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Sugar, Spice and Everything Nice? Raising Emotionally Healthy Girls.

By Katherine Nicklin, Ph.D.

Emotional challenges for growing young girls come in many guises--ranging from being left out of a birthday party to being excluded from the popular group at school to feeling different in any way.   We've all had some of these feelings and most of us would give a lot to protect our daughters from suffering the stings that might still feel raw to us, even though many years have intervened.  It is not possible, however, to protect our children from all the realities of life--nor is it desirable. 

Having been girls themselves, mothers often have a difficult time helping their daughters navigate the rocky terrain of childhood and adolescence. The adult perspective enables both mothers and fathers to see the potential pitfalls and hurts long before they eventuate. Some of this perspective might be good in that we can add a mature viewpoint to the discussion when and if some of the potentials become actual situations.  The long-range view, however, also has a negative side when the parent's anxiety becomes communicated, verbally or non-verbally, to the child who usually interprets the anxiety as, "You don't believe that I can handle the situation".  The child feels a lack of emotional support and a sense of diminished self-confidence--the two gifts the parents wanted to provide.

Building strong girls Instead of focusing on preventing or protecting daughters from what life might hand them, let us instead concentrate on building strong girls who can deal with obstacles and challenges effectively.  Self-confidence is built on competence, a quality that cannot be given to another but rather is earned in many small incremental steps of success and failure.  If we prevent the failures, we limit opportunities to learn.  A child will never learn to walk if we never let her fall because her inner gyroscope will not be fine-tuned to the realities of balance.  What we learn to do as parents is to let a child fall over a toy in her path but not let her fall over a curb into the street.  In the same way, we don't angst unduly over every disappointment our child might experience but instead help her express her feelings and develop a constructive plan to deal with the situation.

Control and responsibility

Dr. Martin Seligman (author of The Optimistic Child) has researched how the qualities of control and responsibility intersect.  If the parent maintains dictatorial control but holds the child responsible for performing according to the parent's rules, the child feels hopeless, that no matter what she does, it will be her fault if things don't work out.  If the parent maintains control but also accepts responsibility for the child's actions by always rescuing the child from consequences, a learned helplessness results with a "whatever" attitude.  A child who wants control without accepting any responsibility is helpless and immature, much like a two-year-old who demands their way.   Helplessness and hopelessness are the two prime ingredients in depression, a condition implicated not only in mood disorders but also in eating disorders.  For a child to feel competent and successful, she requires an increasing sense of "self in control" in addition to self as responsible for her actions.  Self in control does not mean that a 10 year old should make the rules for herself but rather that she should be involved in the discussions and helped to learn the parameters of good problem-solving.  When she leaves for college, an 18 year old should have years of personal problem-solving experience packed to take along.

 One pitfall we want to avoid and help our children avoid is that of becoming destructive in response to feelings of vulnerability.  Unfortunately, we have all had the human tendencies to be tempted by the dictum: "The best defense is a good offence."  Girls especially can guard their own feelings of vulnerability by tearing down others, being cliquey, exposing confidences, abandoning friends, and all the variations on the theme of trying to be popular or accepted.

We do our girls no favors by promoting or allowing these tendencies to go unchecked.  From a practical standpoint, diminishing others results in diminishment of our own sense of self-respect.  Ultimately, confidence does not result. 

Sensitivity and social competence is fostered by trying to understand why others might be behaving poorly, not by doing all in one's power to belong to a group that treats others poorly. 


The following dozen guidelines, culled from a variety of sources including Dr. Mary Pipher (author of Reviving Ophelia and many other books) and Dr. Dan Kindlon, (author of several books including Too Much of a Good Thing: Raising Children of Character in an Indulgent Age) represent a synopsis of good strategies for promoting competence, self-control and responsibility:

·        Model emotional connectedness and empathy.  Try not to react immediately to                difficult situations involving your child.  First, understand (not necessarily agree with) your child's perspective.  Get on the same side with your child, the side of solving a problem.

·          Allow expression of both positive and negative emotions. Having negative feelings about others does not mean the child is "not nice". However, the child does have a choice about how to express those emotions constructively rather than destructively.

·          Keep self-esteem intact while in school by fostering competencies.  Get whatever help is needed to support your child's academic self-confidence.

·          Listen, ask questions, respect both positive and negative viewpoints.  Teach problem-solving skills and critical thinking.  Instead of telling her how to solve a problem, ask how SHE could solve it, using the five-step problem-solving model:  identify the problem, brainstorm possible strategies, evaluate positive and negative consequences of each strategy, choose the best strategy, develop an action plan to implement the strategy.

·          Encourage and support all types of activity, from competitive sports to doll-playing, allowing the child to lead the way with her interests.

·          Discipline (teach) with clarity and  consistency, providing explanations, inviting the girl into the discussion as  a consultant.  What's your understanding? What do you need to solve this problem?

·          Handle your own competitive feelings and don't get into a struggle for power or domination with your daughter.  When you give a chore or responsibility, accept the way the child does it.

·          Learn who your child is by listening actively, valuing differences, respecting strengths.  Avoid vicarious thrills.

·          Develop rituals.  SPEND TIME, whether talking with each other, sharing ideas, discussing  relationships or being actively involved in a mutually enjoyable pastime.

·          Demonstrate critical thinking skills regarding mass media portrayals of girls and women.  Protect from that which is noxious; connect to what is good and beautiful.

·          Dads: value your daughter's ideas and intelligence, her tomboyishness or  desire to be physically active, her differences, and her adorableness.  Spend one-on-one time with her--you are her model for future male-female relationships.

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