The emergence of higher reported morbidity in females compared with males is a feature of adolescent health in a large proportion of the world's industrialised countries. In this paper, qualitative data from twenty-five single-sex focus groups (90 participants in total) conducted with 10-, 13-, and 15-year olds in two Scottish schools is used to explore whether symptom reporting is influenced by perceived societal gender- and age-related expectations and the social context of symptom experiences. The degree to which these factors can help explain quantitative evidence of increases in gender differences in symptom reporting during adolescence is also examined. Accounts suggested gender-related expectations act as strict 'rules' for boys and less prohibitive 'guidelines' for girls. An unexpected finding was the extent of similarity between these 'rules' and 'guidelines'. Both boys and girls presented themselves as pressured to react to symptoms in stoic, controlled and independent ways, particularly when in the company of their peers, and both perceived that boys and girls could incur negative consequences if seen to have physical (e.g. stomach ache) or, especially, psychological symptoms (e.g. feeling like crying). These qualitative findings do not suggest that girls are simply more willing than boys to report their symptoms as they get older, which is one potential explanation for the quantitative evidence of increasing gender differences in symptom reporting in adolescence. Rather, the findings suggest a need to highlight both the potentially damaging effects of gender stereotypes which make boys reluctant to seek help for physical and, particularly, psychological symptoms, and the misconception that girls are not similarly reluctant to report illness.
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