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Raising a Self-Assured Girl

Helping girls with friends, sports, and body image.

Strong self-esteem is what allows a girl to keep trying, despite the noise around her. A hearty sense of self does not mean she’s immune to the sting of a toxic comment, or that tears don’t occasionally fall. Rugged confidence does not equate to a belief that she is always right or absolutely has to win. Sturdy self-esteem simply equates to her ability to get up after she falls and forge ahead without blaming others or lashing out.

A parent can help a child believe in who she is by believing in her first. This requires the parent to trust how and what she feels. A human being's feelings are the essence of who he or she is. Reflecting and honoring a child’s different feeling states helps a child recognize and honor her own. When a child trusts how she feels, she usually trusts who she is.

In addition, recognizing and tolerating negative emotional states without immediately resurrecting heightened defense mechanisms, like deflection and projection, allows her to verbalize how she feels and elicit support in a healthy manner.

For example, say a child is losing several consecutive tennis games in a tennis match. Instead of becoming defensive, throwing a fit, and blaming her opponent or a teammate, she verbalizes her feelings. “Mom, I’m getting beat. I stink.” Her mom, then, has a chance to reflect and honor her feeling state: “You are really worried that you aren’t good. I get it. It’s hard to lose consecutive games, but, honey, you are a good player. Keep trying. It will come.”

Early on, if a parent empathically recognizes and verbalizes the child’s feeling states, the child will be able to do it for herself. A child who can state how she feels instead of acting it out is usually an emotionally healthy child.

Honoring a feeling state should never stop a parent from correcting negative behavior. For example, if a girl exhibits jealousy of a friend and says negative things about the friend, the key may be to correct the behavior, not the feeling.

For example, say a 12-year-old girl arrives home from soccer and says, “I hate Amy. She’s a jerk and I don’t want to be friends with her anymore.” The mom should avoid saying something like, “That is a horrible thing to say. She has been your best friend for three years. Don’t say that!” The mom may instead try honoring the feeling, but correcting the behavior. For example, “You are really upset. I get it, but you can’t call names. What happened?”

The young girl explains that the coach played her friend in the position she usually plays and benched her for most of the practice. In addition, at the end of practice, Amy disclosed that she wants to play that position. The mom may again empathize with the feelings but correct the behavior. “It hurts. It stings to watch your friend doing what you want to do. You have every right to be upset, but I don’t think you are upset with Amy. I think you may be upset with yourself for taking it easy at practice last week. Please don’t take it out on Amy. Go out and give her a run for it. I believe in you.”

Because the girl’s feelings are honored and she feels understood, she is less defensive and may be able to glean insight from the experience. Empathy validates the child’s feelings which fosters self-esteem, and the teaching moment instills insight and character. Alternatively, if the parent skips the empathy, the child may be too defensive to be open to insight.

Another example involves a young girl’s perception of her body. It is natural for a parent to want to contradict how his or her daughter feels when she says self-loathing statements like, “I’m fat.” “My smile is crooked.” “My stomach is fat.” Yet honoring her feeling is important. Saying, “It’s hard to not like something about yourself. I get it. I hated my two front teeth when I was your age.” After receiving empathy, the child feels understood, connected to her parent, and less alone. These are important feelings that create resiliency in a young girl. The parent may follow the empathy with, “You are beautiful on the inside and the outside. I love who you are.”

There is a drastic difference between narcissism and true confidence. Confidence stems from a strong sense of self, and narcissism originates in profound insecurity. Blaming others for mistakes and failures is not acceptable and may be rooted in deep insecurity. If a parent recognizes effort and tenacity instead of only validating achievement, the child realizes that she means more than her next win.

Realizing that she is valued for who she is instead of what she achieves or how she looks is imperative for a young girl’s self-esteem. Internalizing a parent’s value that character counts more than a victory allows a young girl to be less anxious about failure and more determined to engage in the effort. This creates resiliency. A child who can walk with humility and insight will run longer and harder than her counterparts. Life is a marathon. Encourage her to run.