Girls, Confidence Problems, and Peer Pressure

Twelve ways to bolster your daughter's confidence through early adolescence.

Posted Jan 14, 2020

Tammy McGary/Flickr
Source: Tammy McGary/Flickr

Early adolescence is a tough time for most kids. Between the ages of 11 and 14, all kids are experiencing so many confusing and conflicting changes all at once, both internally in their own brains and bodies, and also externally through their interactions with others.

One of the conflicts they’re experiencing is between being just like others, so they can fit in and be accepted, and being uniquely and distinctly themselves.

All kids experience these conflicts, but they’re especially problematic for girls. Try to respect your daughter’s worries as she works to be just like the girls she admires in the media or elsewhere, and as she tries to forge a unique identity. Help her see that it’s only by being strongly and uniquely herself that she will be respected by others.

Help her discover and affirm her personal strengths and interests. Help her see what is wonderful and special about herself. She has a super-sensitive nose for what’s phony now, so don’t patronize her, but do engage in a dialogue to help her define her own strengths and interests.

Even now, decades after a powerful women’s liberation movement that removed many of the barriers to women’s ambitions, our culture works hard to rob girls and women of our sense of agency. Media portrayals of females still prize us as objects and often ignore our autonomous strengths as the subjects of our own lives. As early as 8 years old, you can talk to your daughter about the terrible impact of these media messages, the ways they distort girls’ and women’s self-confidence. Help your daughter value herself as a person in her own right, for what she thinks, what she’s interested in, what she’s doing, and not for what she looks like or how well she conforms to the stereotypes of femininity.

A girl who feels good about herself and trusts her own opinions is a lot less susceptible to bullying and to pressures from her peers. By helping your daughter feel confident in her own uniqueness, you’re giving her the tools she needs to stand up against any harmful pressures she might otherwise feel from her peers.

If you aren’t as confident as you’d like your daughter to be, it’s time to start working on yourself. You can use any of the techniques I’m talking about here, including seeing a counselor if that sounds like a good idea. But in the meantime, while you’re working on yourself, you also need to help your daughter find her own voice and trust her own judgment. Talk to her about your issues with confidence. You might be surprised to learn that she already knows all about them, but it will help her in her own journey to have that kind of respect and honesty from you.

If you know a girl whose confidence needs bolstering,

1. Love her just the way she is. There is nothing so healing, supportive, and strengthening as unconditional positive regard.

2. Reassure her that she’s going through a tough stage. It’s totally normal to have no self-confidence from 11 to 14. This is especially true for girls. She’s sensitive and vulnerable now, like a snake who’s lost her skin and hasn’t grown the new one yet. Help her realize that it’s a sign of strength to recognize when you’re vulnerable and be OK with that.

3. Help her recognize both her strengths and weaknesses. Help her see how each of us (including you) has both positive and negative attributes. Help her understand that nobody is perfect, but that everyone is actually perfect in their unique combination of strengths and weaknesses.

4. Be available. Your daughter needs your patience, love, and support now as much as she did when she was a toddler.

5. Be positive. Don’t point out her flaws or any of the ways she could be better, prettier, smarter, more popular, happier, or anything else. She’s likely to be super-sensitive even to your unspoken judgments and to be judging herself much more harshly than anyone else is, so work hard to see her as perfect just the way she is.

6. Listen, talk, and argue. Kids do best when they live in a family where there is a lot of conversation, with a healthy dash of respectful and sometimes heated discussion. Your daughter is learning what you value and finding confidence in her own values, both by observing how you live your life at home and in the world and by observing your reactions to her challenges to those values.

7. Avoid hollow or global praise. Telling your daughter she’s brilliant, beautiful, or amazing will actually undermine her self-confidence because she won’t believe it, and it tells her you think she needs it. Do praise her, but make sure it’s genuine and specific for things she has some control over, like how hard she’s working or how well she did on a test (not how smart she is), what she’s done with her hair today (not how pretty she is), or her courage in entering a new situation (not how strong she is).

8. Help her look outward. Support her in finding and pursuing an activity she loves to do. By getting involved with others in a choir, a crafts group, a game design class, a volunteer activity, or something else, she’s more likely to find people she can interact easily with on topics that matter to her. It’s only when we’re fully invested in learning and growing, doing something outside ourselves, that we forget about ourselves enough to interact confidently with others

9. Model and support a growth mindset. Show your daughter how to welcome setbacks as learning opportunities. Encourage her to take pride in overcoming hurdles.

10. Practice and teach mindfulness. Mindful breathing and other self-regulation techniques will help your daughter get through the difficult moments and transcend her problems with confidence, as well as reducing her susceptibility to peer pressure.  

11. Give her opportunities for creative self-expression. Whether it’s writing, painting, drama, role-playing, music, puppetry, or dance, help her find ways to express herself openly and without judgment. If she’s willing to talk with you about her work, help her find the possibilities or solutions to any problems she has uncovered.

12. Seek help. If your daughter isn’t showing signs of a growing capacity to love, create, and see herself as the agent of her own life—that is, if she isn’t thriving, and you are worried about her mental health—it’s time to seek professional help.