Your teen is ready.
She has all the most stylish Back-to-School supplies (and if you’re like most parents, you learned some lessons that your cool is different than hers and you returned those unicorn folders). She has the “perfect outfit”, maybe she got her hair blown out and nails done for the big first day of school…she feels good.
Confident. Excited. You’re excited for her. Hooray for life!
Then BOOM, she walks through the front doors of school and all she notices is:
Caitlyn looks amazing, why didn’t I wear a dress?
I love Sarah’s hair, it’s long and straight…why am I stuck with these ugly curls? I hate them, they’re frizzy!
Hannah has a belly ring, she’s so cool…how come I’m not cool like her? She’s so lucky to have cool parents, argh, why can’t I?!
Taylor lost so much weight this summer… why am I always the fat friend?
She comes home from school, her spirit noticeable not as high as when she left the house this morning. You ask the question that all teens LOVE, “How was school?” She says, “(insert your favorite one word answer)”.
If this doesn’t sound like your daughter, that’s excellent, but know that similar thoughts run through her head on a daily basis.
Why? Because she is a human being, and comparing ourselves to other human beings is as common as any other emotion. BUT when she is doing it in such away that leaves her feeling “less than” (or is making her feel “more than” somebody else, coming soon in another post), it’s creating an internal blueprint that she’s not enough, whole and complete exactly as she is. There will always be a desire to look a different way, seek approval from others and raise the risk for substance abuse to fill this void.
So what do you do? Let’s start with what not to do; tell her not to compare herself to others. Remember, it’s already happening. You do it. I do it. She does it. What you CAN do is support and connect with her and create opportunities and an environment for her to boost her self-esteem, self-love, self-confidence, self-awareness and self-respect.
Below is excellent parenting advice from experts Catherine Steiner-Adair, EdD, a clinical psychologist, school consultant and creator of the Full of Ourselves, a social-emotional program for girls, Anea Bogue, MA, author of 9 Ways We Are Screwing Up Our Girls and How We Can Stop, and Mary Rooney, PhD, a clinical psychologist with the Child Mind Institute.
Model body acceptance. Moms have a huge impact on their daughters' body image. Don't ask, "do these jeans make me look fat?" or obsess out loud about food or put your appearance down. Avoid what Dr. Steiner-Adair calls the "morality of orality"—talking about food and yourself as "good" or "bad." As in: I was bad today: I had pizza. So I'm not going to have dessert.
Make your daughter media literate. "Watch TV with her and talk about what you see," says Dr. Steiner-Adair. "Help her develop a critical eye through which to decode and filter media messages."
Don't raise her as a "pleaser." Encourage her to stand up for what she needs and wants. "Create opportunities for her to use her voice," Bogue advises. “Ask 'What do you want?' Let her make a choice and then honor that choice."
Start team sports early. Research shows girls who play on teams have higher self-esteem. "There's a very common correlation, in my experience," says Bogue, "between girls who play team sports and girls who suffer less with low self-esteem because they are looking to other girls for their value, and within, as opposed to looking to boys for validation."
Moms, don't borrow your daughter's clothes. "You want to let her have her own style, her own look," says Dr. Steiner-Adair. "Especially, and this is a really hard thing, if you have a mom who by society's standards is prettier or thinner than her daughter."
Direct your praise away from appearance. "I think that we need to make a very conscious effort to balance our compliments about a girl's appearance with compliments about who she is and what she DOES in the world," says Bogue. "Challenge yourself to match every compliment you give about your daughter's appearance with at least two compliments about something non-appearance based, and do the same for other girls who cross your path—your daughter's friends, nieces, etc."
Help her build skills that are independent of appearance. "Get her involved in activities that build a sense of confidence, rather than focusing on looking good and acquiring things," Dr. Rooney suggests. "Sports, theater, music, art. Anything really that can help girls express themselves through words or creativity or activity rather than through their appearance or what they're carrying around."
Speak up about your daughter's school curriculum. Does it include a female perspective? "Imagine if you were putting together a family history," Bogue says, "and you only asked the men about their memories, about their perspective. Think about all of the information that would be lost."
Praise your daughter for her efforts rather than her performance. "Focus less on the outcome and more on efforts and the development of new skills," says Dr. Rooney. Mastery is what builds confidence, and learning to tolerate failure fosters resilience.
Be careful about what magazines you have in the house. "Research suggests," says Steiner-Adair, "that after 15 minutes of looking at a fashion magazine, mood shifts from curiosity and enthusiasm to comparing yourself and putting yourself down."
Don't trash talk other women. "And don't let the boys and men in your household do it either," adds Dr. Steiner-Adair. "Don't let kids tease each other around food or looks. Do not let that go down in your house. It's really harmful."
Dads: Don't treat your daughter like a damsel in distress. "When fathers treat girls as though they are these fragile, helpless, little beings," Bogue says, "the message is, 'Your role is to look good so a man will sweep in and save you.' Instead, give her the opportunity and the tools—to change her own tire, to use her voice and speak up for herself, to play sports, to be able to brush herself off and get back up. I think it's a good measure to say, 'If I would do it with my son, I should be prepared to do it with my daughter.'"
Make sure she knows you love her no matter what. She needs to know that you'll love her "no matter how her appearance might change or how she dresses or how she might perform at something," says Dr. Rooney. "Because even though kids are so reliant on their peers for feedback when they're in their teens, what her parents think of her matters just as much as it ever did."
Friendly Reminder: I won’t tell you not to compare yourself with other parents (by now you get my drift), but I will tell you that if you took the time to read this post you’re doing just fine, mom!
It’s not about being the perfect parent, it’s about being a connected one. If you read the above and found an area that you can be more mindful of, start there and remember, all things parenting of teens take practice, patience, lots of epic fails and a great sense of humor :)
~Julie Brower, Certified Teen Life Coach, Health Coach & Teen Yoga Teacher, has helped hundreds of teen girls gain knowledge, tools, confidence and courage to make decisions from a place of self-knowledge, self-respect and strength. Through one-on-one coaching, group workshops, events, parties and movement, Julie connects with girls on their level and gets results.