Girls and self-esteem

Even very young girls worry about appearance — we must teach them to value more about themselves

Special to The TribuneOctober 20, 2011 

We all want our daughters, nieces and granddaughters to develop a healthy self-esteem. We’re concerned about their having the emotional skills needed to negotiate life’s complex demands.

And for good reason.

According to the “Supergirl Dilemma” study commissioned by Girls Incorporated, girls reflect our culture’s conflicting and unrealistic expectations for its female members. Three-quarters of girls in grades six through 12 and half of girls in grades three through five worry about their appearance. “Even today,” wrote one ninth-grader, “society values beauty in girls over intelligence and talent.”

Girls are under an undue amount of pressure. The study revealed that 74 percent of girls in high school and 56 percent of girls in middle school acknowledge often feeling stressed.

They also feel the need to be perfect. Three-quarters of all girls in the study agreed that they were pressured to please everyone around them. Eighty-four percent of them dislike that this is true.

Girls don’t start out with low self-esteem. According to Anita Gurian, Ph.D., at the NYU Child Study Center, self-esteem is at its peak around nine years of age. Then it starts to slip. During the pre-teen years, girls’ appearance becomes all-consuming. Self-esteem is linked to physical characteristics.

At the same time, their bodies hit a patch of turbulence. Legs, arms and breasts start growing at erratic rates. Girls may mature considerably earlier or later than their peers, making them feel as if they’re out of sync.

Emotions come unglued, too. As hormones surge, moods change faster than the Dow during a volatile stock market. That sweet and bubbly 10-year-old turns into a venom-spewing 12-year-old who is as puzzling to herself as she is to her folks.

It’s no mystery that girls between the ages of 12 and 21 suffer from the lowest levels of self-esteem.

Low self-esteem exacts a weighty toll. Girls who don’t feel good about themselves suffer from increased rates of depression and eating disorders. They engage in sexual activities at an earlier age and are more likely to have unprotected sex. They make poor choices of friends and are apt to stay with abusive boyfriends.

But a bad self-image isn’t a foregone conclusion. There are plenty of ways to stem the negative tide. With drive, desire and a supportive environment, girls can disentangle themselves from their psychological webs and learn to fly toward their unique destinies.

Tips for building self-esteem in girls

Parents and caring adults play a key role in fostering girls’ self-esteem. Here’s how you can help:

• Identify her strengths. Every girl has talents. Some are obvious, such as an ability to sing an aria or kick a soccer ball. Others are more subtle, like the ability to make people feel at ease. Honoring girls’ gifts makes them feel valued and adored.

• Encourage her to reach and set goals.

Teach girls at a young age how to work toward something they want. Identify a desired object or outcome then lay out a plan to make it happen. Such tactics instill patience, organizational skills, and an ability to delay immediate gratification. They also send a powerful message: “Anything is within your grasp. You can make it happen.”

• Find positive role models in the media. The media is full of women whose lives are in a state of disarray. But there are equally stellar ones to emulate. Astronaut Sally Ride, Arizona Sen. Gabrielle Giffords, tennis player Serena Williams and first lady Michelle Obama show girls how to lead honorably while achieving greatness.

• Demonstrate and teach appropriate eating habits. Girls often develop a tenuous relationship with food at an early age. Research shows that 20 percent to 40 percent of them are dieting by the age of 10. Adults can help by eating adequate, healthy meals at regular times throughout the day. Sit down together at family meals. Conduct relaxing conversations while you eat so that she associates food with pleasant emotions. Avoid obsession about your weight and never make disparaging comments about hers.

• Minimize emphasis on her appearance. Your girl is so much more than her physical body. Compliment her on her achievements, thoughts and decisions instead of her body or her face.

• Love her unconditionally. Let her know you adore her and you’re so proud that she exists. Make it clear you’ll support her as she navigates the often murky waters into adulthood. Your undying love reinforces her internal strength and lays the groundwork for a rock solid self-esteem.

Linda Lewis Griffith is a local marriage and family therapist. For information or to contact her visit

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