Sometimes my father sends me newspaper articles that align with my work as the coach of preteen girls. One morning his message seemed more urgent than usual. It began, “I listened to a radio show yesterday and found out that 90 percent of young girls have ‘little or no self esteem.’ I found that staggering!”
I understood why he was so concerned—90 percent does seem “staggering”—but I wasn’t shocked. Most girls I know fluctuate between feeling “alright” about themselves to feeling absolutely terribly. Very few girls exude confidence or have a strongly rooted sense of self-esteem. They depend more on outward indicators of accomplishment, achievement and accolades than on inward practices of self-love, confidence and self-acceptance. Why are girls evaluating themselves so harshly?
The world has changed. If you step back, you’ll see we are surrounded by constant comparisons and competition and girls often fall prey to society’s tough standards. Look at the influx of reality shows, such as The Voice or American Idol, which operate on the basis of multiple rounds of harsh judgment. There are no marks for effort or the willingness to try. How can girls watch these types of shows and not feel the pressure to perform and fit in, or worse yet, decide not to bother trying at all?
The same holds true at school: it’s a ranking system based not on effort and attitude but results. Think of it from her persepective: Is school grading her skill development and her process or merely her ability to perform well on tests? Can she be proud of her efforts even if she doesn’t get straight As?
Then, there is girls’ obsession with, even addiction to, social media. It’s how girls are spending their time—up to 8 hours a day—it’s how they are gauging their self-worth, and it’s nothing but a numbers game. How many likes and followers do I have? How many comments do I get for my posts? Which pictures get the most likes or hearts? Girls learn very quickly that popularity on social media is not about the quality of her character, but rather the quantity of her posts.
If you are as concerned as I am about girls’ plummeting self-esteem let’s look at how to bolster more compassionate and realistic attitudes through healthy practices.
Instead of falling prey to the comparison game, encourage her to honor her own uniqueness. Explain to her that looking at others and feeling “not good enough” is normal, but can be easily avoided by shifting her focus to her unique qualities and abilities. Create a list of ideas that could follow the prompt, “I am good enough because…” or the positive power statements that begin, “I am…” “I can…” and “I will…”
I often ask my clients to create a list called “10 Loveable Qualities About Me.” These written reminders can guide her to accentuate the positive and remember who she is. Self-esteem begins with herself.
Measure self-esteem in new ways.
Since we know girls are measuring their worth via attention on social media, why not find new metrics? First, ask her to be self-reflective. Instead of waiting for the approval (or rejection of others), ask her this simple question: “How do YOU feel you did on your math test or at soccer practice today?” “What do YOU think about your posts on Instagram?” Encourage her to take back her power by considering her opinion first and caring much less (if at all) about the opinion of others.
Second, try helping her shift her focus from what she looks like to the qualities of the person she wants to be. Yes, it’s important that she takes care of her body as a way to feel good. It’s also important that she feels good in ways that have more to do with true, inner beauty and less to do with physical, outer beauty. Have conversations about the values she feels she has and the values she wants to exude. Write out these values on a poster board and start gathering “evidence” or examples that supports when she demonstrates these values. If she feels she is kind, then under the word “kind” list examples like when she saves a seat on the bus for her friend or gives away her recess snack to someone who forgot hers. This activity can quickly become her new measure of her self-esteem.
I know girls believe that they are honing a valuable skill when they are creating stories on Instagram or learning how to use different filters. We have to teach them that as useful as these technical skills are, there are so many more skills that she should be learning and developing. Ask her to consider a skill related to fitness, music, nature and time outside or volunteering. This way, not only are we helping her get off her screen to live in real time, but we are also encouraging her to be well-rounded and to give back to her community.
Try a little self-compassion.
The kindness we show to ourselves, especially in moments of suffering, is the key to self-compassion. We are all going to have good days and bad days—that is the human experience. Instead of emphasizing achievement and outcome, which can be discouraging, we can guide girls to champion themselves for their efforts and all the ways they feel they are growing, regardless of outcomes.
For example, she might have a difficult conversation with her friend about how that friend made her feel left out. If the friend replies with, “I don’t care,” she can feel devastated. It’s in this moment that we can point out that even though she didn’t get the response she was hoping for, the real takeaway is that she had the courage to face difficulty head on. With self-compassion, she can say “I am proud of myself for expressing my true feelings.” It’s about progress, not perfection. It’s about noticing and celebrating the steps along the way, with all the kindness she can give herself.
Girls admitting that they have “little to no self-esteem” is heart-breaking. Let’s work together on lowering that 90 percent! Even with a clearer understanding of themselves and increased levels of self-esteem, I know that words can still hurt and images will still influence, but I believe that with practice and with our support, girls can stand tall and stay rooted in their own confidence and self-worth.