Essay by Katie Hurley. The views expressed are the opinions of the author.
Not long ago, I asked a group of 20 school-age girls to write down the one thing they wished their parents would do more of when helping them navigate tricky social situations. None of them struggled to answer the question.
At the end of the session the girls asked to share their answers. They each had a story to tell. Two themes quickly emerged: “Just listen,” and “Stop telling us what to do.” They shared their frustrations, laughed out loud about their least favorite parent interventions (“meetings with the other girls and their moms” top this list) and came up with a list of rules they wish their parents would follow.
As a mother, I know the pull to protect my daughter from every little thing, and the urge to try to fix things for her. But I’m not her, and she’s growing up in a much different era than I did, so I have to step back and listen to her needs. That isn’t easy.
Results of a survey from the Dove Self-Esteem Fund shed critical light on the emotional needs of young girls:
- The top wish among all girls is for parents to communicate better with them.
- Ninety-one percent of girls ages 8–12 turn to their mothers as a resource when they feel bad about themselves.
- Fifty-four percent of girls in that same age group turn to their fathers.
- Seven in 10 girls believe they are not good enough or do not measure up in some way, including their looks, performance in school, and relationships with friends and family members.
Young girls face pressure from academic demands, social issues, athletics, planning their future, social media and family discord (to name a few). The goods news here is that, although girls are struggling with self-esteem, they want our help. They want to connect with their parents for support and understanding. How we respond when they seek our guidance is crucial. Here’s what girls told me they want, and what they said isn’t helpful, in terms of providing support.
Take your time.Rosalind Wiseman, founder of Cultures of Dignity and author of “Queen Bees and Wannabes,” suggests slowing down and enjoying the small moments with your daughter. “Just take a moment to see your child at the end of the day,” she says. “Have a moment of gratitude that she is in your life — no matter how tough things may be between you.”
Wiseman also cautions parents to give girls breathing room. “If you’re picking up your child at school, and she gets into your car upset, don’t ask her right away what’s wrong — that’s because whatever bothered her is probably nearby and she just wants to get away. Drive a couple of blocks and then ask her if she wants to talk about what is bothering her,” she says.
It’s natural for parents to want to get to the bottom of an issue the moment it arises, but most girls need time to process what happened, and the emotional space to work through it when they feel ready. Giving her this space empowers her to cope with her feelings and problems on her own.
Listen and empathize.The most common complaint I hear from girls is that their parents are so busy fixing the problem that they don’t actually listen and understand. As one third-grade girl told me, “Sometimes the problem isn’t that easy to explain, but my mom starts texting her friends before I even finish the story.”
Listen more than you speak is solid advice when communicating with girls. Ask follow-up questions. Repeat what you heard for clarification. Use empathetic responses to provide reassurance, such as, “This sounds really upsetting and complicated. I can understand why you feel so overwhelmed right now.”
Own your mistakes.Parents don’t always get it right. Sometimes we attempt to handle an issue in a way that backfires. And sometimes those missteps upset our girls. According to Emily Roberts, author of “Express Yourself: A Teen Girls Guide to Speaking Up and Being Who You Are,” the best thing parents can do is be accountable. “When parents admit they made a mistake, tweens and teens connect with them in a profound way,” Roberts says. Parents “admit they are human and it opens the veil for kids to see that we are all imperfect.”
It can feel uncomfortable to share our emotions and talk through our mistakes with our girls, but when we do, we show them that human error is normal and we all experience a range of emotions. This strengthens our bonds and encourages honest communication.
Interrogate her the minute she gets home.Girls know when they are stressed. They know what they need to do and they are painfully aware when they fall short of expectations. What they don’t need is a daily interview the moment they get home.
“Don’t add to their anxiety by interrogating them at the end of the day with ‘Did you do all your assignments?’ ‘Did you talk to X teacher?’ ‘How did you do on your test?’ ‘Who did you sit with at lunch?’” Wiseman says. “Your child needs to decompress at the end of the day for at least a few minutes. Asking all those questions exhausts them and puts them in a bad mood — which is why they pull out their phone and ignore you.”
Establish blurry boundaries.It might feel like the best way to help your daughter navigate modern girlhood is to establish a BFF relationship with her, but that can complicate things when you need to set limits and say “no.” A healthy parent-daughter relationship includes clear boundaries, unconditional love and support, and plenty of guidance.
Minimize her feelings.I can’t tell you how many girls are told that relationship strife is just part of being a girl, or to simply “stop worrying so much.” Girls seek help when they need reassurance and support. Though an argument between friends might not seem like a big deal on your end, it feelslike a really big deal to your daughter. When girls get the message that emotional expression is healthy, they learn to cope with their ups and downs. It’s up to us to model healthy expression of emotions and empathetic listening.
Katie Hurley is a child and adolescent psychotherapist and parenting educator, and the author of the new book “No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident and Compassionate Girls.” You can find her on Twitter and on her blog, Practical Parenting.