by Melissa Skinner, M.A., LCPC
Around the end of middle school or early adolescence (ages 9-13) is when there is a drop in many teenage girls self esteem. Although boys may also struggle at this time, they do not experience the drop of confidence to the same degree that girls do. How do we understand this gender confidence gap which begins so early on? There are likely numerous factors which impact the self esteem of young girls, including puberty, cultural influences, classroom cultures and family dynamics.
As parents the one area that we can control, are the relationships and dynamics that exist in our homes. Often times parents and teachers will inadvertently encourage girls to be perfectionist, to avoid mistakes and ultimately to take fewer risks. At school, teachers count on girls to be the ones that are well behaved, following the rules and not causing any problems. At the same time it’s almost expected and somewhat accepted, that boys will push the boundaries more and step outside the lines. At home similar expectations may be subtly reinforced.
Perfectionism ultimately creates a lack of self esteem. Eventually girls realize they cannot do everything perfectly, but rather then understand that no one is perfect, they often internalize their mistakes and interpret them as personal failures. Research has shown that when boys make mistakes or do not succeed, they are more likely to blame it on external factors, rather then on a personal shortcoming.
In addition to teen girls struggling with perfectionism, there is also the focus on outward appearance. Girls are at a great disadvantage when they are receiving praise for how they look, rather then for their intelligence or abilities. When a girls confidence is tied to her physical appearance, she becomes more focused on having the “right” clothes, being the “right” weight and measuring up to society’s standards and media supported norms. This results in negative body image and an overall lack of confidence.
How as parents can we help our teenage daughters? One of the most important things is to model good behavior. Mothers have the biggest influence on their daughters body image and relationship to food. It’s important that mother’s not engage in body shaming toward themselves or others. Avoid discussing diets, your own weight or your daughters weight. Comments like “I look so fat in these jeans” sends the wrong message to girls.
For every compliment about your daughters appearance, make two compliments about the things she’s doing well. Emphasize her interests and passions and encourage her to embrace her talents.
Be mindful of your own perfectionism and remind your daughter that there is always room for mistakes. Encourage her to take risks and to try new things, even when she may be afraid to fail.
Be aware of the types of magazines in your house and talk with your daughter about what she’s seeing in the media. Discuss how many of the images are enhanced or improved and not realistic portrayals of women and girls.
Lastly, model for your daughter how women can lift one another up, rather then tear each other down. Speak kindly of other women. Teach your daughter that girls can work together, support each other and face challenges together.
Melissa Skinner is the founder of Northwest Counseling & Wellness and a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor. For more information or to schedule an appointment, please call 872/222/3132