by Katie Hurley, LCSW
“I don’t get it. She’s smart. She’s kind. She’s athletic. She has a ton of friends… but she doesn’t see it.” A mom of an eleven-year-old girl made this statement, but I hear some version of this over and over again. It always leads to the same question: Why doesn’t my daughter have any self-confidence?
There isn’t an easy answer to this question. Are young girls under more pressure today than they once were? Perhaps. Are they exposed to media content above their developmental level? Yes, this is often the case. Is that why so many young girls feel they don’t measure up?
According to key findings from the Dove Self-Esteem Fund’s report, Real Girls, Real Pressure: A National Report of the State of Self-Esteem (2008), 7 in 10 girls believe that they are not good enough or do not measure up in some way, including their looks, performance in school and relationships with friends and family members. Think that’s bad? Think on these findings:
- 62% of girls feel insecure or unsure of themselves
- 57% of girls say they don’t always tell their parents certain things about them because they don’t want them to think badly of them
- The top wish among all girls is for their parents to communicate better with them, which includes more frequent and open conversations about what is happening in their own lives
- 75% of girls with low self-esteem reported engaging in negative activities such as disordered eating, cutting, bullying, smoking or drinking when feeling badly about themselves
Something to consider before we move on: 91% of girls age 8-12 turn to their mother as a resource when feeling badly about themselves.
When we shift gears, the question becomes, “How can I help?”
The truth is that there is no easy button when it comes to guiding young girls through the murky waters of preadolescence and adolescence. It takes time and a lot of patience.
Start by making a few small changes:
Listen more than you talk
Young girls often tell me that parents are terrible listeners. As a nine-year-old once told me (in a moment of frustration), “My mom always says, ‘Listen! Listen!’ but she never listens to me. I don’t even get to finish my story and she has three ways to fix is so she can stop talking to me.” That young girl’s mom was not actually trying to shoo her daughter away. Her intention was to help. Her need to fix, however, clouded her ability to listen, and that negatively impacted their communication.
Listen for the sake of listening. Your daughter turns to you because she trusts you to be there for her. It might be hard to resist the urge to jump in with solutions or start calling the school and other parents, but right now your daughter needs you to listen with both ears and empathize.
Believe in your daughter
If you want to raise a daughter who believes in herself, begin by believing in your daughter. I utter these words often.
Young girls can be their own worst critics. When we add on external criticism, it can be downright overwhelming for them. It’s not our job to highlight what we perceive to be their failures or missteps in an effort to inspire them to do better in the future. Parents often tell me that they believe this builds resilience in kids. Tell them where they messed up so they can get it right the next time. The truth is that this leaves kids feeling worthless. They already know that they failed the test, lost the game or sang out of tune… they don’t need us to go through the play-by-play in an effort to correct. They need us to provide support and empathy.
To raise resilient girls, the best thing we can do is to believe in their abilities, even when they have a terrible day. They can and will learn to work through those obstacles in their own time.
I’m as guilty as the next parent when it comes struggling with the work/family balance, and it’s hard to ignore that flashing, beeping phone. That’s why I keep it on silent and leave it upstairs when my daughter is around. I don’t want to break my connection with her to deal with an email that can surely wait.
High on the wish list of things girls want their parents to do better: Spend more time together. You might feel like your daughter is pushing you away, but I’m willing to bet that she feels like you don’t have enough time for her.
Make time to be together. Get out into nature and go for a hike. Read a book together. Play Monopoly (yes, really). Snuggle up and watch a movie. Whatever you do, be present. Shut out the rest of the world and place your focus on her.
Young girls often tell me that they feel like their parents quiz them about all the wrong things. Parents ask about grades, tests and quizzes, sports and lunch, but they don’t always ask questions that lead to meaningful conversations. What is it that our daughters really crave? They want to feel understood!
Instead of the usual questions about high-pressure stuff, try some of these:
- What was the best part of your day?
- What was the worst?
- What’s your favorite song right now?
- If you could do anything you wanted instead of going to school today, what would you do?
- Do you have a favorite character from a book you’ve read recently?
- What do prefer to do when you have downtime?
Another great way to get kids talking about the more important things in life? Play a game of 2 truths and 1 tale. Take turns telling two true statements and one tale, and try to spot the tale. You’ll be surprised what you learn!
Tell about you
One more thing that I hear a lot of from the young girls who sit on my couch is that conversations with parents feel one-sided. We ask a lot of questions about them, but how much do we share about us?
Sharing our own stories can be powerful for our daughters. The more they get to know us, the more trust we build.
Just the other day my daughter asked me, “Did you ever know any tricky girls when you were me age? The ones who are friends some days but not every day?” This sparked a wonderful conversation about friendship, empathy and understanding.
Don’t be afraid to share your truths. Where your story left off just might be where your daughter’s story begins…
Katie Hurley, LCSW, is a child and adolescent psychotherapist and author of The Happy Kid Handbook. Her work can be found on EverydayFamily, Momtastic, mom.me, Yahoo Parenting, PBS Parents and The Huf ngton Post. Katie writes the parenting blog, Practical Parenting. Katie splits her time between Los Angeles and the Connecticut coast with her rock and roll husband and their two happy children.