Your daughter’s self image – nose dive at 10?

As a parent of young girls I am wondering how do you teach them to love who they are and everything that they do, if you as their role model struggles with it daily?

This is a BIG and wonderful question.

Teaching girls to love being themselves is an important daily challenge for parents and according to the New York University Child Study Center the issues get more challenging well before adolescence. They note that self-esteem peaks for girls at 9 years old and then takes a nose dive after that. Self-esteem is understood as how you feel about yourself. During the pre-teen years, the NYU report notes, girls will tend to shift their focus to their body becoming an “all consuming passion and barometer of worth.” 59% of 5th – 12th grade girls are dissatisfied with their body shape and 20 – 40% begin dieting at age 10. Some observers have noted that, sadly, dieting is one of the very few “rites of passage” that help girls transition into womanhood.

What can parents do? Here’s what NYU has to say (my comments are in italics):

  • Monitor your own comments about your self and your daughter – be sure to avoid criticizing your own body or focusing on it too much in terms of looks rather than health
  • Get dads involved. Girls with active, hardworking dads attend college more often and are more ambitious, more successful in school, more likely to attain careers of their own, less dependent, more self protective, and less likely to date an abusive man.
  • Watch your own stereotypes; let daughters help fix the kitchen sink and let sons help make dinner.
  • Encourage your daughter to speak her mind – be interested in her point of view, inquire about how she sees the world and her own challenges, support her to become a problem solved – avoid giving a lot of advice
  • Let girls fail – which requires letting them try. Helping them all the time or protecting them, especially if done by dad, can translate into a girl feeling incapable or incompetent. Success is only achieved if we can tolerate plenty of failure. When your daughters (or sons) don’t achieve the goals they set (notice who is setting the goals) be curious about what they learned from the experience and how they might do it differently.
  • Don’t limit girls’ choices, let them try math, buy them a chemistry kit. Interest, not just expertise, should be motivation enough.
  • Get girls involved with sports/physical activity, it can reduce their risk of chronic diseases. Female athletes do better academically and have lower school drop-out rates than non-athletes. Regular physical activity can enhance girls’ mental health, reduce symptoms of stress and depression, make them feel strong and competent. Be sure to start with girls’ natural interests – avoid pressure to perform in any area.
  • Watch television, movies, and other media with your daughters and sons. Discuss how images of girls are portrayed. And by discuss, I would say inquire about your daughters’ points of view before expressing your own – which is ideally done tentatively to keep the space open for dialogue. 
  • Counteract advertisers who take advantage of the typical anxieties and self-doubts of pre-teen and teenage girls by making them feel they need their product to feel “cool.” To sensitize them to this trend and to highlight the effect that ads can have on people, discuss the following questions (adapted from the Media Awareness Network) with children:
    1. Do you ever feel bad about yourself for not owning something?
    2. Have you ever felt that people might like you more if you owned a certain item?
    3. Has an ad make you feel that you would like yourself more, or that others would like you more if you owned the product the ad is selling?
    4. Do you worry about your looks? Have you ever felt that people would like you more if your face, body, skin or hair looked different?
    5. Has an ad ever made you feel that you would like yourself more, or others would like you more, if you changed your appearance with the product the ad was selling?   Regarding this list of 5 questions – you may want to start the conversation with more open ended versions of these questions like: Do you think any of your friends ever feel…?” or “Do you think there are kids who feel…?”  Sometimes not questioning a child directly, but having a more general conversation can be a safer space to explore difficult issues. 
NYU also reviews carefully the connection between the sexualization of girls and mental health disorders. By the time girls are 15 they are twice as likely as boys to be depressed. Many have concluded there is a connection between how girls are presented in the media and how they can never measure up to images that surround them daily. Consider having a conversation with your daughter about how “air brushing” works and the difference between what people look like in real life and how they are portrayed in the media.
It is important that as mothers, we look at our own issues as we mature. You may want to explore with friends, partners, therapists or other trusted people in your life how you see yourself, what you think and feel about yourself, and what positive action steps you can take to improve your own self-iage. Parenting girls is both an inside and an outside job and gives mothers the opportunity to think about the big picture.
The NYC Child Study Center focuses on self-esteem which is our feelings about ourselves, but I encourage parents to also consider children’s thoughts about themselves or their “self-concept.” Together, self-esteem (feelings) and self-concept (ideas) compose our “self-worth.” You will often hear me say that parents are either putting money in or taking money out of the “self-worth piggy bank.” This focus on girls and their development is a precious one – thanks so much for the question.
If you are parenting a daughter, please send in your ideas about how to sustain their positive self-worth beyond 9 years old and how to help them focus on interests beyond their body shape.
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