It’s not easy to be a girl growing up in Canada. It may not always be evident, but your daughter is fighting a battle every day—against peer pressure, social-media anxieties, parental expectations and even her own sense of self. The pressure both to fit in and stand out can take a tremendous toll. A recent national survey conducted by Girl Guides of Canada, for example, found that 59 percent of girls in Canada believe they face unrealistic expectations that negatively impact their self-esteem.
With that in mind, we caught up Lindsay Sealy, the Vancouver-based educational and personal-development specialist and author of Growing Strong Girls: Practical Tools to Cultivate Connection in the Pre-Teen Years. Sealy says girls are too focused on looking outside of themselves to gauge their worth—so parents need to guide their daughters to find their strength within.
It’s not easy to make connections IRL (in real life), so it shouldn’t be a surprise when girls seek a sense of community online. But content shared in those online communities can lead girls to have unhealthy social expectations that could negatively impact their self-esteem. Sealy’s solution is simple: It’s all about finding balance. Encourage your daughter to participate in a variety of offline activities—to help her discover her interests and develop a sense that she can succeed and grow on her own terms.
“The most self-assured girls I know are not avid users of social media,” Sealy says. “They’re too busy living real and meaningful lives—developing their skills and talents and contributing to their schools, families and communities.”
The prominence of selfies—made more “perfect” with the application of skin-smoothing, teeth-whitening and figure-enhancing filters, of course—means that it’s no longer just airbrushed celebrity photos that promote an unhealthy body image. Though most of us now recognize that many of the images we see are altered, girls are vulnerable as ever to being influenced by those images and their unattainable ideals. The Girl Guides survey, for example, found that 56% of girls feel they get mixed messages about how they’re supposed to act and behave, and look and dress.
“When a girl compares herself to peers or the images she sees online and concludes she’s ‘not good enough,’ her sense of self collapses,” Sealy says. “She can turn on herself and disconnect. We need to equip girls with new metrics for self-esteem that having nothing to do with appearance and the number of likes and followers they have on social media.”
Parents can thus encourage girls to redirect their focus inward on what’s happening in their lives—and make a positive list of all the amazing things they’re doing right now.
Young girls desperately want to be accepted by a social group. Being isolated from their peers is a real fear. Sealy says the pressure to fit in can in some cases be so intense that, even at a young age, girls start giving up parts of their personality in order to conform to expectations: They’re so wrapped up in pleasing, performing, and perfecting for others, they lose sight of who they are.
One way to mitigate this is to help your daughter expand her social network offline—and outside of school. The more people she encounters, the better the chance of her making “healthy” connections with those who will appreciate her for who she is. For example, encourage her to participate in sports or other group activities, get involved in community groups, or become a volunteer.
Ah, the dreaded frenemy: A person who may seem like a friend, but whose role in the relationship isn’t so altruistic. Everyone probably has one or two of these folks in their lives, but it may be counterproductive to criticize the friends your daughter chooses. Instead, Sealy suggests starting a dialogue around what good relationships look like. They should be founded on respect, sharing, reciprocity, authenticity, and, of course, trust. “How does a friend make your daughter feel?” Sealy asks. “When she leaves that friend, does she feel better or worse for having spent time with them?”
Make sure your child knows she always has a choice when it comes to relationships. It’s okay to let go of friends who have an overall negative effect. For a girl, removing herself from a toxic “friendship”—and knowing that she has your support in doing so—can be empowering.
Even worse than the frenemy is the outright bully, and thanks to social media, young girls are vulnerable to potential persecution anywhere and at all hours of the day. A recent study by McMaster University in Hamilton, ON, came to a conclusion that many parents already suspected: Teen girls are more likely to be targeted by boys and are also at greater risk of developing emotional problems due to cyberbullying.
Remember that cyberbullying doesn’t always come in the form of direct threats. Sure, it can involve mean comments and criticisms, but also passive-aggressive sarcasm, the unauthorized sharing of harmful (or perceived to be harmful) images, and much more. Thus it’s critical to teach young girls not only about “healthy” ways to use social media, but also the importance of protecting their privacy on those platforms. Like all of us, young girls should think long and hard about posting personal information, photos of themselves, or their location online. If your child does come to you with an online problem, Sealy says it’s important not to react negatively. That can make an already stressful situation even more so. Instead, say something like, “Thank you for telling me, let’s deal with this together.” Then follow through and help to defuse the problem.
The pressures to perform well in school, fit in offline and keep up appearance online can take a serious toll on young girls. Be on the lookout for the warning signs of anxiety. These could include physical agitation, “closed off” body language, disinterest in verbal communication, or marked changes in eating and sleeping patterns.
Dealing with an extremely anxious child? Encourage her to calm down by practicing deep breathing, meditation or yoga, or just listening to music. When your daughter is ready to talk, Sealy says a parent’s job is to try and figure out specifically what is driving the anxiety. Communicate with her using straightforward, simple language; she’ll have a better chance of understanding and internalizing what you’re saying. If you can catch the negative thought and replace it with a positive one, you can give your daughter back her sense of control.
Of course, a little bit of anxiety is not necessarily detrimental to girls’ overall wellbeing. It can help them to focus on achieving positive outcomes at school, at home and out in the world. But if it’s clearly a disruptive force in her life, then it may be time to seek the aid of professionals, be it a guidance counsellor, psychologist, or in serious cases of bullying, the appropriate authorities.