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This is a question I recently heard from a client who is in her early 20’s. She’s bright and capable, and yet is at a loss for what to do to start to build her self-esteem – and she’s reflecting a common confusion about what to do to get there.
We’re taught to feel confident, but not be conceited, so we’re caught in a big conflict right from the start of how to navigate confidence.
We’re supposed to have high self-esteem, but not necessarily taught the tools and strategies to help us get there. So, often it’s when we’re women that we start seeking out ways to figure this out and connect with our self-worth.
Both genders have challenges when it comes to being able to be their full selves in the world and they manifest in different ways. With boys, the pressure is around hiding emotions. With girls, it’s a sacrifice of self for relationships.
In her book, Meeting at the Crossroads, Carol Gilligan describes how they traced back in girls’ development to see when and how it happens that women experience a crisis of ‘giving up of voice, an abandonment of self, for the sake of becoming a good woman and having relationships’.
She also reflect the reality of our culture when she states, ‘for over a century the edge of adolescence has been identified as a time of heightened psychological risk. Girls have been observed to lose their vitality, their resilience, their immunity to depression, their sense of themselves and their character.
Gilligan’s book was written in 1992. Over twenty-five years later, the current statistics on girls’ confidence shows that there is still a gap in confidence between boys and girls and that confidence drops during the tween years.
Girls still experience pressure to be perfect and even state that don’t believe they’re allowed to fail.
What if we got to learn all the tools to be confident BEFORE the drop in self-esteem happens? What if teaching confidence was valued in the way academics are?
That way, there wouldn’t be the loss of confidence that needs to be regained. When challenges come along, girls would already be equipped with the tools to navigate them, so the result wouldn’t be a loss of self-love.
Confidence is multi-dimensional. It takes more than simply practicing believing in one’s abilities.
Here are seven tools all girls need to build their confidence in a foundational way:
Strong home and family life is something I always start with when I’m working with a client or student. Something that grounds you to your roots is especially important for tween girls because they’re starting to step out and explore their independence.
People who specialize in teaching young children to manage emotions often advocate for creating a calm corner in the home. What they’re doing at a root level is to help establish the home environment as a safe space to retreat to center yourself.
Older girls need this kind of support too. You can empower your tween daughter at a deeper level to really start to building on that toolkit of things that comfort her and help her feel safe.
Something that shakes the foundation of strong home and family is fear. Fear can be something vulnerable to talk about. So, if you bring up the idea of what comforts you in the same conversation as, What are you afraid of?…
1- You begin to normalize the emotion. Bringing it into conversation shows that it can be okay to talk about fear in the same way it can be to talk about comfort.
2 – The solutions are being generated from inside your daughter. It can be hugely empowering when one realizes, ‘I have these fears AND I also have these things that I can do to comfort myself and calm those fears.’
Things like connecting with your culture and establishing family traditions is also a good way to connect with family life on a deep level. You can increase engagement by starting a new tradition.
One of the activities we do in the girl’s empowerment program is to create your own new tradition. It could be something that’s as simple as making a meal on a certain day, or anything really that’s coming from your daughter’s inspiration and her taking the lead is what helps it sink in and creates those roots- it also shows her that she’s a valuable member of the family whose ideas are considered.
The second tool is authentic friendships. This is very important and what I promote as a way to combat toxic friendships, negative friendships, bullying, relational aggression – whatever term resonates with you.
A way to teach this can start to happen through casual conversation. You can start to simply ask, What are the qualities of a good friend? What are you looking for in a friend? In what ways are you a good friend? And then you can also weave in there, what ways can you be a better friend? When girls get clear on what kinds of friends they really want, it’s easier to avoid participating in friendships that don’t feel good.
Again, it can often be more successful when you bring in a chance to talk about conflict resolution and how someone can improve on their challenges without it having that vulnerable, direct addressing of something you did wrong, or an issue you have. It’s a positive approach that doesn’t ignore the challenges, but instead brings them into the same space as everything else.
Celebrating the friendships you already have is another way to teach the tool of authentic friendships. Part of authentic friendships is also acknowledging that sometimes your friendships are necessarily your peers. You can expand the definition of friendship to being someone who is part of your support system, someone who is there for you, looking out for you. A simple way to do this is to write gratitude notes to friends.
For girls to be able to find their own happiness, they need to know they can be themselves AND have relationships. Without true friendship, this is impossible.
The third tool is inner strength and resilience. We need core power and strength, the will to go on, because there are things that come up, obstacles to be overcome and challenges we experience. There are also things that you want to accomplish that need an inner fire to motivate you towards the goal.
So, teaching girls to connect with their inner power is crucial. Just as important is the resilience, because how do you manage to keep going when it all doesn’t work out the way you planned? How do you get back up again?
— Musical Interlude….Trolls soundtrack anyone? If something goes a little wrong, well, you can go ahead and bring it on, ’cause if you knock knock me over, I will get back up again!) —
One of the tools I teach for inner strength and resilience in the empowerment program is to make a power playlist. It’s a fun activity to do, especially as a way to engage more resistant girls. Pick some songs that energize you and power you up — FYI- you will catch yourself singing them — I am currently asked (kindly, at least), to stop singing my power ballads in the morning.
The next tool is self-love. Self-love is huge. This is one thing that’s pretty clear in the research — that girls start to lose self-love as they grow up. I feel confident to state that everyone reading this understands what it’s like to have a struggle or a doubt about your self-love. Self-love is one of the biggest foundations you can offer your daughter, especially before you see struggles with self worth.
We need to balance the strength practices with the more tender energy of self-love.
One reason I love the chakra system so much and why I use it as a framework to teach personal growth is because of the close connection between power and love.
We need to balance out the fire of will and reaching for goals with forgiveness for mistakes and acceptance of not being perfect. Sometimes, we all just need a big hug!
An activity that is quick and helpful is to create a Love Jar. The concept is that you write positive things about the girl on pieces of paper — you can, people who love her can and she can write them. Whenever she needs, she can take one out and read something nice about herself, even if she doesn’t feel like it or believe it fully at the time.
The next tool couldn’t be more timely — self-expression and voice. The ability to speak your truth and share your opinions when it might not be something that other people agree with, or you think it’s not going to help you fit in.
It starts at such a young age, where I even see my three-year-old daughter register what is going to hurt someone’s feelings and I can see her processing inside herself whether or not it’s okay to share it.
An important aspect of cultivating self-expression includes exploration. Some tween girls don’t know what they like or what they’re passionate about. Some parents will share that they are lost at the idea of something like helping their daughter plan a passion project, because they have no idea what she cares about.
This is normal! Part of building one’s voice is giving the space for self-discovery to explore, What do you care about?
It can seem counter-intuitive, but my biggest tip to support self-discovery of voice is to LISTEN. Give your daughter space to explore her ideas and listen to what she shares without judgment. From there, she can build the courage to share with the world!
The sixth tool is mindfulness. My favorite definition of mindfulness is Jon Kabat-Zinn’s: “Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.”
Being able to calm your mind and establishing your own toolkit for what helps calm the waves of your mind is a crucial tool. This is the most simple tool of the group to practice on a daily and momentary basis. All you need is a breath.
Anytime you notice a pretty flower, a shape of a cloud, a hug from someone you love, these are ways to practice being present in the moment and not in your mind. It’s not easy to master, but it’s easy to practice. How can you bring a simple practice of mindfulness into your daughter’s daily life?
The last tool you need to balance all of this out is imagination, especially at the age of transitioning from a child to a teen. It can be a stark difference to witness a group of 8-9 year old girls and a group of teenage girls. The younger girls will often act spirited and it doesn’t seem like they care what others think. Flash to the typically more reserved inward energy of teens, where they’re very aware that others are watching and they’re being more serious, more ‘adult’.
Having the ability to connect to your imagination, to give space for things that don’t seem possible or practical to achieve, it increases hope and the potential for happiness. Even if it’s something that never would or could happen, when you give space to dream, it expands the possibilities of what could happen. And, it balances out a lot of the other things girls are going through.
Tween girls are required to be more responsible, to figure out how to organize themselves, to reach their goals. Girls are also trying to figure out what the already expected ways of being successful are and how they could fit into that as their true selves. With all those things, there are limits and structure. With imagination, they have access to the infinite.
You can use the tips in this article to get started sharing these tools with your daughter.
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