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Jennifer L. Hartstein, Psy.D.
Jennifer L. Hartstein Psy.D.

Combating Princess Syndrome

It's not in a textbook, but Princess Syndrome is real.

You may not find it in a medical textbook, but many young girls suffer from Princess Syndrome (PS) daily. A girl who suffers from PS lives life as a fairy-tale: focusing only on the pretty things, putting herself at the center of the universe, and obsessing about her looks (even if she’s only headed to the playground). While this can be fun and whimsical when a girl is a toddler, it can also set the tone for how she develops into a young woman, influencing her self-esteem, her dependence on others, how she takes care of herself, and how empowered she feels in her life.

There are messages everywhere presented to girls that being a princess is the best, and only, way to be. In today’s society, with its focus on appearance, having only the finest things, and the need to be number one, it is understandable that girls are having a difficult time deciphering the messages they observe.

And why wouldn’t they? Clothing stores sell t-shirts that tell them they are “too pretty to do homework.” Other stores sell thongs to 7-to-10-year-olds with slogans on them, such as “wink wink” or “eye candy;” one has even started selling crotchless underwear for girls within this age range. Abercrombie and Fitch, a nationally known clothing company, sold bikinis with push up tops in them designed for children as young as 5. How do young girls learn that they have worth beyond their appearance, when pressure on them to “do this” or “look like that” begins so young? Current research shows that girls as young as 11 are having issues with their bodies.

Parents often have the misconception that their daughters can avoid being affected by the messages they are receiving. Unfortunately, it takes an incredible amount of self-confidence and self-awareness to avoid being seduced by these messages. Advertising is incredibly powerful and impacts all of us at all ages. Expecting your daughter, at age 3, 4, or 5 to understand that life is better if you have solid values, good friends, and a healthy lifestyle, in comparison to the princess lifestyle, is unrealistic. It is up to you as a parent to combat the pressures.

Of course, Princess Syndrome isn’t solely about appearance and impaired body image. It is also important to consider the other messages that your daughter gets from the fairy-tale life. She may learn that she cannot be self-sufficient, and that she has to rely on a savior to make it all better. This can include friendships that are vapid and superficial, boyfriends who get to dictate to her what she can and cannot do, and a lack of internal motivation because she “expects” it all to come to her. Being a princess has its place; being a princess who is empowered to create her kingdom herself? A much better option.

So, what can a parent do to help his/her daughter create her own happily ever after? Your first instinct may be to try to shield your daughter from all potentially negative influences. Unfortunately, this is virtually impossible. Rather than avoid it, teach her how to deal with the pressure, and to develop positive self-esteem, a realistic body-image, and self-sufficiency.

As a parent, you can teach your daughter how to replace “princess symptoms” with “heroine values.” By starting young, you can set the stage for your daughter as she grows up. But where to start?

As you become more aware of the messages in toys, clothing, and television shows, you can begin to share them with your daughter and teach her things that will help her create a more positive, empowered sense of herself:

1. Question the media. Teach your daughter to be an educated consumer and to think about the messages she receives. Start to help her formulate questions about the things she wants, why she likes certain celebrities, why appearance may be so important. Help her develop her own ideas about what it means to be strong, independent, and confident, and to seek out similar things within the media.

2. Teach her about dressing appropriately. Everywhere you turn, clothes are getting skimpier and skimpier. Skirts are getting shorter; tops are getting tighter. Similarly, clothes that used to be appropriate for teens are now being worn by fifth-graders. Start teaching your daughter about the messages she sends by the clothes she wears. You certainly are not going to get into a discussion with your five-year-old about what is sexy. You may, though, talk about what might be more comfortable or easy to wear when playing with friends, and how much more fun she will have if she is comfortable. This does not mean thwarting your daughter’s individuality and sense of style; it may mean promoting it. Let her be mismatched. She’s exploring who she is, and having fun while doing it.

3. Help her find her voice. Encourage your daughter to speak up and ask questions. If she sees something she doesn’t like, like a doll or a shirt with a mixed message, support her choice to talk with you about it. If she comes to you with a concern, make time to talk with her. Too often girls avoid speaking up for fear of damaging relationships. The more comfortable they feel talking with you about their feelings, and the earlier it starts, the more likely they will be able to do it as they develop into teens—which is when you really want them talking with you.

4. Remember: Conformity is not required. Sometimes your daughter is going to want what other kids have, just because they have it. Giving in to this pressure is easy to do. Help guide your daughter to understand that being an individual is good. Encourage her to embrace her differences and even celebrate them. This will only help her as she grows up and develops a strong sense of herself, her likes and dislikes, and how she determines what she will or will not do.

Throughout your daughter’s development, she will be pulled in lots of directions to act, think and behave in certain ways. As her parent, it is important to use your influence to direct her toward things that will promote her ability to find her best self, and fight the allure of the princess syndrome. Getting her into some “princess recovery” might be the best way to help her grow into the heroine you know she can be.

About the Author
Jennifer L. Hartstein, Psy.D.

Jennifer L. Hartstein, Psy.D., is a child, adolescent and family psychologist based in New York City. She specializes in working with children and teens.

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