I relish my five-year-old daughter’s sparkling confidence. When she preens in the mirror in a comically mismatched outfit, she celebrates herself exactly as she is — and not through the lens of an appearance-obsessed culture. She raises her voice without fear. But watching her twirl around the kitchen, I am sometimes filled with dread. I know the developmental storm looming on her horizon. I know that now is the best time to take steps to raise a confident daughter.
According to researchers studying adolescents, this is the unhappiest, loneliest and most stressed out generation on record — and it’s girls who are struggling the most. Depressive symptoms in teen girls increased by 50 percent between 2012 and 2015, at more than twice the rate of boys, per the Monitoring the Future survey. Last year, the Girls’ Index, a national survey of 12,000 fifth- through twelfth-grade girls, found that the number of girls who describe themselves as “confident” declines more than 25 percent throughout middle school (African-American girls are a significant exception).
But aren’t girls the ones crushing boys at school? The ones going to college in greater numbers? Didn’t we just hear that parents might not even prefer sons anymore?
Yes, but. All that girl power seems to have come at a cost. For too many girls today, the drive to succeed is fueled by intense self-criticism and fear that they will fail. Our girls may look exceptional on paper but they are often anxious and overwhelmed in life. Many feel that no matter how hard they try, they will never be smart enough, successful enough, pretty enough, thin enough, well liked enough, witty enough online, or sexy enough. And it starts young.
That’s why I develop programs for girls designed to build their internal resources before the storm hits. As a mom, I celebrate my young daughter’s confidence, but I also invest heavily in the areas I know she’s likely to struggle in as a teenager. Even, or especially if you have a young tot, there are ways to build in self-confidence — before wider cultural values get to them. Here are some of my top strategies.
Between 40 and 60 percent of elementary school girls monitor their weight. Overthinking about the body — 'Do I look fat?' 'Did I eat too much?' — is partly responsible for the gender disparity in depression.
Avoid Fat Talk.
Weight anxiety can first surface in preschool. A research team led by Janet Leichty found that 63 percent of parents interviewed believed their children were too young to have a body image. But those parents are wrong. As Leichty told MedicalXpress, “body confidence, body acceptance and early signs of body size preference are all influenced by family socialization processes beginning as early as preschool.” Between 40 and 60 percent of elementary school girls monitor their weight. Overthinking about the body — “Do I look fat?” “Did I eat too much?” — is partly responsible for the gender disparity in depression. As girls grow up, they get the message, writes Lindy West writes in her memoir, Shrill, that a fat female body will be “lampooned, openly reviled, and associated with moral and intellectual failure.”
To help your daughter understand that her value is not linked to her appearance, avoid “fat talk:” negative comments about your body, how much you’ve eaten or exercised, or comments about others’ bodies. This is body bashing, a kind of ritual self-hatred girls begin practicing early, and many of them learn it from adult women.
Focus your body comments on the ways her body serves her, not others. When your daughter achieves a physical goal, point out how her strong or agile body helped her do it. Talk about eating to be healthy so we can do the things we love with our bodies.
The ability to handle setbacks is a cornerstone of resilience, which is what so many teens lack today; she won’t learn those skills by watching you excel at everything you do. She’ll learn by watching you screw up.
Screw Up In Front Of Her.
Girls learn from media, adults, and peers to please others in order to remain likeable. It’s a phenomenon considered largely responsible for the loss of confidence that hits around middle school. Not surprisingly, many girls grow to fear failure. They think the more they succeed, the more liked they will be.
Seize every opportunity to screw up in front of your daughter and show her it’s not the end of the world when you do. For better or for worse, our kids are monkey-see, monkey-do: they mimic what we say, how we react under stress, and what we do when we don’t have the answer. The ability to handle setbacks is a cornerstone of resilience, which is what so many teens lack today; she won’t learn those skills by watching you excel at everything you do. She’ll learn by watching you screw up.
So don’t try to be a perfect role model. Be a work-in-progress role model. Tell her about times you got embarrassed, or messed up; about the emotions you felt and how you responded. When you normalize mistake-making, you give her permission to share her own setbacks. You also lessen the taboo — and shame — that so many girls come to feel about being less than perfect.
This means saying something like 'I feel really insecure and worried' instead of 'I’m a total loser' when you struggle.
Once you do screw up, how do you talk to yourself? Scores of studies have found that people who possess the trait of self-compassion — the practice of being gentle with yourself in the face of setbacks — have lower levels of stress, anxiety and depression. They are also highly motivated and happier.
Self-compassion has three steps: mindfulness, or observing your feelings in a nonjudgmental way (in practice, this means saying something like “I feel really insecure and worried” instead of “I’m a total loser” when you struggle).
The second step is self-kindness: how would you talk to someone you loved if they were being hard on themselves about the thing you’re beating yourself up for?
The third step of self-compassion is common humanity, or connecting to others’ experience of suffering. Are you the only one struggling with your challenge, or are others facing it, too? Reminding yourself that you’re not alone can lower the sense of shame and isolation that can exacerbate our pain.
When you lose your keys in front of your child, verbalize the steps to teach her by example. Try “I feel really nervous about not being able to find those keys!” instead of “I’m such an idiot.” Try self-kindness: “I’m so busy and trying to accomplish so many things at once, it makes sense that I would forget where I put my keys!” Then, try common humanity: “Lots of people lose their keys! Grandma does all the time!”
As the adage goes, “Big kids, big problems. Little kids, little problems.” I tend to agree, in part because young children are much more open to our advice than teens. If we take advantage of the window we have now, we can build them a sturdy shelter from the storm.
Rachel Simmons is the author of Enough As She Is: How to Help Girls Move Beyond Impossible Standards of Success to Live Happy, Healthy, and Fulfilling Lives.
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