I am a child psychotherapist, and recently a 10-year-old girl sat on my couch, describing an incident she witnessed at school. A boy in her class, someone she’d known since preschool, called a girl in her class “ugly,” and got other kids to laugh at her during recess. She saw it happen from just a few feet away. She knew it was wrong and hurtful. She knew she should have said something to stop him, or to help the other girl, but she didn’t. I asked her what prevented her from speaking up.
As it turns out, this little boy has always been very nice to her. Though he teases others, he doesn’t ever tease her. She was afraid that speaking up would both end their friendship and make her a target, so she remained silent on the sidelines.
You might think this time of girl power would give girls the confidence they need to use their voices and assert their needs, but girls continue to be socialized to be kind and polite first, and assertive second. In fact, I find that many young girls don’t understand what it actually means to be assertive. During one group session with third grade girls, I acted out a scene where a young girl raises her hand often, offers to help a peer in the classroom, and asserts her opinions within a group. I then asked the girls to describe how I acted. I was shocked to learn that “bossy,” “know-it-all,” and “unfriendly” topped the list. Only one girl offered “helpful” as a positive description.
Research on leadership by the Girl Scouts of America found that one-third of girls who do not want to be leaders attribute their lack of motivation to one of the following: fear of being laughed at or making people mad at them, being viewed as bossy, or not being liked by their peers. Indeed, young girls internalize the message that, to be liked, you can’t be too “bossy,” and being liked is more important than being a leader. Is it really any wonder that young girls grow into young women who accommodate others?
To help girls grow into assertive adults, we have to take a good look at the factors that play into the nice-girl narrative and teach them instead how to feel comfortable taking up space in the world. Here are some ways to get started:
Assertiveness and self-confidence are closely linked. Low self-esteem, fear of rejection and/or criticism, fear of being viewed as incapable, and the need to fit in with others all contribute to a lack of assertiveness skills in young girls. When girls lack the necessary self-confidence to assert their opinions, thoughts, and needs in a healthy manner, they tone down their responses and avoid taking healthy risks in the classroom, with their peers, and on the playing field.
The single best way to help your daughter build her self-confidence is to meet her where she is and listen to her interests. Parents are conditioned to enroll girls in certain sports and activities because that’s what everyone else is doing, or because those things are associated with later success. But girls tell me that they want to try different activities, or take a break from their busy schedules and focus on their hobbies.
Girls feel self-confident when they are given the time and space to explore their interests and seek out their own passions. You don’t need to pile on the praise for goals scored or beautiful works of art, you simply need to sit back and take a genuine interest in your daughter’s interests.
Address communication patterns.
In an effort to please others and avoid the appearance of “bossy,” it’s common practice for girls to engage in problematic communication patterns such as “upspeak” (making statements into questions), apologies (“I’m sorry, but…”), hedging (“I’m not sure, but I think…”), and inclusive speech (bringing others in).
One thing we can do to help girls find and use their voices is to practice assertive speech daily. When girls get into the habit of stating their feelings, opinions, and needs with conviction, they grow into women who can stand up to negative behavior, prioritize their needs and goals, and say no without a second thought.
Teach your daughter the basic mechanics of assertive communication: Stand tall, make eye contact, use a clear but firm voice, and remain calm. Practice this at home using role-play, and practice out in the community when grocery shopping, seeking help at the library, or meeting new people at community events.
Step outside the comfort zone.
One pattern that continues to emerge with young girls is that they stick with what they know. In an effort to showcase their strengths and be seen as capable, they zoom in on the one thing they know they can do very well. The problem with this is that it’s limiting and it discourages healthy risk-taking.
Girls shouldn’t be expected to excel at everything, but part of learning to raise their voices is the willingness to step outside their comfort zones and get involved in activities they might normally avoid. When girls learn to challenge themselves, they grow into women who are willing to put themselves out there and take healthy risks.
We can raise a generation of girls who have the self-confidence to stand tall and amplify their voices so that future generations no longer have to utter the words “#MeToo.” To do that, we have to start early, review often, and teach girls and young women to lift each other up along the way.
Katie Hurley, LCSW, is a child and adolescent psychotherapist, parenting expert, and writer. She is the founder of “Girls Can!” empowerment groups and the author of No More Mean Girls and The Happy Kid Handbook.
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