Helping girls with self-esteem

Remember that little girl who bounded through the day wearing a bathing suit, a glitter-frosted tutu, a superhero cape, a fire chief helmet and rain boots— all at the same time? Has your brave young girl been replaced by a moody preteen or teen who isn’t so self-assured? What can parents do to help their daughter through the emotional ups and downs of being a preteen and teen in the 21st century?

The pressures that preteen and teen girls face

There’s no question that it’s a pressure cooker out there. Many girls feel they need to have unrealistic ideals to look Photoshop thin. They may “play dumb” to keep from being labeled a Brainiac, or suddenly shy away from their favorite subject because they don’t feel smart enough to handle it. They can get sucked in to the competitive world of social media: It’s a world populated by power players, pretty little liars and impossible dreams. Not to mention, prom.

So how do you get past this stage unscathed? How can you help your daughter guard her self-esteem and build it even stronger?

How you can help your daughter build healthy self-esteem

First, as parents, consider the self-esteem you model. How do you talk about yourself and others? Here are some tips to consider to help your daughter build up her self-esteem:

  • Model body acceptance. Do you accept your own body in a body positive way? Do you say things such as “I was so bad, I ate pizza for lunch. I can’t possibly eat a dessert.” While teaching moderation is a good lesson, using statements about food and/or body image as “good” or “bad” can reaffirm the near-constant messages about body ideals perpetrated by traditional media and social media influencers. Additionally, don’t let your kids speak negatively about another person’s appearance or food choices.
  • Help her build skills and hobbies independent of appearance. Team sports, theater, music, arts, photography, etc., can help children build self-esteem because it gives them an outlet to express themselves that isn’t tied to looks.
  • Encourage her to stand up for herself — not to be a “people pleaser.” Young girls can be taught to minimize their needs and wants compared with those of others. Make it clear that she can and should stand up for herself. Provide her with opportunities such as, “What do you want to do?” Let her make the choice, and then honor it.
  • Praise for effort, not performance. Focus less on outcomes, and instead praise the process and effort your child employed. Even if the outcome isn’t what she wanted or expected, learning how to fail well builds resilience. Practicing and mastering a skill or hobby builds confidence.
  • Don’t encourage a “damsel in distress” mentality.Parents, especially dads, may treat daughters as if they are fragile, delicate things. However, if you are teaching your son skills that you’re not teaching your daughter, reconsider. Providing her with more opportunities to gain skills and feel self-reliant builds confidence.
  • Let her know you love her unconditionally. Kids need to know you will love them no matter what no matter how old they are. If they are happy, sad, or moody, or if they change their hairstyle or change their entire look, they need to know you love them no matter what.

How to start a conversation about issues your child is facing

Some parents swear by one-on-one talks when they are driving their teen home from school or running errands. Teens may feel comfortable knowing your hands are on the wheel and your eyes are on the road. This can create a built-in buffer zone, giving them space to potentially open up their feelings

Rosalind Wiseman, who wrote the New York Times bestseller “Queen Bees & Wannabes,” which was the basis for the movie “Mean Girls,” suggests watching teen-centric movies with your daughter as conversation starters about issues she may be dealing with. Titles she suggests include “16 Candles,” “The Breakfast Club,” “Boys Don’t Cry,” “Legally Blond” and “Ten Things I Hate About You.”

Wiseman’s book offered another guideline for when to seek professional assistance: “When I believe it’s too uncomfortable for my daughter or the issues she’s tackling are making me so crazy that my input will only make the problem worse,” she explained, in a chapter on communication.

If talking it out doesn’t relieve your concerns, American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), suggests discussing things with your family physician. Your child’s pediatrician can offer a medical assessment and refer you to professionals for counseling or other treatment if necessary.

Pediatricians suggest parents watch for behavior changes

These preteen and teen years are a delicate dance for parents, as they learn to stay involved in their teen’s life while also letting her assert her independence. The trick is knowing when to step in, according tothe AAP, which notes that parents may need to seek professional help for their teen if they see any of these warning signs:

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  • Excessive sleeping, beyond usual teenage fatigue, which could indicate depression or substance abuse
  • Difficulty sleeping, insomnia and other sleep disorders
  • Abandonment or loss of interest in favorite friends or pastimes
  • Unexpected and dramatic decline in academic performance
  • Personality shifts and changes, such as aggressiveness and excess anger that are sharply out of character and could indicate psychological, drug or sexual issues
  • Unexpected weeping or excessive moodiness
  • Eating habits that result in noticeable weight loss or gain
  • Expressions of hopelessness or worthlessness
  • Paranoia and excessive secrecy
  • Self-mutilation or mention of hurting herself
  • Obsessive body-image concerns
  • Excessive isolation

Don’t ignore it if you notice these or other indicators that your daughter may be suffering from more than typical teen angst. First and foremost, talk to your teen.


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