Q: My daughter has been a bubbly, outspoken girl since her first words. She is in the 7th grade and I fear she is losing her outgoing personality. She’s also less decisive and confident. I believe in raising assertive, young women and want to support her however I can. I would appreciate any tools, strategies, and suggestions to help my daughter find her inner-self and get back her sparkling personality.
A: Your daughter “losing her voice” is a common phenomenon among female adolescents. In fact, Carol Gilligan’s theory of moral development highlights how young girls have a strong focus on survival and self-interest through their elementary school years. Then in preadolescence focus switches to selflessness and caring for others. Girls begin understanding the requirements for being an “ideal” girl and disconnect from their personality to salvage and maintain relationships. This makes sense given all the challenges in middle school: friendships developing and breaking, dating, puberty, bullying, differentiating between generic and name brand clothing, and developing body image concerns. In this two-part series, you will find strategies for building your child’s confidence. Part I is written below and will focus on setting the foundation for building self-esteem and confidence. Part II will focus on life skills to use with your tween and will be featured in next month’s Ask Anything.
The groundwork for any child’s self-esteem and confidence is what we model for them as parents. I believe all parents are doing the best they can given their current situation. You will likely find you are doing many of the recommendations listed in this newsletter. I encourage you to critically evaluate your parenting style while reading these pointers because some small changes can make an impactful difference in supporting your tween’s development.
- Praise, Praise, Praise: Absolutely, praise your daughter. Think about your childhood for a minute. Do you have memories of reinforcement and praise from your family or criticism? Your goal as a parent is to build positive memories for your child, so take advantage of reinforcement opportunities when available. Focus praise on skills, competencies, and effort. Praising problem-solving abilities, math skills, and handling sticky situations is a great starting place. It’s natural to praise your child when they look nice, but going overboard on praise for beauty can teach young girls appearance is highly valued. Be specific in your praise of competencies, “You did a fantastic job making your plays in the game today. I was so proud when you hit the line drive past the short-stop.”
- Listen: Like adults, our tweens often want to vent about their day. Take time to listen to your daughter rather than fix problems for her. She may want to vent how frustrating it is Sara is dating Robbie even though Bonnie called dibs. Ask her if she wants advice or help figuring out the situation, but refrain from fixing it for her. Tweens often are more interested in hearing about similar experiences you may have had than specific advice about what they ‘should’ do. Explain you always have open ears if she wants to talk about something.
- Invest in her Interests: Offer support for your daughter’s interests and activities. If she’s interested in singing encourage her to join choir. The two of you can also brainstorm some songs she can practice at home. If she develops a passion in art, you can show enthusiasm about her artwork and buy some small supplies. Obviously, there are financial limitations to participating in all interests, but she may have a passion you can support at home or with low-cost activities at school or in the community.
- Unconditional Love: Reassure your daughter you will always love her. It’s powerful for children to understand your love is not contingent on grades, 3-point shots, or 100 yard-dash running times. Children sometimes make these contingencies on their own, so it’s good to remind them your love has endless boundaries.
- Encourage “I” Statements: One way to regain and strengthen your daughter’s voice is to practice and encourage I statements. Assertiveness develops as she expresses her wants, needs, preferences, and emotions. I teach my younger clients (and sometimes my adults), one of the most important sentences we can use is “I feel ______ when/because ______.”
- Positive Self-Talk: The thoughts in the back of our minds become the soundtrack of our lives and affect our attitude, mood, motivation, and resilience. Teaching and role-modeling positive self-talk will help your daughter deal with failures and adversity as well as reinforce confident, coping statements. For example, “I tried my best on the math test today. I’ll study more and do better next time.” For social situations, you can teach your daughter to say, “I’m a bit nervous about going to the party, but I’m sure I will have fun once I get there.” You can also express how much you believe in her capabilities, courage, skills, and competencies.
- Encourage a Healthy Body Image: Your daughter is at an age when physical looks become the focus of attention. Pop singers, models, and beauty ads are more predominant in tween girls’ lives than during elementary school. Simultaneously her body is going through several physical changes, which can be stressful for both of you. School clothes shopping can be both fun and anxiety-provoking. Unfortunately, you don’t know which until she is halfway through the pile of clothes in the fitting room. Modeling a positive body-image can help her toward accepting her body. Off-the-hand, unintentional comments about feeling fat, calorie counting, and clothes nothing fitting correctly can normalize a negative body image for your daughter. Better choices are to model caring about health and fitness, such as, “I am going to start going to the gym again after work; I feel better when I work out,” or, “I’m going to make a healthy choice and have fruit for dessert instead of ice cream.” Conversely, you can encourage a healthy body image by modeling exercise and being active, making positive statements about your body, and discussing how people come in a variety of shapes and sizes.
Stay tuned next month for Part II.