Most of my clientele include girls, ages nine to 18. Yet, every so often I receive a call from a desperate parent that sounds something like this: "My daughter is being bullied at school and her self-esteem is plummeting. She used to love going to school; now she hates it. Can you help her stand up for herself and regain her confidence? She is only five years old."
I am grateful to nurture and empower young girls (and their parents), and I am shocked by these kinds of calls — how some girls can be cruel while other girls are fast becoming easy targets.
What's it going to take to empower girls to feel strong? What will it take to remind girls that what they think matters more than the judgment of others, that their value needs to be based on their bravery and not their accolades, and that being assertive and asking for what they want and need is not mean, but necessary? We need to instill strength from the start.
These young years are a crucial time for us to nurture self-confidence and strengthen her neural pathways. Think about it: that's when she typically has few worries, she is bold in her actions, she is wildly creative, she's affectionate and she still adores you. We can use this time to cultivate relational connection: help her embrace imperfection, explore and play, learn about herself and the world, and to harness her own strength. This way, any media messages or peer pressure that challenge her sense of self will feel wrong to her. In her book, Rest Play Grow, Deborah MacNamara says, "Selfhood cannot be taught or forced; it must be nurtured, cultivated, preserved, and protected."
We can use this time to cultivate relational connection: help her embrace imperfection, explore and play.
Here are four strength-nurturing tools I want to share:
Have emotional talk time
Create a ritual or routine that is reserved for talking about feelings. To start, you can begin with role modeling and talking about your feelings, first. She will learn to name how she is feeling and express herself in a healthy way by letting you know what she needs.
Perhaps your little girl tells you she feels sad because she didn't get to go with her big sister to art class. She may shed a few tears and need a hug from you. Show her empathy and understanding with phrases such as, "Of course you feel sad. It's tough to feel you are missing out." Emotional coaching helps her accept her feelings and better understand herself.
When little girls trust and express their emotions, not only do they learn to release stress and self-regulate, but they also learn to process a variety of feelings without self-judgment.
Teach her to love and care for her beautiful body
Young girls love their bodies. Why? Put simply, they haven't yet learned to body shame. That's why these early years are the best opportunity to help her appreciate all her body can do. Using phrases such as, "Look at your strong legs" and "Your eyes are sparkling today — is this because you feel happy?" help her embrace body positive messages. Saying, "Wow, you can run so fast" or "How does it feel to fly on the trampoline?" shifts the focus from "You look so pretty" to "You are so healthy."
Further, girls are excellent emulators, so the best way to teach her to care for her body is to care for yours. Brush your hair with her. Spend time rubbing lotion on your skin. Eat nutritious foods with her, all the while explaining the reasons why.
Show her self-compassion
Without a doubt, as girls grow up, they become more self-critical, especially in the face of mistakes. Self-esteem becomes all too quickly based on achievement, not ongoing growth. Self-compassion, as researched by Kristen Neff, is an excellent alternative to self-esteem because it is unconditional self-acceptance.
The three basic precepts include:
- Mindfulness ("I am aware that I am having a bad day. I feel grumpy.")
- Self-kindness ("I am so proud of myself because I tried hard today.")
- and common humanity ("I made a mistake in gymnastics but I know everyone makes mistakes.")
With this kind of tenderness, we are teaching girls that while we know just how nurturing and caring they can be towards friends, they can just as easily nurture themselves.
Guide her to have a growth mindset
Carol Dweck, best known for her work with the growth mindset, asserts that with belief, we can embrace challenge and persist in the face of setbacks. Girls need to know this. We can teach little girls they can do anything and to embrace the "why not me?" question early. Why can't she try her hand at soccer, swimming, ballet, musical theatre or science experiments? She can do anything if she is willing to try and ignore negative self-talk. It's that simple.
When girls fall and get dirty, but get up again, they become risk takers.
The world puts limits on girls, telling them what they can't do because they are girls. As a result, girls learn to play it safe, look pretty and smile. Instead, we can teach her to use phrases such as "I will try," "I can improve," and "I am going to do this." When you hear limiting language such as "I can't," remind her of what I like to call the pause and rewind game where you point out she can have a chance to try again, using more positive and powerful language this time.
When a girl fails, she often decides to stop trying. What if, instead, we taught her to see failure as an opportunity (to learn), try again (but differently) and give herself credit (for her perseverance)? When girls fall and get dirty, but get up again, they become risk takers and they learn that failure makes them stronger.
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With an early start, creating the safe space for her to talk about her feelings, love herself, practice self-kindness and believe she can do what she sets her mind to, we are providing the strong foundation that will be paramount for her inner strength and happiness.
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.
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