For the most part, adolescent girls talk more than adolescent boys. They just do. Little girls generally start talking sooner than boys and even as children are able to verbalize and express themselves much more efficiently. This ability to communicate has many advantages, especially in helping develop social-perspective taking skills (the understanding of other peoples thoughts, motivations, feelings and intentions).
Females are generally more gifted in the area of social-perspective skills which have great benefits including greater quality of friendships, better ability to get along with others, to show empathy and to be great caretakers. However, there is a downside to having well-developed social-perspective taking skills, including what is called co-rumination.
Co-rumination refers to extensively talking about and revisiting problems, focusing on negative feelings and speculating about problems with peers. While it is usually healthy to talk about problems, co-rumination generally focuses more on the problems themselves (especially negatively) and not on actual resolutions and therefore can be maladaptive.
Adolescent girls with good social-perspective skills are more likely to co-ruminate because they find it easier to talk to and relate to their friends about their problems and to understand their friends negative feelings about the problems. This type of understanding breeds closeness.
A problem with co-rumination is that it exposes the person to their friends problems, worries and negative affect repeatedly which can lead to empathetic distress. Empathetic distress is feeling the perceived pain of another person. Which means not only does the youth have their own problems, they are also taking on the problems of their friends.
When I worked in the high school I would be amazed at how teenage girls would take on each others problems so much so that you would think it were their own. Some would see this as an endearing quality, but much of it was definitely dysfunctional. Sometimes the amount of enmeshment would almost seem pathological. Some teens would find it hard to concentrate because they were so worried about their friends problems even when in all reality, it had no impact on them.
I would listen to them discuss the same problems with each other over and over again offering no real resolutions, but instead harping on and internalizing them in ways that were more detrimental than helpful.
As a counselor, I would encourage problem solving and positive thinking. I would try to help them understand that their friends issue isn’t theirs as well as try to help them understand disclosure. Many teenagers today, in part thanks to social media, share way too much personal information with each other without understanding the impact it may have later. Not understanding personal boundaries and disclosure is a crucial part of co-rumination and both rumination and self-disclosure have been linked to increased anxiety.
Girls in friendships with a lot of co-rumination often view their friendships as high quality because there is a lot of understanding and empathizing, but there is often also a lot of internalizing of problems which leads to negatively and has been shown to increase the risk of anxiety and depression.
Boys on the other hand generally do not socialize and c0-ruminate as much as girls do. The trade off is that while they may be more protected from empathetic distress, they are also less likely to have high quality friendships. There must be a balance.
I also believe that the impact of co-rumination and empathetic distress affects people well into adulthood, especially those in enmeshed friendships or in the helping fields where we in some instances we call it secondary PTSD and burnout.
So what do we do with this information?
It’s hard to curtail co-rumination without discouraging social-perspective taking which also has very high and much needed benefits. One solution is to help the individual understand and balance their concerns for other people with their own needs. Helping an individual learn what is their problem, and what is not their problem also helps to start separating some of the negative affects of co-rumination.
Also, focusing on the positive would help a lot. Many young girls focus on and talk about their problems way too much and internalize them instead of resolving them which only makes them feel worse.
I’m not discouraging talking about problems or young girls talking to their friends about their problems, but there is certainly a healthy and unhealthy way for young girls to discuss, think about and solve their issues without ruminating and falling victim to empathetic distress.