Five Tips for Empowering Brave Girls

Raising girls can be challenging. In a world where appearance is everything, where mistakes and failures can be uploaded in real time and where the value of character is less important than the number of ‘likes’ on your last photo; our girls are navigating rough waters in their quests to discover their best selves.

While some messaging in the media has improved and there are more opportunities than ever for girls to follow their dreams (girls now represent 58% of all enrolments in Australian universities), we also know that there are significant issues holding them back. With mental health problems on the rise, we see that girls in particular are susceptible to worrying factors such as self-harming (one quarter of teenage girls between 16-17), anxiety (6.8% between 4-17 year olds) and depression (self-reported as 7.7% for 11-17 year olds).

So how do we help our girls find their feet in this rocky space?

1. Be a Great Role Model

It turns out that mothers have a remarkable impact upon their daughters, particularly in the area of mental health. If that thought scares you, perhaps it is worth taking a closer look at whether you might be unintentionally passing on anxieties or brain patterns that may not be helpful. One of the best things you can do for your daughter is to work on your own baggage, bravely facing the issues that present themselves and emerge all the more stronger and resilient – for both of you.

Be conscious of the modelling you are providing in areas such as body image, confidence in your own voice and the way you speak about and to others. Our daughters are constantly looking to us to find out how to be in this world, and the biggest lessons we teach usually don’t involve words.  

2. Teach Bravery

Do we unintentionally treat our daughters differently than we do sons? Research is showing that we move more to protect our daughters, to caution them against risky activities and play, even where there is little physical difference in their abilities (at least until puberty). What we don’t realise, is that this communicates to them that there is something to be scared of, that we don’t believe they can do it, and that they aren’t equipped for the task. This may become a problem later on, given that research has discovered that girls with a high IQ are more likely to give up on challenging tasks than bright boys because of the way their brains have been wired to approach these types of activities.

3. Encourage Communication

As girls move through tween and teen years communication may become more difficult, but that doesn’t mean we should give up. As this article advises, keep showing up and listening with all your attention when she does open up, sharing your own stories in return and being patient as you build a safe space together.

4. Allow Opportunities for Failure

Failure is a tricky one. So often it can be easier to step in and shield our girls from the true force of natural consequences, but this doesn’t lead to long term success.

As mother of three very successful daughters, Esther Wojcicki says: ‘Kids are supposed to screw up as kids so they screw up less as adults’ but that ‘most parents seem in the dark on this fairly important fact’.

Particularly for girls who seem to blame themselves rather than external forces when things go wrong, it is an important lesson to learn from an early age – that ‘everyone makes mistakes. It’s not how we make mistakes but how we deal with them that defines us!

Coding is a great forum for girls to learn how to overcome perfectionism and to practice bravery: check out Code Like A Girl.

5. Celebrate the Spectrum of Emotions

Award-winning psychologist and author, Susan David points out in her TED talk on Emotional Agility, ‘research now shows that the radical acceptance of all of our emotions — even the messy, difficult ones — is the cornerstone to resilience, thriving, and true, authentic happiness.’

When we move to shut down so-called ‘negative’ feelings (fear, anger, frustration, disappointment), we are unintentionally preventing our daughters from being able to process these emotions in a healthy way. It may not be comfortable, and perhaps you will also learn a bit about your own suppressed views towards these feelings along the way, but it turns out that ‘discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life.

At the heart of it all, it is so important to trust yourself and your instincts. You know your daughter better than anyone and she does want to connect with you. When you feel overwhelmed, know that you aren’t alone, that there is a peace that surpasses all understanding waiting just a heartbeat away.

Want more? Check out these great links:

Susan David: The gift and power of emotional courage (TED talk)

Caroline Paul: To raise brave girls, encourage adventure (TED talk)

Reshma Saujani: Teach girls bravery, not perfection (TED talk)

Jim Kwik: How to grow from your mistakes (podcast)

The secret to raising a happy, confident girl (article)

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