Raising Emotionally Healthy Young Women
A Guide For Parents of Teenage Girls
Counsellor and Psychotherapist
Perth, Western Australia
Raising teenage girls can be a challenge. Today's teens are under a lot of pressure to live up to the stereotypes being consistently portrayed in the media. The media is filled with stories of the lives of celebrities of all kinds - pop stars, sports stars, and international models, all living the 'perfect life' with the perfect image and the perfect body. It is not surprising that our teenage girls are focussed on how they look, dress, and behave and feel evaluated by their peer group and their male teen counterparts who are similarly influenced by the media and the constant demands of our society.
Raising emotionally healthy young women with a strong sense of their own self-worth and value in order that they may live happy and fulfilled lives is at the forefront of the minds of most parents. This article aims to help parents identify issues that teenage girls face in today's society.
What is self-esteem?
Self-esteem is related closely with one's self-concept. It is through your self-concept that you describe who you are and it is through your self-esteem that you evaluate who you are, in other words your self-worth. How we view and experience ourselves can become our life position and affects our relationships with others.
Most people's feelings and thoughts about themselves fluctuate based on their daily experience but for those with good self-esteem, life's ups and downs do not permanently alter their sense of value, worthiness, and competence.
Healthy self-esteem is based on our ability to assess ourselves accurately (know ourselves) and still be able to accept and to value ourselves. This means being able to realistically acknowledge our strengths and limitations and at the same time accepting ourselves as worthy and worthwhile.
Poor self-esteem on the other hand is having a generally negative overall opinion of oneself, and an internal experience of not being worthy, competent or valuable.
Factors That Can Affect Teenage Self Esteem
From the age of about seven or eight, girls start to pay attention to how women are portrayed in the media. Magazines, television, music video clips, newspapers and movies all portray images of tall and thin women, often scantily clad, that begin to mould prepubescent (tween) minds. Girls often begin to compare their own bodies to those they are seeing in the media and to the bodies of their friends. Any dissatisfaction with their own bodies can lead to issues such as shame, anxiety and depression all affecting a tweens self-esteem dramatically. "I am not ok, you are ok".
Tween girls are being sold clothes, make up and images that are also being sold to women in their twenties and above. They are being taught to think of themselves sexually and to exude confidence and charm in order to be popular with boys and girls alike. This inappropriate early sexualisation is damaging and has a huge impact on the way young woman see themselves in society.
The images that are being portrayed to young women are having such an impact that statistics have shown that one in 20 Australian girls age 12 - 19 develops the eating disorder bulimia and one in 100 anorexia nervosa. In addition, body image is found to be the major issue that young women struggle with in today's society.
Puberty does not happen at the same time and rate for everyone. Many girls can start menstruating and developing physically from a very early age, sometimes before these topics have been covered in health classes at school or before you may have prepared your daughter for its onset. Early physical development in particular, can lead to confusion and embarrassment and teasing from other students. Girls can become ashamed of their changing bodies, become withdrawn and try to hide what is happening to them. On the flip side, girls who develop late experience many of their friends going through these changes and begin to wonder when their bodies will begin to change. The comparison with other students can again lead to shame and embarrassment, withdrawal and low self-esteem. It is important that the lines of communication around puberty and body changes remain open in every young woman's life with the people they feel most comfortable and safe with, such as Mum, friends' Mums, aunties and older sisters.
Kids at school
Bullying is prevalent in Australian schools today. When tween and teen young women are already sensitive about their body image and the changes they are undergoing, bullying may be an added burden that can be very damaging.
The main form of bullying in female teenage circles is a passive aggressive form of manipulation. This may include:
- spreading rumours
- excluding girls from the group
- passing on secrets to others in the group
- ignoring each other
- posting cruel things on social media sites such as Facebook
At this age young women need to feel included and accepted. When this does not happen they begin to ask themselves questions like "What is wrong with me?" or "Why doesn't anyone like me?" Girls can begin to feel as though they are not as smart, pretty or popular as others in their year group and can begin to blame themselves. It is very difficult for young women to see they are being victimised without self-blame and self-loathing.
Young women need reassurance that they are ok. If things are not going well in friendship circles, they may in some circumstances feel as though their life is not worth living. Young women need support and encouragement and they need to know who they can go to if things are not going well. Again communication, encouragement, love and support is what can help a young woman through a bullying situation. Old fashioned attitudes such as "let them work it out themselves" or "just ignore them and they will go away" are not helpful, can create shame in your child, and lead to isolation and withdrawal. To find out more about bullying, please see the bullying article.
Much of what a young woman knows about herself she learns at home. A teenager who is raised in a house with supportive parents who provide her ongoing love and encouragement, teach her to be assertive, encourage interest in academics, music, drama or sport, and remind her of her own uniqueness and individuality, will more than likely have high self-esteem. Young women with a strong sense of self-worth will find it easier to make friends, avoid bullies, and achieve well in their chosen fields.
Teenagers today have more exposure to technology than the generations that came before them. With social networking sites such as Facebook, instant messaging services and chat rooms, teens are spending more and more time socialising via their computers rather than engaging in face to face contact.
Socialising in the teen years is imperative to develop a strong sense of self in relation to others. It helps us to make meaning of who we are, where we fit and assists in developing effective communication skills which are essential when entering adulthood, romantic relationships and the workplace.
The introduction of such technology has seen an increase in young people withdrawing from society, becoming increasingly isolated, depressed and anxious. Essential communication and relational skills are being lost thus impacting teen emotional intelligence and confidence.
In our society, young women are exposed to sex and sexual images through a variety of media resulting in them being more likely to become sexually active from a younger age than those in previous generations. Many teenage girls feel pressured into sex before they are ready, believing that they must participate in sexual acts (such as oral, and in more recent times, anal sex) early in a relationship in order to attract or be accepted by boys. Young women with high self-esteem are more comfortable with who they are and what they want with regards to friends and relationships, thus being less likely to succumb to such pressure.
Things you can do to help your teen and to foster healthy self-esteem
- Be aware of your own attitudes towards body image, sex, friendships and relationships. Your daughter will pick up on what you say to your friends and family and take on many of your attitudes. As an example if you are constantly complaining of being fat your daughter will more than likely develop similar attitudes about her body. An alternative is to talk about keeping our bodies healthy through healthy eating and by being active.
- Encourage your daughter to express her opinions in the home. Be interested in her views and be open to discussion.
- Limit computer time. Too much time on the computer will have an impact on both physical and psychological health.
- Let your teenager make her own mistakes while providing support. Teenagers develop confidence by learning from their mistakes as long as they have a safe and supportive environment to discuss their difficulties.
- Remind your daughter she can be anything she sets her mind to.
- Encourage sports, drama, music, art and academia. Whatever your daughter shows an interest in.
- Encourage her to develop her strengths, to be curious and to try new and interesting pursuits.
- Discuss images portrayed in the media with your daughter to see how she feels about them. Reinforce that she is beautiful as she is, and that the images portrayed in the media are often unrealistic.
- For more information on how to raise emotionally healthy young women or for additional support around increasing your self-esteem please contact Eliza.
0417 910 911
Beebe, S., Beebe, S., Redmond, M., & Geernick, T. (2007). Interpersonal communication relating to others (4th ed.). Toronto: Pearson Education Canada.
Carr-Gregg, M (2006) The princess bitchface syndrome. Surviving adolescent girls. The penguin group: Australia.
Online Article: Teen Depression Linked to High Internet Use
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