Most moms I work with are completely unaware of studies out of the NYU Child Study Center that indicate the average American girl’s self-esteem peaks at the age of nine and then plummets. Yes, you read that correctly?nine. The reasons they report are many and varied, ranging from hormonal shifts to media influence, specifically the sexualization of girls and the setting of unrealistic physical standards.
Here’s the thing: the impact of low self-esteem in girls often leads to behaviors that can be life altering well beyond the teen years. The recent Real Girls, Real Pressure report, sponsored by Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty, indicates that 75 percent of girls with low self-esteem reported engaging in negative activities such as disordered eating, cutting, bullying, smoking, drinking and using drugs when feeling badly about themselves. Of course, as girls become sexually active, low self-esteem also becomes a catalyst for risky sexual behavior that often results in STDs, pregnancy, and deep emotional scars. Yes, as parents of daughters, we have our work cut out for us. Societal messages that work against every girl’s self-esteem are powerful and pervasive, creating a daily uphill climb.
That said, there are many steps we can take to build and protect their self-esteem and, in turn, their future.
1. Build a strong foundation. From her first breath, remind your daughter on a daily basis, through words and action, that she is strong, smart, and beautiful. Research confirms that girls with low self-esteem most commonly receive less praise and more criticism from either parent.
2. Limit her access to media early. The messages you work diligently to provide will quickly be challenged if you don’t filter media that blatantly contradicts them. A great deal of television and print media set unrealistic physical standards and portray over-sexualized, disempowered girls and women. Unchecked, it will shape your daughter’s sense of reality, self, and the standard she is expected to meet for acceptance, desirability, and success. Additionally, it’s essential that you help her to achieve media literacy so even when she’s engaged with it, she’ll have a more discerning mind. An easy place to start is the Dove Real Beauty Campaign Web site where, in addition to taking quizzes on self-esteem, she can take one on image manipulation so she realizes how unreal print media images frequently tend to be.
3. Create open lines of communication. Hormonal shifts that begin the transition into adolescence can begin as early as eight or nine years old. The further down the adolescent path she is, the more difficult it will become to establish lines of communication that will essentially become lifelines in your efforts to guide and protect her throughout her teen years. The best place to start, if you haven’t already, is by talking with her about her day on the way to school and at the dinner table every day.
4. Encourage her to find and use her voice. I always tell the girls I work with to think of their voice as a muscle?the more they use it, the stronger it will be. Speaking on behalf of your daughter most or all of the time limits her workout time.
5. Seize the power of organized sports. The earlier you can get and keep her involved the better. The opportunity to develop strong relationships with other girls while working toward a common goal and to develop confidence related to something she does rather than simply how she looks, talks, and acts is essential to building and maintaining self-esteem. In case that’s not enough, research shows a significant decrease in participation in risky sexual behavior among girls who play sports.
6. Remember that knowledge is power. This is particularly true as it applies to your daughter knowing and understanding her own body. It is especially important that she have a solid understanding of the powerful and changing cyclical role hormones play in the female body every month and the impact they have physically, emotionally, and psychologically on a daily basis. She cannot value or protect a body that is foreign to her.
7. Make no subject taboo. From sex to drugs, making any subject off limits to your daughter (whether stated or implied) will only ensure her journey down a path of shame, ignorance, and ultimately, danger. If she cannot get open, honest, and accurate information from her parents, she will get it from less-educated sources that may leave her misinformed and far less able to protect herself.
8. Dad, be aware of the power of your words and actions. The way a father expresses his value and respect for women directly impacts the way his daughter sees herself and the degree of respect and overall value she will expect to receive from boys and men.
9. Mom, never forget that you are her most important role model. More than half of girls recently surveyed as part of a national report on self-esteem said their mothers criticize their own appearance. It is imperative that we do whatever is necessary to get ourselves to a place of knowing and understanding our value as women, if we have any hope that our daughters will do the same.