I don't know about you, but I have had enough of this idea that every girl should be Super Girl: effortlessly talented at everything she tries. Research tells us that girls are breaking through glass ceilings: they are succeeding academically, they are involved in every sport and activity they can cram into their schedules, and they are preparing for their future and the next stage of life, colloquially known as "adulting."
Yet, there is a troubling paradox amongst the girls I work alongside. On paper they are exceptional and do everything right — Good grades, check. Activities, check. Friends, check. Volunteering, check. Yet, when I ask them if they are happy, I am often met with hesitation and uncertainty. They whisper some sentiment such as, "Yes, I guess so," but their subtext tells me they are far from feeling satisfied with themselves.
Why? My guess is that they have already been negatively impacted by the larger, more powerful cultural messages of success: that they are not enough, and that they need to push for perfection with all the superhero strength they can muster.
Today's girls are taught societal standards through media messages emphasizing beauty, sex and perfectionism that they just can't measure up to. They've also learned to choose the vicious cycle of never feeling good enough and striving for perfection they can't attain.
They have a choice how to respond to a situation — with cruelty or kindness
With mental health concerns on the rise, including stress, anxiety and depression, coupled with the loneliness many girls are reporting no matter how many Instagram followers they have, I am worried about girls' ability to love their true selves, just as they are, no changes required. I do not have the solution to these concerns, but I do have ideas for what we can all try to help girls feel good enough.
Ask her to name where she is succeeding and failing
By taking time to pause and reflect, we can give a girl the floor to articulate where she feels she is being bold, brave and badass. After contemplation, she may be able to tell us she feels on top of her school work, she is proud of herself for trying and then landing a part in the school play, and that she is slowly letting go of friends who aren't reciprocating her generosity.
But, don't stop there. Also ask her about where she feels she is falling. It is as important to hear from her about her mistakes so that we can affirm that these, too, are a necessary part of her success. She may recall she didn't do as well as she had hoped on a recent biology test — so she needs to study more next time. Maybe she didn't handle her emotions so well when a peer was teasing her about her braces — next time, she will opt for laughing it off and taking comments more lightly. What she names can become what she embraces about herself. No push but rather acceptance — this is enough.
Teach her self-connection and self-compassion
I don't know if you have noticed, but girls are cruel to themselves. They can be the most caring friends to those in need, but the second they are the ones having a bad day they turn on themselves and turn up the volume on their negative self-talk. "How could you do that?" or "You are such an idiot." are the early signs of her promise to push herself for more. A growing girl's self-criticism devalues her self worth and can have long-term, detrimental effects.
Instead of being cruel, we can remind girls to reconnect to themselves. They have a choice how to respond to a situation — with cruelty or kindness. It's easy to disconnect or run away from ourselves and it can feel counterintuitive to lean in. Yet, when girls show themselves compassion, understanding and empathy, they learn to work through the discomfort of disappointment, failure or rejection. Girls can reassure themselves that it's going to be OK and trust that they have what they need inside of them..
Remind her that comparing is a dangerous game
From a very young age, girls learn to gauge where they fit in. Are they prettier than, smarter than or faster than their peers? They know who the smart girl is, who the popular girl is and who is the teacher's pet. Girls are constantly measuring themselves by comparing who and what they are to the images they see on social media and to their peers at school. The problem is that no matter which way they compare — "I am better than her, but not as good as her" — they are going to feel inadequate.
A better way for her to evaluate herself is to focus on her own growth and how she is progressing. If girls can gain new metrics for self-worth – not based on the number of likes and followers but also not based on the success of other girls her age, she puts herself in a healthier and happier position of self-competition. If she is on the quieter side, she may want to start using her voice by talking to the teacher in private. If she is feeling unhealthy, she may want to eat more nutritious foods – at least most of the time. These goals are hers, based on what she wants and needs, not what others around her are doing. Without comparisons, she is liberated to define good enough on her own terms.
Girls today are enough. In fact, they are more than enough. I see how hard they work. I see how they are becoming braver and stronger every day. It is our job to help them to understand they are enough, just as they are, and that the only changes required are the ones of her choosing.
Lindsay Sealey is the author of Growing Strong Girls: Practical Tools to Cultivate Connection in the Preteen Years now available on Amazon. She is also the founder and CEO of Bold New Girls and lives in Vancouver.