Adolescence is a time of impressive growth, both physically and psychologically, and your teen daughter is facing a lot. Her brain continues to develop, and her prefrontal cortex may not be fully formed until age 25. She is tackling challenging interpersonal conflicts- many of which we as adults prefer to avoid- and in that process, learning social skills and social hierarchy. Academic success often becomes the priority of the adults in her life, citing the importance of post-high school planning and building a foundation for the right college to lead to the right job. Interestingly, even academically-oriented girls tend to retreat in the classroom by age 13, and may lose sight of their academic goals in favor of social standing.
Throughout this entire process, she is experiencing vast physical changes, some of which aren’t even observable. In the midst of all this physical change, she is confronted daily with images and messages that suggest her body should be different. Her breasts should be bigger, her tummy flatter, her rear plumper, her lips fuller, her eyes wider, her hair shinier, her feet tinier… the messages are relentless and no one is exempt. The body starts to become social currency, as a simple way for teens to identify who might be higher in the social pecking order. Parents feel baffled and helpless when their beautiful daughter begins to criticize her own appearance or starts to take drastic measures to alter her look.
While the social and media messages provide a barrage of influence, parents have a role in shaping their daughters’ body confidence. The impact of parent-child relationship becomes critical in adolescence, as your daughter seeks a regular oasis from the storm of her life. The following tips can help parents foster body confidence in their teen daughter. Integrate one or two into your routine and stay consistent. Your daughter will thank you (one day).
- Stop Talking About Bodies– Adolescent girls are extremely in tune with others’ comments, and are still functioning in adolescent egocentrism, where their perceptions of the world can be greatly skewed to their own biases. If you comment- favorably or unfavorably- on a celebrity’s body, a friend’s weight gain or your own flat butt, she is very likely to take this to heart and internalize the message that her body could potentially be “wrong.” Be very mindful of your own comments and reactions to her body, your own body, and others’ bodies. Practice eliminating these comments, much as you learned to eliminate swear words when she was a toddler.
- Address Media Message and Social Media Use- The images and messages are relentless, and in addition to implying that her body might be “wrong,” social media and mass media also imply that she’s too smart or she’s not smart enough, she’s too opinionated or she doesn’t speak up enough, she is too conventional or she is a freak… Advertisements are made to make people feel they lack something, and social media becomes a peacock’s mating display as her peers (and complete strangers!) attempt to make themselves feel better. Studies show that increased social media use is correlated with increased amounts of depression, though some social media use has positive benefits. A two-fold approach may help. 1) Educate yourself and your daughter on media literacy. Understanding the intention of each post, the motivation behind it, and maintaining a critical eye toward what she is seeing may help temper any kneejerk reactions of self-judgment. 2) A periodic hiatus from social media and mass media can eliminate these messages temporarily and allow your daughter time to be herself without constant judgment. Because so many youth feel like social media is a “lifeline,” it will probably help to get your daughter’s buy-in for this one, and help her set the terms for a periodic break.
- Encourage Physical Self Care- Set an expectation in your home- modeled by adults’ behavior- that your family takes care of your bodies and does not punish them. Stock and prepare nutritious foods. Enjoy treats when you have them. Stretch while watching television. Keep bath products on hand for a relaxing soak. Get enough sleep. Your daughter is watching and your cues about body care go a long way in teaching her how to respect and care for her own body.
- Get Physical as a Family- Physical activity as a family has so many benefits, including fostering a sense of physical capability, allowing time for open-ended conversation, creating a bonding experience, and demonstrating physical self-care. Find things to do regularly as a family- a walk around the neighborhood, a visit to the trampoline park, a hike, a kayak excursion, a dance class or a bike ride. In addition to the benefits listed above, these sort of physical activities can help your daughter focus on her body’s abilities, which increases body confidence.
- Check in with the Coach- Organized sports can be a double-edged sword of body confidence. Many young women feel stronger and capable in sports, and the physical outlet and social connection can enhance her self-esteem. But some sports- and some coaches- can present harmful messages about her body, and it can be hard for parents to know if that’s the case. Ask your daughter, talk with her teammates, and observe some practices to see what sort of messages are being relayed. If you believe that there are body-shaming tactics within the team, plan to talk with the coach or the head of athletics to address it. If it can’t be resolved, it may not be the best place for your daughter.
- Reinforce Her Strengths– Overall confidence translates to body confidence. Provide her with plenty of opportunities for success, but allow her to use her own resources to solve problems. Acknowledge her successes and point out ways in which she is growing and learning socially, emotionally, and academically. It also helps to encourage the relationships in her life where there is unconditional love and respect: trusted friends, extended family, and parents’ friends who accept and embrace your daughter will increase her safety net and give her a strong frame of reference for how to treat herself lovingly.