about “kids giving kids advice.”
But she said she was pleased when her younger daughter, after feeling mistreated by a fifth-grade classmate last year, decided with some other friends to do something about it, rather than just ruminating. They consulted the American Girl series book “Friends: Making Them and Keeping Them,” which offers suggestions, for example, on how many chances to give a friend. The girls talked about forgiveness and even did some role-playing.
THE research into co-rumination has looked only at symptoms of depression and anxiety over short periods and has not established a basis for predicting long-term negative effects.
But a related mental hazard is what psychologists call “emotion contagion” or “contagious anxiety,” in which one person’s negative thoughts or anxiety can affect another’s mood, sometimes over a long period. Research has shown that people who live with others suffering from depression tend to become depressed themselves. Teenage girls who intentionally cut themselves are said to draw friends into the behavior.
A great deal of research, including the work on co-rumination, has shown the emotional benefits of friendship, particularly in instances of physical bullying among boys or “relational aggression,” which is more common among girls and typically characterized by teasing, rejection or even emotional torture.
With co-rumination, psychologists studying it say, one way for parents, and friends, to avoid the negative consequences is to focus on problem-solving, rather than on problem-dwelling, much as Ms. Gilbert’s daughter and her friends did in consulting the American Girl book.
“It’s a fine line,” said Joanne Davila, associate professor of psychology at the State University at Stony Brook, whose paper on co-rumination is being published by the Journal of Adolescence. “We want to encourage young girls to have friends and to use their friends for support, but we may want to help them learn how to use more active techniques. So if there is a problem, how do you solve it?”
Toby Sitnick, a Brooklyn psychologist who works with adolescent girls, said therapists had also tried to move away from focusing on problems to focusing on good experiences and solutions.
“There are quite a few adolescent girls who have high levels of obsessive thinking to begin with,” Dr. Sitnick said. “They often do this with their mothers as well. It certainly does seem to be a female behavior, and grown women do it, too, ruminating about certain issues and experiences. It can become a mutual complaint society.”