I’ll never forget the day I truly felt affirmed in my job. I have a unique role as a teacher, life coach, and mentor all wrapped up in one. One afternoon I was sitting across from one of my 10-year-old clients helping her with her homework and out of the blue she said, “Lindsay, you are like a kangaroo.” At first I thought she was suggesting that I looked like this Australian marsupial, but she continued, saying, “You are like a kangaroo because you keep all your students safe and warm in your pouch and when they are ready, you let them go.” I was struck by the sincerity of the compliment and touched because it came from one of my shyest most sensitive young girls. She spoke few words, but noticed everything.
That day I felt very grateful and also so validated in my choice to follow my heart’s desire to create my company, Bold New Girls, a coaching company for girls and young women that integrates my two biggest passions: learning and social and emotional development. I realized early on in my teaching career the tremendous value and power of connection. At the time, before I knew the science, I simply felt that when I spent time talking to girls about what was happening in their world and what was on their minds, they seemed to calm down and feel heard and understood. This was it, the heart of connection: when an intentional relationship is built on trust, it provides a safe space for girls to experience care, compassion, and unconditional acceptance.
When I decided to write my book Growing Strong Girls, I delved deeper into the brain science behind connection. When we connect with girls and show them we are not only physically present and paying attention but emotionally present, too, the brain produces “feel good” chemicals such as dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin. When neurons in the brain fire together, they wire together. This means when she is stressed and decides to share her troubles with us and we meet her with a hug and some soothing, reassuring words we help her feel calm. With this kind of repeated experience, her brain grows stress response centers capable of self-regulation and the right kind of neurological wiring that is conducive to optimal growth and healthy development.
So, when my shy client told me I was a kangaroo what she was really expressing was her felt sense of our connection and interconnectedness. She felt safe in my pouch!
When I tell parents connection is the foundation for strength, the necessary ingredient for shaping girls into secure, confident, brave, and courageous young women, my advice is based on life experience (and science).
Parents I work with know the power of cultivating connection. They also know the scary statistics about girls today that suggest a widespread disconnection: rising mental health concerns, social media obsession and often addiction, and reports that 9 out of 10 girls are dissatisfied with their appearance. It can be overwhelming, confusing, and frightening to know what girls are up against.
We all wonder if we have what it takes to keep a girl on the right path. The primary question we need to explore is how to create connection with her — especially when her emotions can seem like a ride on a roller coaster and you just can’t seem to find the words or the ways with her these days. Here are some ideas you can try to cultivate connection:
1) Use your best tool: Empathy. When she walks into the kitchen after a long, stressful day at school, connect with her on an emotional level first. Try saying, “Seems like you’ve had a tough day — feel like talking about it or do you need time to relax?” When she tells you about her friendship troubles, make comments like, “I understand how frustrated you must feel — that makes sense to me.” When you connect with how she is feeling, not only are you helping her calm down and find her center, but you are allowing her to feel heard and validated.
2) Be curious instead of critical. Preteen girls are hypersensitive to even a hint of criticism and rejection. Knowing this, ask open questions to open up the conversation. Avoid the typical “How was your day,” to which you’ll receive the typical response, “fine”. Be creative and surprise her. Ask her about the 3 highlights of her day, if she is excited or looking forward to anything, or if she could rewind her day what part she would redo. The goal is to learn about what’s happening for her and to get her talking.
3) Enter her world. So often, we all launch into a “to-do” list and push our own agenda: “I need you to pick up your brother,” “Remember to clean your room tonight.” “Did you do your homework?” Instead, try to enter her world and talk about what matters most to her. Ask her about what’s happening with friends and who she is connecting with or disconnecting from. Ask her if she saw any interesting posts or comments on social media, or ask her what she posted. Inquire about any stressors or triggers at school — something a teacher or peer may have said to her. Yes, the to-do list is important and chores and homework need to get completed, but remember to put your relationship first.
4) Be generous. This is a simple one but so often forgotten. Be generous with your compliments, your kindness, what you notice about her growth, and the ways in which you see her making positive and healthy choices. So much of a girl’s day is about being corrected. Why not notice what she’s doing right and encourage her to keep up the good work?
Girls are longing for connection and if we don’t provide it, they will seek it elsewhere — in chat rooms and on social media, from peers, sometimes even from strangers. Yet, when we consistently make time for her to connect with us and give her the chance to unburden herself at the end of the day and share her inner landscape with us, we create a safe and secure foundation on which she can grow into her own confidence, strength, and independence. We don’t have a girl in our pouch for long, so we want to make this time count by investing in our connection with her before she is read to leap out.