How to Raise Girls with Healthy Self-Esteem

As girls grow and develop, their overall sense of self-esteem and personal worth grows and changes, too. Self-esteem is how confident we feel about our talents and abilities, not just how others may perceive us. Girls with high self-esteem feel secure about themselves, regardless of how smart or successful others say they are. These girls express their feelings, make positive choices, and care about others.

One might  assume that girls today grow up with confidence in their abilities to fulfill their aspirations. But girls continue to face particular pressures on their self-esteem.

When—and why—does girls' self-esteem decline?

  • Among 5-12th grade girls, 59 percent in one survey were dissatisfied with their body shape.
  • Of girls in that same age group, 47 percent said they wanted to lose weight because of photos they saw in magazines. 
  • Girls ages 10 and 12 (tweens) are confronted with "teen" issues, such as dating and sex, at increasingly earlier ages. Among 8–12-year olds, 73 percent dress like teens and talk like teens.
  • Girls ages 8–12 are more worried about being teased and made fun of than they are about being attacked with a weapon or being kidnapped.
  • Between 5th and 9th grade, gifted girls, perceiving that smarts aren't sexy, often hide or downplay their accomplishments.
  • Girls and boys enjoy and succeed in science equally in 4th grade, but by 8th grade girls' interest and participation drops.
  • By age 15, girls are twice as likely as boys to become depressed.

Body-image, stress and their effects on self-esteem

Starting in the preteen years, there is a shift in focus; for girls, their appearance and their changing bodies too often become an all consuming barometer of worth. For an overwhelming majority of girls, self-esteem becomes too closely tied to how they look and their physical attributes; girls feel they can't measure up to unrealistic society standards.

Teenage girls react differently than boys to "stressors" in life, especially stress in their personal relationships—a tendency that accounts in part for the higher levels of depression in girls.

The media, the sexualization of girls and mental health problems

The media, including television, movies, videos, song lyrics, magazines, the internet, video games and advertisements, all too often portray girls and women in a sexual manner—revealing clothing, body posture and facial expressions. These images become the models of femininity that girls—from a very early age—learn to emulate. Girls are constantly barraged by this message: Women in our society are valued above all else based on their physical attractiveness.

The sexualization of girls in all forms of media is a “broad and increasing problem and is harmful to girls' self-image and healthy development,” according to a 2007 report by the American Psychological Association Task Force. Sexualization is defined as occurring when a person's value comes only from her or his sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics, and when a person is sexually objectified, e.g., made into a thing for another's sexual use.

The APA Task Force Report states that sexualization is harmful to girls in many ways:

Emotional health:
Sexualization undermines a girl's confidence in and comfort with her own body, leading to anxiety, shame, and difficulty in developing a healthy sexual self-image.

Mental and physical health: The sexualization of girls in the media has been linked to eating disorders, low self-esteem, and major depression or depressed mood, the most common mental health problems in girls and women.

The good news: Government, media, youth empowerment programs, and other advocacy programs such as Girl Scouts, Girls Inc., Boys and Girls Club of America, and the Women's Media Center are teaming up to change the way women are depicted in the media.

How can parents help their daughters develop healthy self-esteem?

Although the media, peers, and pop culture have a big influence on children, parents are still more important than they think when it comes to having an impact on a daughter's developing self-esteem. Here are some ways that parents can help:

  • Be a positive role model. Don't talk negatively about your own body. Try not to be overly focused on your appearance.
  • Listen to your daughter and encourage her to speak her mind.
  • Don't praise girls solely for their appearance. Praise should be focused on effort and accomplishments.
  • Watch how you talk about other people: Are you judgmental of people's appearances? Make sure you're sending a message to your children that it's what's inside—especially how we treat others—that defines a person and makes us who we are.
  • Get dads involved. Girls need to hear feedback from their fathers on their accomplishments. Girls with dads who are active presences in their lives attend college more often and are more ambitious, more successful in school, more likely to attain careers of their own, less dependent, more self-protective, and less likely to date an abusive man.
  • Watch your own stereotypes; let daughters help fix the kitchen sink and let sons help make dinner.
  • Watch television, movies, and other media with your daughters and sons. Discuss how girls are portrayed
  • Let girls fail—which requires letting them try. Helping them all the time or protecting them from experiencing failure, especially if done by dad, can translate into a girl feeling incapable or incompetent. (This goes for boys, too.)
  • Don't limit girls' choices. Encourage them to explore math or chemistry, for instance; buy them games traditionally meant for boys.
  • Get girls involved with sports or other physical activities. Regular physical exercise, when it's something she enjoys, can enhance girls' mental health, reduce symptoms of stress and depression, and help girls feel strong and competent.
  • Help girls avoid becoming obsessed with how they look. Counteract advertisers who take advantage of preteen and teenage girls by making them feel they need certain products to feel "cool." To highlight the effect that ads can have on people, discuss the following questions (adapted from Media Smarts) with your children, girls and boys:
  1. Do you ever feel bad about yourself for not owning something?
  2. Have you ever felt that people might like you more if you owned a certain item?
  3. Has an ad make you feel that you would like yourself more, or that others would like you more, if you owned the product the ad is selling?
  4. Do you worry about your looks? Have you ever felt that people would like you more if your face, body, skin or hair looked different?
  5. Has an ad ever made you feel that you would like yourself more, or others would like you more, if you changed your appearance with the product the ad was selling?

It is within the family that a girl first develops a sense of who she is and who she wants to become. Parents armed with knowledge can create a psychological climate that will enable each girl to achieve her full potential. Parents can help their daughters avoid developing, or overcome, negative feelings about themselves and grow into strong, self-confident women.