Seven in 10 girls believe they are not good enough or do not measure up in some area, from appearance to academic performance to interpersonal relationships, according to research by the Dove Self-Esteem Fund. That study also revealed the startling fact that 75 percent of girls with low self-esteem reported engaging in negative activities like cutting, bullying, smoking, drinking or disordered eating, compared to 25 percent of girls with high self-esteem.
Mary Ellen Young, author of “Elements for Girls: A Fun & Engaging Self-Discovery Project“ and Director of Programs at Helping Girls Navigate Adolescence, a nonprofit organization she co-founded 10 years ago, notes that the challenge is becoming harder.
“Society has changed and our expectations for girls are higher than ever. This is especially true in the last decade because of technology and the focus on outward appearance. In our work with girls, we take one step forward and culture takes two steps back,” she says. “Our girls think they have to do everything and have to be perfect, and that’s a huge problem.”
She advocates focusing on a girl’s feelings of self-worth. “Self-esteem means different things to different people, whereas self-worth is a sense that I have value. My worth doesn’t come from clothes, grades, the college I attend, or the guy I’m dating. It is the idea of internal self-acceptance,” says Young.
“Kids have the inherent ability to be confident, but we condition them to not be confident in many ways. We condition them to think they don’t know what’s right for themselves, and they look outside to see what someone else is doing instead of having their own confidence,” explains Jill Hope, Founder and Empowerment Coach at I Shine.
Here are some top tips from the experts on what parents can do to help their daughters feel confident.
Don’t Underestimate the Power of Body Image
Among girls with low self-esteem, 71 percent feel their appearance does not measure up. To change that, moms have to walk the walk when it comes to body image. “We can tell our kids anything we want but at the end of the day they emulate our behavior first. From the moment our children are born until they are adults, we need to model body loving,” says Samantha Ettus, author, leadership coach and radio host.
For her, that means speaking positively of her body and saying what she loves about it and what it can do. One example she gives is that when one of her children touched her stomach, instead of saying anything negative, she emphasized how much she loved that part of her body.
One of Ettus’ cardinal rules is wearing the first outfit she puts on every day. “When I first had my daughter, I decided I would never have a wardrobe crisis in front of my kids and keep throwing on different pieces of clothes. If you want to send the message that clothing is not important, go with the first outfit you try on,” she explains.
Parents should also be kind to themselves. “When we bash ourselves, our kids pick up on it. When we don’t love ourselves, we can’t be confident,” says Hope.
Ettus echoes that belief and urges parents of daughters who complain about a body part to respond by noting how strong their body is and have kids talk about what it can do, such as hike and kick a ball. “You want to praise their body but go far beyond how it looks,” Ettus advises. “Prize it for what it does, not what it looks like.”
Confidence in girls often drops after ages 9, a shift Julianne Neely, MSW, LCS, has seen in her experience as a pediatric therapist at Individual & Family Connection in Chicago. Some experts attribute this to the changes that come with puberty. “Parents should start talking [their daughters] through puberty and normalizing the experience before, during and after. Use judgment-free, positive language about everything from pubic hair to body odor to periods,” advises Neely. “Be someone they can come to and talk with as they navigate this big overwhelming change to their bodies.”
Fostering Healthy Friendships is Key to Self-Esteem
A girl’s friends can make her feel very confident, but the wrong group of friends can cause big confidence problems.
Young encourages parents to help girls differentiate between fitting in and belonging. “Most women know how to fit in, but belonging means people accept you for who you are. We all want to belong to something,” she says. “Girls have to learn that if they have to change who they are to fit in, that is not really where you want to be.”
“It is so important to encourage our girls to think about being authentic and able to focus on what they like and enjoy,” she adds.
Ettus tells her daughters that she likes their friends who make them feel good about themselves. She suggests that rather than put a child down for a poor friend choice, parents should help them see that the person isn’t really supporting them and adding to their feelings of self-worth.
Friendships are also a good opportunity for girls to develop relationship skills, and those include effectively expressing frustration and anger.
“If we can help girls develop ways of expressing themselves early on and teach empathic responses, they will have true and genuine friendships and be better able to identify healthy partners,” says Young.
Hope advises parents to be aware of the preconceived notions they are passing along to their daughters subconsciously. “There’s a belief that middle school girls are mean, but the truth is that people can be mean at any age and gender. If a mom holds that belief, however, even if she doesn’t verbalize it, her child likely picks up on that attitude and message. Once a child accepts something like that, it often proves to be true,” cautions Hope.
In contrast, she says that if parents truly hold a positive outlook on the experiences and people their daughters will encounter, and convey their mindset through both expressions and nonverbal communication, girls will also pick up on that belief and it will become their reality.
Downtime is Important to Reaching Self-Acceptance
It’s not news that kids today have incredibly busy schedules, but those jam-packed days can take a toll, and make it harder for girls to really know themselves and appreciate their own company. Not having downtime is damaging and stressful to girls, according to Young.
“You’re not going to get to a point of true self-acceptance without downtime,” she says, noting that the girls in workshops particularly gravitate toward yoga, often citing it as their favorite part of the day. Yoga provides that opportunity to be mindful of the present moment and to truly breathe.
Allow Girls to Fail
Many parents believe that success is fundamental to building self-confidence, and therefore resist allowing their child to fail. Facing failures and setbacks head on, however, allows a girl to become resilient, learn to solve problems and develop coping skills, all key elements of self-confidence.
“When parents are overly protective and don’t allow their girls to take risks, make mistakes, fall down, and learn by trial and error, they inadvertently send the message to their girls that they are weak and can’t do things without help,” says Neely.
Hope agrees. “On some level, our kids know what is helpful, but we often don’t give them a voice,” she says. “Turn the question back to them, and they will develop their own inner voice, figure it out and see a positive result. That is a building block of greater self-confidence.”
Girls feel an immense amount of pressure to be perfect, and helping them become more comfortable with the fact that they are human and will make mistakes can lessen that pressure. “We have to give our kids room to fail and learn that mistakes don’t define or destroy us, they make us stronger,” says Neely.
Find Activities They Love
Parents should still seek out activities that their daughters enjoy and that offer the potential for success. Not only does excelling at an activity boost confidence, it can help diversify a girl’s friend group, which the experts say is beneficial.
Athletics can be a great way to build confidence. “Sports are hugely important. In addition to learning teamwork and making friends, sports emphasize body strength and help girls see their body as awesome and capable of great things,” says Ettus.
Girls who do not or cannot play sports have plenty of other options though. Neely says that just about any activity can be confidence-boosting. “Art, music, reading clubs, really whatever they enjoy is good. What is important is finding something they feel successful in,” says Neely. “They need a space where they feel good at what they are doing!”
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