If you have a teenage daughter, you may feel you have every reason to worry. News report after news report highlights the extent of anxiety, eating disorders and self-harming among teen girls, while their self-esteem - battered by endless idealised images of celebrities in magazines, on TV and on the internet – would seem to be hitting the floor.
Teen girls have never had it easy. The surging hormones, impending exams, a developing interest in boys and the pressure to fit in with their friends are perennial issues, but the arrival of social media has ramped up the pressure. Everywhere they look – online, in magazines, on Facebook and Tumblr - people their age are looking gorgeous and appearing to lead exciting and beautiful lives. How can you help your daughter develop enough confidence, so that all this doesn’t get her down?
This situation is a powder keg and as a mother it’s really difficult to prepare for it. Navigating your daughter through this tricky time is the difference between her being a happy, confident, successful young woman and suffering needless anxiety.
“Adolescents often seem very impulsive, thanks to the way their brains develop,” says psychiatrist Lucy Beresford. “Their impulse control and reasoning is slow to mature, which is why they seem to suddenly develop wild enthusiasms, or fall in and out of love, or become vegetarian overnight. As a mother, you need to hang on to a strong sense of being a parent with a set of rules and values, but at the same time, find ways to accommodate this new person that your daughter is becoming, who is testing the boundaries, experimenting and picking up new passions along the way.”
I laugh now, thinking back to the story of Sleeping Beauty, and the gifts that the fairy godmothers gave at her christening. She got looks, a lovely singing voice, the temperament of an angel...but none of them gave her confidence, the one thing I would really have liked to bestow on my girls in their infancy. Confidence is the thing I longed for most when I was a teenager; at 15 I was shy, bookish and wore glasses, and preferred to retreat into my shell than interact with other people. Parties, as you might guess, were something I found excruciating.
Now that I have three teenagers, two of them girls, I’m doing what I can to catch up, and in my book ‘100 Ways for Every Girl to Look and Feel Fantastic,’ £9.99 which I have co-written with Beth, I’ve included as much advice on building self-esteem as I could; all the things I wish I had known at that age but which, 30 years ago, were simply never talked about.
So how can you give your girl confidence so that she can better handle the situations that will face her over the coming years? A lot of the advice is obvious – to teach her to be proud of who she is, to think positively, to avoid comparisons, and to remember that her real value lies in the sort of person she is, not in how she looks.
Here, are my top tips for handling those teenage years:
1. Agree that yes, one spot IS a disaster
To you, it may look like nothing much, and doesn’t detract from her general loveliness. But to her, it’s the end of the world. And if you dismiss her worries she will feel that you are not really listening to her, that you don’t care and that you aren’t prepared to help her, whether it’s spots you are talking about, or other subjects. Also, remember the excruciating awkwardness of being a teenager? Having even one glowing spot on your face makes that feel so much worse. If spots are a real problem and over-the-counter anti-spot products aren’t helping, go and see your GP, who can prescribe antibiotics that can help get acne under control, or who can refer you to a dermatologist. Show your daughter how to hide the spot(s) in the short-term with medicated concealer and try specialised foundations like Oxygentix Acne Control Foundation , £60 which contains salicylic acid and actively helps heal spots while covering them up properly.
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2. Encourage her out of her comfort zone
When teens are obliged to go beyond the limits of what they’re happy doing, it can make them more confident when they realise they can do things that they hadn’t thought they could manage. Where those limits are depends on your teen and what she’s happy doing. Beth seems a quiet and cautious person, but she loves acting and is fearless on stage and in the roles she will take on (she has just been in a production of The Laramie Project which moved me - and most of the rest of the audience - to tears).
3. Take her seriously, so she can learn to take herself seriously
As girls turn from children into young adults and develop their own views, you need to keep pace with their thinking. Find times when you can chat together, discuss issues that crop up in TV programmes or are in the news and listen to what she says, rather than charging in with what YOU think. Encourage her to express her thoughts on a topic. Don’t dismiss her ideas, even if you disagree with them. She is becoming her own person and you have to appreciate that.
4. Do tell her she’s beautiful – but be specific
You can tell your daughter a thousand times that she’s gorgeous...but unless you find a way to say it that resonates with her, she may well think you are only saying it “because you are my mum and you have to say that.” And then, as a modern mother, you start to worry that perhaps, in order to teach her the vital lesson that you value her for her personality and abilities rather than for her looks, you shouldn’t be commenting on her looks at all.
The tip that has helped me most was when I learned about what parenting experts call “descriptive praise”; rather than praising your daughter in a general way, which she is less likely to believe, make it specific. Rather than just saying, “your hair is lovely”, say, “I love it when your hair flicks out like that,” for example. And while it is good to give her positive messages about her looks, balance these with comments on her interests and abilities – “It’s so great when you talk to me about saving whales,” or “You’ve worked really hard at your maths homework.”
5. Help her work out how to avoid toxic ‘friends’
If one of your daughter’s supposed friends is belittling her, taking advantage of her, copying her work, or seem to be all ‘take’ and no ‘give’, she needs your support to get past this. “It is hard to measure the extent of the problems with ‘frenemies,’” says a spokesman for the advice and support charity BullyingUK , “as this is very insidious and is not the sort of thing that is picked up by official statistics.”
According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, surveys have indicated that one in 10 secondary school pupils in England are being bullied, and bullying can lead to physical symptoms such as stomach aches and headaches as well as depression and a lack of confidence, which can continue long after the bullying has stopped.
Talk to her about the problems, and have a think about how she might sidestep them.
The first thing is to help her understand it’s not her fault. There may well be reasons why her friend is behaving so unkindly, or erratically – problems at home, or with school work – though this is no reason to take it out on your daughter.
Discuss with her how she might get around the problem. It is difficult to avoid people when she is at school with them, or they live very close by, or are always on the same bus, and when they are all on social media swapping news and seeing what everyone is up to.
Is there another friend or group that she could spend time with, to get her away from the ones who are giving her grief? Can she sit away from them in class, or travel home later, or by a different route? Dealing with difficult friends is hard enough to do as an adult, so your daughter needs all the help you can give her.
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6. Teach her to stand up to boys who make her feel bad about herself
This can feel even more difficult than dealing with toxic friends. Point out to your daughter that if boys are being really annoying and obnoxious it is usually because they are not feeling very secure in themselves. They are often less mature in their attitudes and their emotional intelligence than girls of the same age and so they end up being rude, aggressive or sarcastic. Adolescent boys are also seeing more pornography, which makes them more inclined to treat girls inappropriately and view them as sex objects. Your daughter must understand that she should be able to be herself and does NOT have to behave a certain way around boys – all giggling and hair-flipping and agreeing to whatever they say – in order to get along with them, be accepted by them or become friends with them. And if a boy is picking on her, particularly in front of his friends, can she think what a feisty heroine of hers would do in a film, get her girlfriends behind her and call him out on it? She may be stronger than she thinks.
7. Ask her to cook for you
Asking your teenager to do something like cooking a meal, or walking the dog, makes her feel capable and teaches her the useful lesson that there are times when you have to step up and do what you said you’d do, even if you don’t really feel like it, otherwise you are letting other people down. Beth loves cooking and doesn’t mind taking Alfie, our Jack Russell, out to the park, though her real forte is in teaching Alfie new tricks. She is more patient and persistent at this than I am, and gets much better results.
8. Tell her how to be her own best friend
To have good self-esteem, you have to like yourself, and in order to like yourself, you need to get to know who you are. You also need to be your own best friend – to be kind to yourself when you’re having a hard time, and give yourself compliments when you need a boost – because the one person you ARE stuck with for the rest of your life is yourself. It is all about learning to beat your inner critic, the little voice that pops up at the back of all of our minds and says we’re not good enough, a negative thought that does nothing but harm. (You ARE good enough, by the way, you are more than good enough, you are fantastic. Try that thought instead, and see where it leads to). It’s hard to do but it’s another step on the way to developing solid inner confidence to withstand what the world – and other people – might throw at you.
9. … But don’t leave her alone for the weekend
This very much depends on your daughter - would she be comfortable with this, or would she see it as abandonment rather than liberation. I’m happy to leave the children as long as there are two of them and they say they’re happy to be left. Would it help your teenager develop her confidence? It might but it is a big step to take. If you go for it, make sure there is adult backup a short distance away, and make one rule very clear - no parties.
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10. Stay close
The teen years have a reputation for being difficult; your daughter is working out who she is and becoming her own person and that may well involve some conflict with who you are and how you live your life. When your children are young, it is easy to worry that the teen years are going to be one long battle; it doesn’t have to be, and it helps if you approach this stage of life from, as the self-help books would put it, a place of love rather than a place of fear. It might be plain sailing. But even if there is lots of shouting and slammed doors, keep your cool (were you the same at this age?) and be the grown-up, i.e. do not shout and slam in return.
Spend as much time with your daughter as you can; she may not want you to go shopping or to the cinema with her or generally hanging around her but you could get in the habit of chatting in the kitchen, or take her out for a coffee, or go for a walk, or get her to help you with something you are doing that needs an extra pair of hands; anything that gives you the chance to talk, which will give you more of a chance to understand the person that she is and how you can help her with the tricky old process of growing up. The closer you are, the smoother the ride should be.