How to Boost a Girl’s Self-Esteem and Avoid the Confidence Gap

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  • Girls’ confidence levels drop by 30% between ages 8 to 14 while boys experience a smaller dip.
  • Girls feel an increasing pressure to perform. They’re internalizing messages of female success. These include not just academics, but also their appearance and social media presence. 

We want girls to believe they can rule the world if they want. So why do our girls become less assertive and more shy as they hit late elementary school?

Raising a Girl’s Self-Esteem & The Confidence Gap

Puberty is going to have an effect on kids. Most kids’ confidence levels fall during this time, but nowhere as dramatic as girls according to a survey of 1300 girls between the ages of 8 to 14.

Girls, on average, experience a 30% drop in their confidence levels while boys only experience a small dip.  The physical and social changes that are happening during puberty is hitting our girls like a ton of bricks.

While the physical part of puberty is more straightforward to study, it’s more difficult to understand the emotional and psychological aspect that goes on in their heads. This confidence gap between girls and boys is not easy to explain. 

We looked at some of the major things that are happening during puberty. While nobody can say for sure, they’re likely significant contributing factors to our girls’ confidence drop:

Issue #1: We Start Expecting Our Girls to Act More “Girly”

“Don’t be so bossy.”

An easy clue to why girls’ confidence levels drop during this time may simply be that the word “girly” is often linked to confidence-destroying ideas like being people-pleasing, physical and emotional weakness, and high sensitivity.  Dove’s viral #likeagirl video perfectly captures this problem.

Explicit or not, there are social signals directed at our children about their gender performance. It’s in our language, our attitudes and the way media plays out boy and girl stereotypes.

Kids are sensitive to this stuff. They know that acceptance is essential. Around the age of puberty, when kids’ bodies are changing, that’s when kids are likely to pay closer attention to these stereotypes. They want to make themselves more accepted by others. So it’s not surprising that they try hard to play up their roles.

Think about it like a movie, if you are auditioning for the role labeled “girl,” you know to act “girly” to win the part. The problem for girls trying to act “girlier” is that there are many negative stereotypes of femininity and of being “girly”. 

For example, there’s the classic stereotype that girls aren’t as good at math as boys are. Now imagine if you’re a girl and quite good at math, and you think that you have to dumb yourself down to fit in at school.  That’s crazy-making and depressing to think about.

Unfortunately, society expects our kids to act in accordance with their gender. We strive to accept others, but it still makes many of us feel incredibly uncomfortable to deal with kids (and adults) who don’t follow gender norms. 

Issue #2: Leaning in: Social Media, Achievement and Having it All

Social media is a source of stress for kids. It starts becoming important to them during puberty years. The pressure to keep up with their friends is enormous and social media is a constant reminder.

The issue with social media for girls is that we are asking our girls to achieve more than ever says Rachel Simmons, author of “Enough As She Is: How to Help Girls Move Beyond Impossible Standards of Success to Live Healthy, Happy, and Fulfilling Lives.”

“We’re now giving girls access to STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). We’re giving girls access to opportunities they’ve never had before. And we’re not doing that and saying, ‘Oh, you don’t have to have a bikini body anymore. That’s cool. You’re good. You can look however you want to look,’ “

No, we’re saying ‘keep your bikini body and become an engineering major and also have a totally lit Snapchat feed on a Saturday night,’ and so that’s exhausting, and I call that role overload and role conflict.

We haven’t dropped the expectation for our girls do it all. It’s Lean-In a la Sheryl Sandberg, Young Girl Edition.

Issue #3: Girls Learn That Their Looks Matter A Lot

We oversexualize teenagers, especially girls.

Puberty significantly affects how others behave towards you. For girls, they learn that regardless of the way they look, some men and boys will begin to treat them differently. Girls learn that they don’t have to dress a certain way to get noticed.  There are many people out there who will make inappropriate comments about your body. They learn to keep their heads down and pretend that they don’t hear them.

Girls also realize that their looks give them status. The more that they look like the popular girls on social media, the more status and social access they have at school within their peer groups. Clothes become more important. Girls’ bodies can begin to speak louder than our girls themselves. This can be demoralizing and difficult for our girls to understand.

 Preparing them for the social and emotional changes that will happen is the best way to prevent a big confidence drop. 

 

How to Boost a Girl’s Self Esteem:

 

1. Teach Your Daughter About Social Media

Teach your daughter to be social media literate. Look at social media with her, ask questions and prompt discussion. Talk to her about what she’s seeing and how she feels about those images. Make her critical of what she sees online.

Talk to her about the difference between real life and social media images. It’s not obvious to kids that what they see isn’t real, so make sure you teach your kids how to recognize what is real.

In the same way you once described to your kids about how a scary scene in a movie is movie magic, you can explain to your daughter about how social media images are meant to blur reality. You can show them that it’s photo and video magic.

2. Raise her to challenge, not to please (and accept).

Do not train your daughter to please or to obey. Train your daughter to think critically. Show her that it’s okay to challenge adults and other authority by teaching her to trust and prioritize her own mind. In this way, she can feel that it’s okay to voice her opinions even if they differ from the norm.

Encourage her to ask questions. Give her choices so that she knows that she has a powerful say in everything that happens in her life.

3. Avoid praising her for her appearance.

Praise her for her effort and actions. Take the attention away from external appearances. 

It’s an awkward enough time being a pre-teen. Comments that direct attention to her appearance can wrongly signal the importance of looks. These are messages she is likely already getting from school, so it’s crucial that the praise she receives from trusted adults and mentors focus only on her inner worth and efforts.

4. Show her what a healthy body image looks like.

Regularly create opportunities to discuss positive body image. Show her a range of different women and their bodies. Give her the knowledge that women come in all shapes and sizes.

You can show her examples of coveted body types from history and help her understand that different body types were preferred at different times. She can learn that just because one body type is preferred over another right now, it does not make any other body type less worthy. 

You can also model a healthy body image. This is the best way to show her a healthy way to look at her own body. Note that the way you behave around food and weight is important. It’s a good idea to examine your self-perception and let go of any bad habits that might give her the wrong idea. 

5. Encourage her to be active.

Encourage your daughter to participate in team sports and be physically active in her daily life.

Nothing improves self-esteem like great physical health. It’s great for regulating hormones and mood. It can also make her feel more connected with others. 

6. Supplement school curriculums to make them more gender balanced.

School textbooks feature scientists, artists and politicians that are disproportionately men because women were kept from many powerful positions for most of history. Women’s accomplishments were often underreported. The problem is that this can give your kids the false impression that women didn’t participate or accomplish many important things. 

You can take a look at what your daughter is studying at school and introduce her to important female figures that played significant roles. This can help her better see that it’s not a lack of ambition or ability, but rather, the lack of access that prevented women from doing more. Help her appreciate what women were able to do despite great odds. 

7. Correct and don’t let people speak down to women around your children.

Don’t let anyone speak like this around your kids. Sometimes it’s obvious when someone uses sexist language, other times it’s less noticeable. Things like “run like a girl” have negative connotations about women that can easily implant itself in our children’s heads. While not directly condescending to any one person, the language we use to describe girls can and do directly affect what our daughters think of themselves.

You can read up on gendered language. This is a complicated topic. The more you are aware of this type of language, the more you can do something about it. 

8. Treat your daughter the same way you treat your son and vice versa.

Love and support them in the same way and don’t let your own or other people’s gender biases play into how you treat them.

9. Reframe what your daughter see as flaws or failures.

You can talk to them about things they don’t like about themselves or have failed at. Accept them and help guide them towards plans that make the situation better. For example, if they have anxiety or fears, you can work with them on a list of the best and worst case scenarios. This way, you can talk them through their fears with logic that is difficult to ignore.

10. Teach Your Daughter Self Respect.

Another great idea is to routinely talk to your daughter about the kind of social experiences she can expect to encounter. Talk to her about the different types of pressures she might face during puberty. Let her know that how she sees herself is the only thing that matters.

This means talking to her about the less savory aspects of being a girl like being catcalled and having her abilities be underestimated. You can explain how these things can make her feel icky and weird. She’ll learn that these comments may temporarily cause her self-doubt, but that these things are more about the people saying them. 

Being open to talking about things like this can prepare your daughter for the social and emotional changes of puberty. It can encourage her to feel safe in confiding to you.

11. Use Media to Your Advantage.

Use media to teach her about what she can expect during puberty and as a young adult. Create opportunities to discuss events and characters in the TV shows and movies that you watch together. 

Literature is an excellent way to teach your daughter to respect and honor who she is. Stories can show her how other girls her age and older have overcome obstacles. 

It’s a reality that our kids will experience a confidence drop during puberty. The best thing we can do is to prepare them. We can show them that we will love, support and guide them through challenging times. As always, our tips above are there to help you implement ideas that you might not have thought of. It’s your understanding of your child that’s key.

Tools & Further Reading



If you have any ideas or suggestions, comment below!

For More Ideas:

How to Help a Shy Child Gain Confidence in 7 Impactful Ways

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