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Title: 'Rules' for the boys, 'guidelines' for the girls : a qualitative study of the factors influencing gender differences in symptom reporting during childhood and adolescence
Author: MacLean, F. Alice
Awarding Body: University of Glasgow
Current Institution: University of Glasgow
Date of Award: 2006
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This study uses qualitative methods to explore how boys’ and girls’ symptom reporting may be influenced by their perceptions of societal gender- and age-related expectations, their conceptualisations of symptoms, and the social context of symptom experiences. Twenty-five focus groups were conducted with girls and boys aged 10, 13 and 15. These took place in one primary and one secondary school, both located in central Scotland, between June 2004 and January 2005. Focus groups were composed of pupils who were the same age and gender. To stimulate discussion and aid comparison across groups, focussing exercises were designed and put into practice. Symptom cards were used to investigate pupils’ conceptualisations of symptoms. Vignettes encouraged pupils to explore how same- and opposite-sex peers might react to a ‘physical’ and ‘malaise’ symptom in different social contexts. Histograms displaying gender differences in symptom reporting were used as a basis for exploring pupils’ explanations for these patterns. This study found that experiences of illness are integral to boys’ and girls’ presentations of themselves and their performances of gender and age. Their efforts to conform to gender- and age-related expectations have a significant influence on their reactions to illness, their conceptualisations and assessments of symptoms, and also their perceptions of the consequences of seeking help for illness in different social contexts. Societal expectations can be seen as representing strict ‘rules’ for boys, which substantially restrict their reactions to ‘physical’ and especially ‘malaise’ symptoms, whereas they can be viewed as more lenient ‘guidelines’ for girls which are more permissive of their help-seeking for either ‘physical’ or ‘malaise’ symptoms. The ‘rules’ and ‘guidelines’ for boys and girls are not as polarised as gender stereotypes would lead us to expect. This study suggests that seeking help for illness can pose a serious threat to boys’ constructions of themselves as ‘successfully masculine’, but is also has a negative impact upon girls’ presentations of themselves as strong and independent. Boys and girls also argued that the transition from childhood to adolescence is more stressful for girls. They portrayed the advert of puberty and menarche, as well as mounting academic pressures, as stressors likely to lead to girls’ increasing experiences of ‘physical’ symptoms and ‘psychological’ distress. In order to reduce help-seeking barriers and improve boys’ and girls’ perceptions of the consequences of reporting symptoms, there needs to be an erosion of the idea that illness signifies weakness or deficiencies of character. Campaigns to reduce the stigma of mental illness would benefit from incorporating boys’ and girls’ conceptualisations of ‘malaise’ symptoms and aiming to change misconceptions which act as barriers to help-seeking.
Supervisor: Not available Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available
Keywords: HM Sociology ; BF Psychology