Girls are facing particular difficulties in today’s world. We live in a society where women can be (de)valued for how they look and (de)valued for what they do. Our lovely, young, vulnerable girls are being bombarded by a range of conflicting expectations by the media, by their peers, and yes, I’m gonna say it — by us.
A problem facing parents of girls is that rearing a happy and emotionally healthy girl means fighting the onslaught of messages that tell her, every day, that to be a girl is to be less. Girls are open to criticism in a way that their male siblings never will be. They know that ‘like a girl’ means ‘not enough’ or bad. They hear that they must be thin (but not anorexic), beautiful (but modest), accommodating (but not a pushover), sexually savvy (but not slutty), clever (but not too smart), assertive (but not bossy).
This is going on, all day, 24/7. If you have a girl in your home – what is she doing right now? Is she on her phone/tablet/gaming console/ laptop? Is she reading a magazine? If she is doing any of these things right now, chances are she’s being subtly coached on how to compete for male attention, how to look better, what to wear, what to say, and how to judge not just herself, but other girls.
In other words, she’s being told that how she is, whatever that is, it is not good enough.
This is what we are fighting, and fight we must. Because believe me, our girls need us to notice and step up.
What parents can do to help their daughters
- Encourage your daughter(s) to have male friends and to assume that she is of equal value
- Encourage your daughter to embrace her feelings and to be OK with expressing them
- Encourage your daughter to love her body, the food that fuels it, the exercise that maintains it, and the changes as it ages
- Encourage your daughter to form supportive friendships
- Teach your daughter how to deal with bullies
- Teach her to be comfortable with her sexuality and gender identity
Watch for her being submissive to them – giving in early in arguments, shutting up when a boy speaks, not saying when she doesn’t like something that was said or done. Listen out for her saying she’s not good at things or asking for help unnecessarily. These are the little things that will inform how she’ll be with men when she’s older, and they are the little things that are easily missed – often because we are used to them as adults.
They feel normal.
Teach your daughter that her voice is as important as her male friends and siblings – and part of teaching her that will be doing it yourself!
Girls are socialised to be OK other peoples’ sadness, or vulnerability. We have a stereotypical notion that girls are better communicators than boys and in some sense this is true.
Girls have more ‘permission’ to be sad. And so they communicate sadness in a way that boys often feel they cannot. But there seems to be less permission to communicate anger, pride, to be frustrated, hurt or simply uncomfortable.
Honouring the entire and beautifully diverse and rich tapestry of her emotions will encourage your daughter to respect her feelings and manage them in a way that causes no harm to her, or to others. How? By honouring them yourself. This might feel scary, new, uncomfortable – I understand that. And if you find yourself squirming reading this, then maybe consider speaking to a counsellor or therapist about how to give yourself permission to express yourself. You deserve it too!
Again, be mindful of the constant drone of “you’re too fat/thin/small/ dark/pale/saggy/ wrinkled ” messages, and be the voice that negates them. Do it openly, explicitly. Your personal challenge is to be aware of how you are complicit with that critical voice yourself. Be aware of how you criticise your own body. Do you limit your nourishment? Do you frown at the mirror?
Everything we say about ourselves teaches our daughters how to see themselves.
Again, if this is bringing up uncomfortable feelings, please don’t judge yourself. We are all exposed to hate messages, you aren’t ‘less than’ for being affected by them. You are simply human.
Girls are taught to compete with each other in an unhealthy way that rewards bitchiness. Help her to notice when she speaks ill of another girl and challenge her to think about how that serves her.
We women are taught, albeit subtly, to judge and bring each other down. This is one the reasons womens’ self esteem scores crash after reading magazines – they tell us what’s wrong with us and try to get us to agree about what’s wrong with other women too. It’s the opposite of nurturing and supportive (and it’s why I call them ‘anti-womens’ magazines).
She will likely encounter people who will want to bully her. This post might help. And, as you’re probably guessing, part of this will be showing her that you are willing to manage bullies in your own life. That bully might be a neighbour, a friend or your partner. Please, feel OK about asking for help with this- especially if you are in an abusive situation. There is no need for shame. Let there be no shame.
Gender fluidity is more and more of a topic for younger kids these days and there is much confusion out there. I suggest you read up about this- there are a lot of words being used that weren’t around when we were teenagers. Your daughter may be wondering about her gender identity, and if she is, the greatest gift that you can give her is the space to talk about it. You can learn about it together, explore resources, find out the different terms and what they mean. You might even learn something new about your own gender identity!
She may be wondering about her sexuality too. As a parent you will be doing a wonderful thing by allowing this conversation to happen. When a girl (when anyone!) feels safe to talk about this stuff she will be better able to explore what it means for her, to not feel shame, and really importantly, to be able to identify what she wants and what she doesn’t want.
A lot of parents are squeamish talking about sex and sexually explicit materials, I do get that, but it is hugely important that these conversations happen with you. If it’s not you, it will be someone else. That person will most likely be online. And you will have zero control over what they tell her about her sexuality, what is normal, what she ‘should’ be doing and with whom.
The chances are that your daughter has already been exposed to explicit material online. She may have stumbled on it accidentally, been shown it by her friends, or been coerced by a peer to watch it. She may feel arousal, discomfort or worse, shame. But if she can come to you and talk about these feelings, knowing that she won’t be judged she will be safer. For sure.
For more on the ‘how’ – have a look at this post. And of course there are many more helpful posts on this and other sites too.
I know these things might not be easy – I know some of them will be very challenging. But think of the end result – a woman who is comfortable in her skin, who enjoys her sexuality, who can express how she feels, say what she needs, who can celebrate what she is good at and live in a judgement free space. A woman who will influence her friends to live similarly, and her children, should she choose to have any. Because she will know she has choices – about everything.