Girls know how to create stories on Instagram. They are experts at Snap streaks. They can run circles around us when it comes to using social media platforms to share photos and their highlight reel as well as self-promote. Yet, they do not always know the power and potential of their own voices.
When it comes to speaking up for what they want and need or advocating for social injustices, they hold back. There’s a global trend for growing girls: a loss of voice.
How can their competency shift from bolstered confidence on a screen to vanishing self-confidence when it comes to their own voices? Fear. The fear of being misunderstood, criticized or condemned or, worse yet, rejected or ostracized.
As girls will tell you, when they must choose between fitting in with the group’s consensus and standing out with an opinion their own, they’ll choose conformity over individuality every single time. Researcher Carol Gilligan calls this “psychological dissociation” whereby girls silence their voices or their knowledge of feelings, desires and opinions in order to stay connected in relationships.
Looking at the maturation and developmental process can give us insight as to why this happens. Around age 10, an interesting trend emerges, as the result of both biology and sociology. Being hard-wired to connect, girls seek out social bonds to feel safe and secure, to relieve stress and to gain social support. In the process, a sense of belonging becomes more vital for survival than honoring their own thoughts, feelings and opinions. Whether she’s connecting online or in-person, she can feel self-conscious or “weird” for having different beliefs and ideas. She’ll doubt her voice, hold back and say what others want her to say.
In my newest book Raising Girls’ Voices, I interviewed girls ranging in ages from eight to 23 years old. I gained insight into how they view themselves, what makes them feel strong and powerful and their opinions on school, friendship and social media. I learned they not only had a voice but they had a lot to say. They talked about their struggle of wanting to say what they truly thought yet feeling worried they’d risk judgment and exclusion.
Given her strong need to fit in and the fact she wants to talk, how do we teach girls they not only have a voice that matters, but the necessity of using her voice? Here are four ways to guide her as she realizes the potential and power of her voice:
Teach girls to listen to their inner voices.
In a busy, noisy, distracting world with so many competing interests, it can feel almost impossible to ask a growing girl to slow down let alone listen to her inner voice. Yet, we can teach her to take time for herself: to be still and quiet and yes, put down her device so she can attune to her voice.
Not the critical voice telling her what she should have said or done, telling herself she’s not good enough, reprimanding herself for a mistake or error in judgment, but the voice that urges her to keep going, to dare to dream and that shows her the way. A few minutes each day is all it takes.
Remind girls to trust their inner voices.
Most girls I know are filled with self-doubt and uncertainty. What’s it going to take to shift them away from asking us what we think of their decision to trusting herself enough to know what’s right for her? Trust takes time and experience. Girls need to know they have intuition and instincts, a sense or a feeling.
The best way to trust her inner knowing is to ask her questions without answering them for her. For instance, as her questions such as how she feels about the decision, what she thinks of how she was treated by her friend, or even, “When you first met the new girl, what was your impression of her?” These questions encourage self-reflection and redirect her away from approval seeking to self-trust. Over time they just know; they know because they’ve done this before.
Encourage girls to share their voices.
When girls share, they almost always feel relieved and normal. One thing I know about girls is this: they have stories—interesting stories—to tell and they long to offer their experiences. So often, they hold back, they give is the minimized version. “I had a good day.” They need so much encouragement to tell us more.
We can start with assuring her that what she has to say matters. Further, we can ensure she knows we will listen without interrupting or critiquing. Also, girls need to share their ideas and insights with other girls they trust. From my experience, sharing breaks down their natural tendency to compete and compare and builds up their depth of connection.
By being vulnerable, girls learn courage and empathy; they come to understand each other better and feel normal. It’s the “me too” experience in the most positive sense of the word and the embodiment of “we are more similar than we are different.”
Empower girls to use their voices.
Not every girl has this privilege. In fact, many are silenced—shut down, dismissed, disregarded. So, girls who can use their voices, should. This means standing up for themselves when they are mistreated and disrespected. At the same time, it means standing up for others who don’t yet have the confidence or the ability to self-advocate. The challenge is insecurity.
We need to give girls the power to stand strong in their beliefs and voice their opinions if they feel it’s right to do so, regardless of what others think. We can best empower her by first asking about her opinion and giving her time to get her words out and second, by listening. When we truly hear her and validate her thoughts, she comes to understanding her words matter and she grows more comfortable in expressing herself without over-explaining or apologizing.
Prompts to try can include: “I believe…,” “I think…,” “I agree because…” or “I disagree and here’s why…” This power is what then enables girls to think beyond their homes to create positive change and to begin to make the world a better place to live
In Enough As She is, Rachel Simmons writes this, “As little girls, they might be feisty and spirited, forceful and stubborn, but as the unwritten rules of young womanhood sink in, this once fierce voice becomes muted or even silent” (xv). Let’s challenge these “unwritten rules.” How? By guiding girls to listening to, trusting, share and use their voices. Girls need both the confidence to know their authentic voice matters and the inner strength and courage to raise their voices.