09/28/2017 11:25 EDT | Updated 09/28/2017 11:29 EDT

Teach Your Preteen That Looking 'Sexy' Doesn't Mean 'Ready For Sex'

It's disconcerting that girls are feeling the pressure to look sexy rather than nurturing a uniquely positive sense of self.

Have you noticed that preteen girls are revealing more and more skin by wearing less and less clothing these days? Whether they are posting selfies on social media or getting dressed for school, girls' interest in looking "sexy" is a prevalent and growing concern for parents today. But, should we be surprised?

Today, more than ever, thanks to the onslaught of sexy images in mainstream media and unlimited accessibility, girls are learning to equate looking sexy with feeling wanted and gaining approval.

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Marketers are now targeting young girls with "sexy" clothing and products, such as baby clothes printed with "hottie," and dolls wearing padded bras and thongs. They overexpose the consumers of the future with sexy products to create the want, the need, and ultimately, the purchase. Smart for business, terrible for society and a girl's sense of self-worth. Their yearning for sexy may seem like a bid for connection, yet it is a dangerous path that often leads to deeper disconnection.

What's a parent to do when their daughter emerges from her bedroom dressed like her favourite pop star, so proud of her new sexy style? Do you hide your shock and chagrin or order her back to her room to grab a sweater? This is tricky territory to navigate, and a topic I felt compelled to write about in my book, Growing Strong Girls.

Smart for business, terrible for society and a girl's sense of self-worth.

We have to look at ways to support our daughters so they know the difference between looking and acting sexy, and readiness for sex. For more than 15 years I have worked alongside girls and their parents as an educator and consultant, and seen firsthand the emergence of this trend. Over time, I have several ideas for how we can address our concern and, at the same time, help girls develop into strong and confident young women with true self worth.

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1. Talk openly and honestly about her growth

Help her to become more comfortable with her body changes by providing a safe space for her to share her feelings. Remind her that although girls are maturing earlier than previous generations, looking older is not the same as being ready for sex and relational intimacy. Listen to her feelings with empathy, remembering just how sensitive a topic this must be for her. Be curious about how she's feeling about her body. Ask her to name three things she loves about her body and to post this list on her mirror as a reminder — to focus on what she appreciates.

Also help her shift from comparisons ("I am so much bigger than my friends") to her uniqueness ("I am proud of my body and how I am growing.") When people comment on her changing body, prepare her with responses such as, "You focus on your body; I'll focus on mine."

2. Help her to understand that the desire to feel sexy is a healthy aspect of the human experience

Young girls hear the word "sexy" a lot, but cannot cognitively comprehend the concept as it's too abstract for her not yet fully developed mind. If you ask a little girl what sexy means, she may say "pretty" or "when boys like you." Explain that what she is seeing and what her peers are talking about is part of growing up, but that it's not appropriate for her yet. Her job now is to focus on caring for her body and feeling good about herself. Talk about sexuality in a way that makes sense to her — by exploring her personality traits, her identity and what it means to be a girl —for her.

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3. Have conversations early about her unique style and what it reveals about her character

It's important that she is comfortable in her clothes while honouring her uniqueness and her body type. Decide together what is age-appropriate and values-appropriate for your family. Focus on feeling good and being able to move in her body. Tight clothes are simply uncomfortable! Explore different styles together and take time to understand her choices. Use this as an opportunity to listen and respond to the pressures she may be feeling to look a certain way.

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Go deeper by connecting her style to her values and personal qualities. Try looking at movies, TV shows, and magazines, and ask her what she likes about different characters' clothing choices and the values being reflected. You may learn a lot about her by taking the focus off her. Ask her if they look like her friends and represent diversity. Suggest alternative role models such as Simone Biles, Bethany Hamilton, Malala Yousafzai, who are focused on doing good over looking sexy. You may learn a lot about her by taking the focus off her.

4. Explain that it's normal to want to feel noticed, and provide her with alternative ways to earn attention

Wanting to be appreciated and admired is part of life with roots in our biology. In Louann Brizendine's book The Female Brain, she says, "During puberty, a girl's entire raison d'etre is to become sexually desirable. She begins judging herself against her peers and media images of other attractive females." Acknowledge this — it's how we are wired — and talk about positive ways to feel her value and worth, shifting from appearance obsessed to the deeper connection with herself. Follow her interests and help her develop her skills in sports, the arts or hobbies, explaining that the more competent she feels as she tries new activities, the better she'll feel about herself and the less she will rely on external validation.

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5.Prepare her for unwanted, unwarranted sexual attention

Let's face it; it's going to come her way at some point, whether she's wearing a mini skirt or a paper bag. Don't shy away from the conversation of what to do when someone whistles at her on the street, or yells "you're hot" from a moving car. She doesn't ask for these comments but she will need to be ready for them and think on her feet. Teach her that she is not powerless in these situations — she can walk away, cross the street or reply with her quick wit! Role playing different scenarios and responses will help her to feel ready and less blindsided by unwanted sexual attention.

Without doubt, it's disconcerting that girls are feeling the pressure to look sexy rather than nurturing a uniquely positive sense of self. Yet, when we provide the security and safety of a warm and caring relationship and have these necessary conversations, she's more likely to come to us when she has questions or needs guidance.

Lindsay Sealey is an educational and personal development specialist and the founder of Bold New Girls: a coaching company dedicated to girls, and their families and mentors. She is the author of Growing Strong Girls: Practical Tools to Cultivate Connection in the Preteen Years.

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