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A pre-teen girl is at a unique moment in her life.The spark of her potential grows more intense, yet she'll have to fight gender norms that threaten to diminish it.
Those expectations might convince her to sacrifice ambition for popularity or shame her for rejecting feminine beauty standards. There are countless ways she'll feel pressured to hide or change herself.
Most adolescents, regardless of gender, feel that tension, but girls often face distinct challenges. Research shows, for example, their self-esteem plummets compared to boys.
To better understand what girls face during adolescence, I talked with Rachel Simmons, author of three books on girlhood and cofounder of Girls Leadership, a national nonprofit that provides training, education, and workshops to girls and the adults who support them. She says that "girls are at their fiercest and most authentic prior to puberty."
Parents can prepare their daughters for the trials of being a teenager by teaching them vital skills early on. Consider starting with these four skills.
We so frequently assume that girls and emotions are a natural pairing that we neglect to teach girls emotional intelligence. That skill, says Simmons, means having the ability to describe and express the full range of human emotion. But when girls are taught to value being happy and liked over all, they often suppress or can't acknowledge more difficult experiences.
Instead, parents need to show their daughters how to "flex the muscle of expressing their strongest feelings," says Simmons. Parents can do that by modeling their own emotions using words like happy, nervous, excited, scared, angry, frustrated, and confused.
Simmons also recommends parents "authorize" their daughters' emotions: "When your girls express authentic emotions — even if they're difficult — you take them seriously. You don't deny them or challenge them."
Girls get a lot of messages that it's important to please others, says Simmons. So when they experience a setback, it often feels like letting someone else down. On top of that, research shows that adolescent girls may be exposed to more interpersonal stress than boys. That makes them more likely to focus on negative feelings, putting them at greater risk for depression.
To help prevent this cycle of suffering, Simmons recommends parents teach their daughters how to deal with failure. This means teaching a girl how to practice self-compassion in a moment of crisis. Instead of criticizing herself harshly, she should practice self-kindness and remember that we all have to deal with disappointment. By realizing others share that experience, she'll be better prepared to treat herself compassionately and develop resilience.
Lost in a sea of selfies and reality television, girls might not know how to view themselves beyond objects of desire. One way to help them develop more complete and positive relationships with their bodies is to introduce them to sports. Physical activity gives them an opportunity to see their bodies as capable of strength and stamina, rather than being defined by appearance only. Research shows that sports can directly affect a girl's self-perception and self-confidence.
But even girls who feel physically capable and confident might still feel ashamed of their bodies and their sexuality. Simmons recommends talking with girls about their bodies from toddlerhood. Parents should know and use the right names for genitalia and do their best to "represent sex as a healthy, beautiful experience that should be had with joy and consent." That means talking about what consent means early on and emphasizing that a girl's body belongs to her alone.
Parents who are uncomfortable discussing sex and the body communicate those feelings to their daughter. "When girls feel uncomfortable with their bodies," says Simmons, "they can also disconnect from how they are really feeling and worry more about how someone else is feeling, or what they want, instead."
Girls are frequently told that friendships are paramount, and that may be why they can be so singularly focused on those relationships. Relationships help girls learn to assert themselves, compromise, and set boundaries.
Parents should view friendships as an opportunity to show girls what healthy relationships look like and how they can relate to others and themselves.
One example might be helping your daughter respond when her friend doesn't save a seat for her on the swing. Ask her what choices she had in the situation and help her role-play an assertive response. Encouraging her to communicate honestly and reasonably assert herself, says Simmons, provides her with skills that she'll need to push for a raise as an adult.
These important skills aren't easy to master, but the more chances a girl has to practice them under the guidance of a trusted adult, the more likely she'll feel confident and self-assured as a teenager.