As the story goes, when very young girls are asked what they would like, they feel free to answer honestly. Then when they reach pre-adolescence, they begin losing their voice, deferring to others to make the decision. Some girls might say they are looking forward to growing up, while realizing that life gets more complicated as they grow older. Self-confident girls, who tend to like themselves and be resilient and open, still reveal a shift as they approach adolescence. What makes this happen? Studies show there’s a dramatic shift in girls’ self-esteem at this developmental stage. A large percentage of elementary-school children will agree they’re “happy the way I am,” indicating their self-esteem is intact. However, once they enter middle school, the percentage significantly decreases in girls, followed by another drop by high school. Sadly, pre-adolescent girls are far more likely to develop a negative self-image of their bodies and their intellectual abilities, suffering anxiety and often depression. We can blame it on puberty, signaling the end of childhood, the loss of innocence. Of course, this is both a psychological and physical awakening process, and not necessarily a very pleasant time.

So what can we do to help girls weather this milestone more successfully? We must ensure their confidence is robust from their earliest childhood. Being told “You’re intelligent, brave, strong, competent, important,” as frequently and in as many ways as boys are told, is but one part. Perhaps they’re not hearing this as much as they should. Too often, girls have their autonomy stifled, learning fearfulness and helplessness, narrowing their options of “acceptable” behaviors, restricting them from challenges. The outcome is dependence rather than independence, pleasing others rather than being assertive. Fathers are generally more protective of their daughters, guilty of teaching them to be more passive and vulnerable. Is that because they’re more concerned with their children’s behavior conforming to gender stereotypes?

So there’s this phenomenon of girls’ fragile self-confidence with the coming of adolescence and awakening. This is a time that not only their bodies are maturing, but their thinking and analytical abilities are as well. This stage is what psychologists refer to as “gender intensification,” with girls being highly aware of society’s expectations of women. One of the most influential, powerful messages is that females are expected to be “good at relationships,” caretaking and pleasing others, sensitive to other people’s needs. This is when their sense of worth starts to be measured by how well they get along with others. Often popularity amongst peers becomes more important than academic achievement. The cruel reality is that girls later discover that the true rewards in adulthood are for those who achieve, not for those who are good at relationships. They begin realizing the relational skills they’ve been taught to nurture really don’t matter as much.

Another challenge for girls is the disparity between their own pubescent bodies, when they may put on some fat, and the model’s body in the media. Very quickly, these media images undermine any positive body image or healthy self-esteem. Aiming to look like the models, with photos saturating every media outlet, is unrealistic and damaging. The message only erodes confidence. Fathers can remain more connected with their daughters at this developmental stage if they’ve assumed responsibility in childcare from the beginning. Staying involved in the minutia of their daughter’s life helps dads handle any erotic responses to their daughters’ evolving sexual appeal at this stage. Without this close attachment to his daughter, a father might be threatened by these feelings, thus distancing himself more from her. This leads to his daughter feeling rejected, without understanding the reason. At the same time, girls are learning a great deal from what their moms are modeling. Is mom happy with her life? If so, chances are the young girl believes she will also be. Yet the contrary is also true — an unhappy, dissatisfied mom may raise a daughter’s fears that she will suffer the same fate.

As parents, we must question our expectations and the messages we give our daughters, asking ourselves: “Would I react the same way or expect the same thing if this were my son?” Be aware of your child’s unique temperament, strengths, and interests, relating to your daughter as an individual rather than to her gender. Avoid projecting your fear of her taking risks or her evolving independence. Assume responsibility for any concern, sharing your feelings openly, to prevent inhibiting her. Be actively involved in her education, with the expectation she can achieve whatever she wants.

We must let our daughters make their own decisions, teaching them to think and speak up for themselves. Pointing out propaganda and stereotypes in the media, encouraging them to pause, think critically and question before accepting anything as truth, really matters. Have conversations about current affairs, world issues, encouraging your daughter to express her opinions. Listen respectfully, while having lively debates that promote assertiveness. Avoid focusing on physical appearance, reinforcing pride in one’s personhood rather than physical attributes. Exposing our daughters to strong female role models is very important, while also supporting them in developing a hobby or talent unique to them. Just remember, your daughter views you as one of her most powerful role models. If you communicate a sense of being happy with your life, your daughter will be more optimistic about what she can achieve in the world.

Please send me your questions.