This article appears in Family Magazine January 2018.
Raising a confident girl means she’ll be able to claim her strength to meet life’s challenges as she grows older. Trouble is, girls’ self-confidence tends to wane as they leave childhood and enter adolescence.
One recent study published in the journal Science found that girls as young as 6 believe that brilliance is a male trait. The study also found that at 6 girls start to steer themselves away from activities that are perceived as “really, really smart.”
Parents can help nurture their daughter’s self-confidence, but even the most knowledgeable moms and dads need some help. Katie Hurley, a child and adolescent psychotherapist and parenting expert, is the author of a new book of advice for raising strong, confident and compassionate daughters. “No More Mean Girls” will be available Jan. 30, but Hurley is sharing her tips here.
“Girls are at risk for experiencing a dip in self-esteem somewhere between the ages of 9 and 11, and that self-esteem will either soar or remain low as girls enter the teen years. This happens to coincide with the time that girls begin to step outside of the parental orbit of control,” Hurley said.
The more time girls spend away from the parental safe zone, “the more pressure they feel to cope with failures and find success on their own. It’s important to remember that low self-esteem isn’t simply a bad feeling or two because things didn’t work out as planned. Low self-esteem is a state of mind that can negatively affect every part of a girl’s life such as friendships, academics, family relationships, sports,” Hurley said.
Studies show that teen girls experience more stress, anxiety and depression, while teen boys score higher on self-esteem, Hurley said.
“One thing that helps girls is to talk about the micro-stressors they experience that contribute to dips in self-esteem. Girls are conditioned to stuff their feelings down and simply ‘get over it’ when things are hard, but this is no easy task. Bringing those stressors and upsets to the table helps normalize the ups and downs that girls experience and encourages girls to lift each other up as they work through the dips together,” Hurley said.
Escape self doubt
“One thing I see over and over again in girls with low self-esteem is that their thoughts are stuck in a negative feedback loop. They assume the worst (‘everyone hates me’), they react and interact according to their assumptions (‘I should just sit alone’), and the results confirm their assumptions (‘no one bothered to sit with me because everyone hates me’). This negative thought process can repeat for quite some time and affect multiple areas of a girl’s life,” Hurley said.
Girls can break the negative feedback loop by positively reframing the way they view and experience events, ideas and emotions, Hurley said. Parents can help girls practice cognitive reframing by doing the following:
“First, give your daughter time to vent. She has to release her negative emotions to process them. Second, ask her to state the negative thought that runs through her mind. Third, ask her to create a positive counter-statement. For the girl who thinks ‘everyone hates me,’ for example, a realistic positive statement is, ‘I have a good friend on my soccer team. We have fun together.’ This subtle shift in thinking can help girls change their negative thoughts to positive ones,” Hurley said.
Other things parents can do to help boost self-esteem include spending one-on-one time in a low-stress environment, for example hiking, going to the movies or shopping together, Hurley said.
“Encourage healthy risk-taking like trying a new sport or activity or cooking things independently,” she said.
Another idea is to create a “wheel of strengths” to showcase her positive attributes and talents.
“Include a wide array of talents, not just sports,” Hurley said.
Don’t fear failure
Fear of failure is a significant source of stress for young girls.
“In this superkid generation, girls feel like they need to reach great heights to make their mark in this world. Encouraging girls to fail aloud and learn from their missteps helps them build resilience and develop empathy and compassion for their friends, who experience their own failures along the way,” Hurley said.