You remember the feeling, don't you? Playing a sport you couldn't really play in PE, trying out for the school musical or the cheerleading squad, or even just having to give a speech in class. The sweaty palms, the nervous feeling in the pit of your stomach, the feeling that all eyes were on you and critiquing everything you said and did.
Losing Her Voice
Girls are self-conscious. In our seminars with parents, we talk often about how girls lose their voice around middle school. Dove claims that 6 out of 10 girls stop doing what they love because of the way they look. As a counselor who has worked with girls of all ages for more than 20 years, I would say it's also because of who they are—or, more importantly, who they believe themselves to be.
Research suggests that when something goes wrong in a boy's world, he blames someone else. (Moms, unfortunately, that's most often you.) But when something goes wrong in a girl's world, who does she blame? You guessed it, because you did too (and maybe you still do). She blames herself.
It doesn't take long for things to start going wrong in her world. And, typically by the early teen or even the preteen years, she is firmly entrenched in self-consciousness. Girls tell me that they think about themselves and what others are thinking about them continually. This preoccupation causes them to shrink back. One girl told me it was like she "faded" around the sixth grade. They stop raising their hands in class. They don't want to try new things. They go along with the crowd, liking what their friends like and dressing the way their friends dress. It's often hard to make new friends or even invite the friends they already have over. They lose their voice.
Finding Her Power
Empowering girls. You may read those two words and think, "Empower my daughter? She already runs over everyone in this family, including me! She doesn't need power. She needs humility." But what your daughter really needs is to be empowered to give.
Or maybe the phrase resonates deep within you. You may be, right this moment, watching your daughter lose her voice in her teenage years to all of the noise of social media. Or maybe your daughter is younger and is desperately trying to please people. She gives away her lunch at school, just hoping it will make her a long-awaited best friend. You want so much to give her a voice, to give her confidence, and to empower her to be who God has uniquely created her to be.
We want both for our girls: to know that they are deeply loved and then to let that love spill over onto others. We want them to believe in who they are and all that they have to offer. We want to teach them to stand up for themselves and to know, deep down, that they are worthy of being stood up for.
The Gift of Courage
Several years ago, a mother brought her third grade daughter to me for counseling. Her fifth grade son was seeing another counselor at the time. "I'm not really here about Allison," she told me. "I'm here because of her brother. He, basically, has no boundaries. He tells her what to do constantly, to the point that he chooses the clothes he thinks she should wear to school every day. I want you to help her learn how to tell him no. I want you to help her learn that if she says no, and he doesn't respect her, she can punch him in the nose."
I was startled, to say the least. Her mom went on, "I want you to help her learn this because I want her to practice saying no on him. In not too many years, she'll be starting to date. When her date tries to kiss her and she says no and he doesn't respect her, I want her to know that she can punch him in the nose."
Now I'm not condoning using violence to exert power, but how different would your life be now if someone had given you that kind of courage? If someone had told you that you were created with a beauty that is unlike anyone else, that is reflected from deep inside of you? That you could offer who you are in a way that would make a real difference to others? In his book Leading with a Limp, author and psychologist Dan B. Allender recalls how he once told his son, "You are the only you this world will ever know and something about you is meant to make something about God known in a way that no one else can." We use that quote with girls a lot. It's something we believe they need desperately to hear. And you can be the one to communicate it.
4 Keys to empowering your daughter
So how can you do this? How can you empower an introverted daughter to really be? Or a seemingly narcissistic daughter to really give? Here are a few ways I've watched parents and other adults empower their girls to do both.
1. Spend time with her.
Enjoy being with her purely for the sake of enjoyment. In our Raising Boys and Girls seminar, we talk at length about the need for girls to be delighted in. As simple as it sounds, when you delight in your daughter, she will come to believe she is delightful. And, notice I said purely for the sake of enjoyment. This is not meant to be time where you're teaching, correcting, criticizing, or even lecturing her. Instead, just enjoy her. Laugh with her. Go for a walk. Watch the cooking channel. Have her show you her favorite videos on YouTube. Get your nails done. Read a book out loud together. Take an art class. Be with her and enjoy her, without necessarily even saying a word.
2. Ask and value her opinion.
When she comes to you with a playground problem, ask her first what she thinks would help the situation rather than launching into a solution yourself. You may have to help her work through that solution before she lands in a helpful place, but allow her the opportunity to work it through first. Similarly, if you have an older daughter, help her discover what she thinks. If you've just heard a great sermon or seen an interesting movie, ask for her opinion before you share your own. An eighth grader told me years ago that it was difficult for her to think for herself when there were so many voices around her. Social media has multiplied this problem exponentially for many girls. For your daughter to think for herself, she needs opportunities to do so. Asking thoughtful questions can be one of the best tools to help her get there.
3. Give her opportunities to give.
Numerous studies say that one of the best ways to build confidence in children is to help them discover that they matter. Volunteer as a family. Go on a mission trip. Sponsor a family for Christmas. Find a family with similar ages and have your child buy the gifts for that child. Let her find places to actually experience that she can make a difference in someone else's life.
4. Name the good and giftedness you see inside of her.
The last chapter in our book Raising Girls, which I coauthored with Melissa Trevathan, is called "Naming Girls." In it, we talk about these very ideas. We quote a section in Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time in which she describes a conversation between the main character Meg and a cherubim who describes the duties of a "Namer." It reads, "When I was memorizing the names of the stars, part of the purpose was to help them each be more particularly the particular star each one was meant to be. That's basically a Namer's job." Like a Namer, when you see your daughter show great kindness, point it out to her. Encourage the way she loves her little brother. Praise her for her courage. Notice when you see her choose not to hide in the bathroom—and tell her. She will be empowered . . . and you might just be too.
Sissy Goff, M.Ed., LPC-MHSP is the Director of Child and Adolescent Counseling at Daystar Counseling Ministries and the author of six books including Intentional Parenting. You can find her at www.RaisingBoysAndGirls.com.