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Powerful Girls

How parents can help teens access & assert power.

You may think your teen daughter asserts an exasperating amount of power with you, as in Pit Bull—not Chihuahua. My youngest teen daughter asserted her power very effectively just yesterday, resulting in a Zappos order for obscenely high wedge sandals, apparently a must-have item for middle school graduation. My little powerhouse argued her case with the skill and intensity of a top-notch attorney, no assertion problems there.

Unfortunately, in interactions with others, teen girls aren’t always as confident speaking up, asking for what they want, and drawing boundaries. With the teens I see in therapy, I’m often shocked by the trouble smart girls fall into due to their failure to access the power so naturally asserted with parents.

Most seriously, I hear about teen girls who enter into sexual encounters they don’t really want. While girls may initially minimize the “hooking up” as no big deal, upon exploration they often reveal deep disappointment in timing, how they were treated, and circumstances of the encounter.

Drugs, alcohol, and other risky behaviors join sexual activity as examples of how teen girls get in over their heads when they can’t quite locate their power to speak up and choose out.

How can parents help teen girls learn to assert power in any situation? I’ve been thinking about this question and this is what I’ve come up with.

Not just listening but highlighting

We know that our kids derive a sense of self-value when we treat them as valuable by listening to them. There are different levels of listening. Teens, for instance, insist they are listening to us while also texting. We might insist we are listening to them while simultaneously sifting through the mail, answering the door, and scolding the dog for excessive barking.

The level of listening I’m talking about is the real deal kind. No judgment, no teaching moment, no distraction—just lush, full, open attention.

Highlighting is something you can do when you hear or witness your daughter assert power. You won’t indulge in a lengthy or heavy-handed teaching moment and you don’t need to issue praise. You simply highlight her use of personal power as an observation so that she can note it for herself and integrate it into her knowledge of herself and her abilities.

Your highlighting may sound something like this:

  • Hailey, the way you asserted yourself with your teacher was very powerful. You must feel good about that.
  • I loved your play Emme. I experienced your performance as very powerful.
  • Cali, the way you are organizing your activities and meeting your responsibilities shows a lot of personal power. Are you aware of that power?
  • Piper, I really see how you channel your power into your gymnastics practice. You seem very focused. How does that feel for you?
  • Marley, you handled that frustrating situation with such personal power. I hope you know that’s your power and you can use it whenever you need to.

The idea is to verbalize what you notice in order to help teen girls understand that A.) they have Power and that B.) they are using it! By asking a question, you may possibly expand the conversation, which serves to highlight the concept of personal power even further.

I like highlights or comments to teen girls that are information based like the examples above, as opposed to frothy compliments, which can have an unintended negative effect.

Sometimes, we can point out power and help girls refine their skill in directing it at the same time:

  • Daisy you are doing a fabulous job helping me understand why you need these shoes. You are a really powerful communicator and you are effectively influencing me. That said, timing is an important part of good communication and I just walked in the door. Please give me 15 minutes to relax and shift gears.

Power as a resource

Many teens and adults alike will say they feel powerful in some situations but anxious and filled with self-doubt in others. I like to plant the seed that when a person has power, they have power. If you can access your power to bring your D in algebra up to a B, you can also access it to stand up to your best friend who is treating another friend unfairly. If you can access your power to apply for jobs, you can access it to tell a guy that’s sending you sexual texts to back off!

Adults can deconstruct the limiting belief that power is random and unpredictably available. We can instead energize the idea of power as an internal resource, always available to access and assert. When you’ve got it, you’ve got it.

Of course, teen girls often withhold their private challenges, which limits parental admittance to coach and encourage. If and when they do share, we can help them practice assertion of power with us. “Honey, let’s brainstorm ways you can approach your coach about what happened today. Often the way that you present communication has a lot to do with how well it is received.”

Even if you have little access to specific situations because your teen is very private, you can imbue her environment with an understanding of power and the beauty of using it skillfully. You can even use yourself as an example:

“Daisy, I have to give a presentation to give next week. For some people, that’s easy but for me, it’s really intimidating. I’m going to use you as inspiration because you access you power to speak up and make an impact so incredibly well. Thanks for teaching me so much!”

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