You hear your daughter complain about her body, comparing herself to peers. You hear your little girl using words like“fat” and “ugly” to describe herself. It can be heartbreaking for any parent.
It is not uncommon for girls to develop an overly critical voice around the tween years (and often even younger). Being a teen girl in today’s world has its challenges. With social media at our fingertips, we are constantly bombarded with images of what the ideal woman looks like. These unrealistic images can set up vulnerable teen girls for the comparison trap. Viewing doctored photos of stick-thin models, seeing friends post the “highlight reel” of their average teenage life can feed the all-too-common attitude of I am not enough.
During adolescence, the brain and body experience changes that are arguably more remarkable than those of any other developmental stage. You may notice obvious physical changes with your daughter, shifts in your relationship and often switching peer groups. These adjustments can contribute to increased feelings of insecurity for your daughter. Now is the time for parents to quell the urge to impose their worldviews on the teenager and instead give them the space to develop their own ideas and have new experiences. Arguments and emotional outbursts may become common occurrences. For many parents, raising a teen can feel like a rollercoaster.
So what is in your control?
Here are a few things you can do as a parent to improve your daughter’s self-esteem
1. Highlight her strengths. Does your daughter make you laugh? Does she take initiative on certain tasks? Is she a creative problem solver? Let her know that you notice these traits. You can even help your daughter reframe certain characteristics that were once viewed as insults. For example “weird” becomes “unique” or “bossy” becomes “leadership material” and “slow” becomes “thoughtful”. Bringing to light inner personality traits is super important right now, especially when society places such an emphasis on physical characteristics.
2. Validate her feelings. Growing up can be hard! Relationships end, friends move away, rejection happens. It is imperative that your daughter knows that feelings are just feelings. It is okay to feel angry when your best friend ditches you. Instead of saying “there is no reason to be upset”, try “I can see that you are angry right now and it makes sense to be angry in this situation”. Remember validating does not mean you are feeding the negativity but rather showing that it is okay to accept an emotion and let it pass. “Having their feelings validated gives teens the encouragement they need to feel accepted, admit defeat and re-adjust” (Koffler).
3. Model body acceptance. Avoid beating yourself up in front of your daughter. Speaking about your own body in a negative way models body hate for your girl. Outwardly obsessing about your own appearance only reinforces the message that the external is what’s important. Another dangerous thought pattern to avoid is black and white thinking related to food. Statements like “I’m so bad for eating this pizza” or “I am too fat for dessert” can contribute to your daughter developing an unhealthy attitude around food and her own body.
4. Give positive feedback for hard work. Most people respond to positive reinforcement. Give your girl credit for her effort even if it doesn’t result in an “accomplishment”. For example- you may notice her studying hard for a test. Even if she gets a C, it is important to give her positive feedback for the effort she put in. Applaud her for taking action, even if the outcome was not what she was hoping for. “If we can teach our teens to be curious and refrain from viewing experiences through a binary lens of black or white, good or bad, success or failure, they’ll begin to explore everyday experiences more fully” (Koffler).
5. Acknowledge assertiveness. Assertiveness means being confident without being aggressive. Assertive communication involves stating your own needs while respecting someone else’s point of view. At home, your daughter may label her feelings (“I am angry”) and tell you she needs to go to her room and cool off, rather than storming out of the house. These behaviors are healthy and should be reinforced with positive feedback. Encourage your daughter to stand up for herself and others. If you hear about your daughter challenging an injustice, make a point to acknowledge her courage.
6. Keep “mistakes” in perspective. Reframing mistakes can be super important for teen girls, who are often self-critical. The truth is everyone makes mistakes! Mistakes are how we grow and learn. As a teenager, the ability to make mistakes and learn from them is crucial to the launching process. Avoid “cushioning” your kid. Let them make their own mistakes. “Growth-minded individuals perceive task setbacks as a necessary part of the learning process and they “bounce back” by increasing their motivational effort”. Share your own hiccups with your daughter. Rather than shaming her or saying “I told you so”, ask her what she learned or what she would have done differently.
Remember that this is a challenging time for the parent and the child. Be gentle with yourself. It can take a lot of patience and practice to implement a new mindset around mistakes, body image, and feelings. It is totally okay to let your daughter see your vulnerability by telling her that you are learning too!
If you need extra support and are in the Washington DC area, please feel to message me through my contact page. My practice offers complimentary phone consultations for new clients.
“The Curse of the Good Girl,” by Rachel Simmons
“Brainstorm” by Dan Siegel