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Become Who You Are: a guide for parents of teenage girls

Posted at 1:20 PM, May 03, 2016
and last updated 2016-05-03 15:20:13-04

Therapist Korinne Bouwhuis shares ideas for parents to navigate the world of raising daughters. You can find more from her here.

The best gift to ourselves or our daughters will be to work through developing a solid sense of self. Unfortunately, in our current society we are losing important developmental stages, middle and late childhood, as puberty begins earlier and social media outlets impact development at younger and younger ages. Historically, this has been an important time where girls have learned a lot about who they are. A girl’s response to “Tell me about yourself…” should move from concrete and external descriptors to more abstract ideas including goals and self-reflection on where she has been as well as where she sees herself going in life.

Ask Open-Ended Questions

What do you like to do for fun?

What three words describe you?

What causes you to stress or worry?

How would you describe yourself in four sentences or less?

Sexuality is Good, Sexualization is Bad

Sexuality is who you are, sexualization is how you look.

Value Participation more than Appearance

By elementary school, many girls are embarrassed to wear tennis shoes to school, preferring fashion boots or flats instead. This changes girls’ developmental courses and tasks when they are no longer able to run, jump, and play at recess as they might if they were dressed to engage rather than to be fashionable.

Dress Comfortably

Dressing in more exposed ways has been shown to diminish a girl’s performance on academic measures even when she is entirely alone with no observers. Self-objectification is as much a problem as girls being objectified by boys or society at large.   

Try a Wide Variety of Activities

An important aspect of sexuality is navigating the balance of masculinity and femininity within yourself. We are all unique in this balance.

Protection from the “Cyberbubble"

This term comes from Leonard Sax, a pediatrician and psychologist, and it refers to life lived in a bubble to be viewed and judged by all, thanks to social media. In this context, there is little chance that self-exploration will be genuine. There is increased likelihood that life and the self will be experienced more as a series of performances for the viewing and validation of others. A girl may not realize slight changes due to “performance pressure” and gradually become more of the pretended version of herself than her true self. As we have become hyper-connected to our peers, it has come at a loss of connection with ourselves.

Live Life Self-Referenced rather than Other-Referenced

Define yourself relative to your own potential, not to someone else’s standard. Follow the path that’s right for you. Live the moment rather than overemphasizing how you will represent the moment on social media.

Value Private Life and Private Time

Encourage Journal Writing

Feed the Soul

The lack of sense of self has been referred to as “Anorexia of the Soul,” and the time spent on social media “a meal of cotton-candy.” With this core emptiness, girls are at a great risk to develop obsessions to fill the hole in their soul. Obsessions must be watched for whether they appear positive or not. A star student or athlete may be experiencing obsession to the same extent as a teen girl who is drinking, eating disordered, or self-harming. She may be participating in a more socially accepted obsession, however, that obsession still serves as a disguise for a more balanced and solid self-concept.

Teach Balance

Be sure to teach and model living each stage of life to its fullest. Focus on the right thing at the right time, rather than playing into our over-zealous idea that doing something earlier or doing more of it is always better.

Beware of Unhealthy Perfectionism

“When perfectionism is driving, shame is nearly always riding shotgun.” Unhealthy perfectionism is about avoiding failure and appearing flawless. It is no longer about simply wanting to improve and do your best.

Build a Multigenerational Community of Women

Girls today have more freedom and choices but less guidance than any generation in history. Find a way to make it cool to spend time with women that are not same-aged peers. With positive women showing interest a girl’s life, she is provided with greater wisdom and resilience in navigating her life’s course.

Spirituality and Service Activities

These activities help girls develop a sense of place in the world. They also encourage a sense of “something bigger than myself” that helps counteract obsessions, and helps provide another leg to stand on if the world of an obsession starts to fail, or if life simply doesn’t go as expected.

Source: Leonard Sax, Girls on the Edge: The Four Factors Driving the New Crisis for Girls (New York: Basic Books, 2010)