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Parents naturally want the best for their daughters: good friends, the wisdom to make good decisions, and strength to weather life’s storms. But much of the news about girls these days isn’t good. As teen years approach, many confident girls turn into sullen shells. Self-esteem plummets. Friends turn on each other. And the mysteries of social networking make everything scarier. What’s a parent to do?

This article provides perspective and advice to help parents raise confident daughters ready to thrive in today’s world.

Get to Know the Confidence Busters

For starters, parents can take time to understand what their daughters are going through. “One of the overriding messages for girls is that if they’re confident, they’re conceited,” says Catherine Steiner-Adair, EdD, director of the Eating Disorders Education and Prevention, McLean Hospital; clinical instructor, Department of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School. “Girls need to know that claiming their strengths doesn’t mean they’re stuck up,” she says.

Steiner-Adair sees girls’ confidence wane as they move from childhood into adolescence. When she asks girls what they want to be, fourth-grade girls cite careers such as a veterinarian or surgeon. By middle school, girls’ looks enter the picture. “Middle-school girls tell me, ‘I can’t be a surgeon, I don’t look the part,’” Steiner-Adair tells WebMD. “By 10th grade, girls focus almost exclusively on looks. They tell me, ‘I want to be a size 2.’”

Show Concern -- Just Not Too Much

It’s a distressing picture, yet overly concerned parents can be as much harm as good. “Parents who believe low confidence is inevitable set their daughters up to expect less of themselves,” says Richard Lerner, PhD, the Bergstrom Chair and director of the Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development at Tufts University.

For many girls, puberty and the transition from elementary to middle school hit about the same time. “Just when they’re changing schools, changing peer groups, and facing higher academic demands, their bodies start changing too,” says Lerner. The result is a tremendous amount of stress all at once.  

Parents, especially moms, can help girls put the stress of this period in perspective by sharing their own stories and how they got through confusing or difficult times. When girls know that they’re not the first or only ones to struggle, and that things do get better, they often start to see a light at the end of the tunnel.

Praise the Process

Well-intended efforts to boost your daughter’s self esteem can backfire, depending on what you say. Focusing praise on your daughter’s looks rather than her activities can reinforce the message that her appearance matters more than things she does.

Surprisingly, research shows that praising intelligence can also undermine a child’s confidence.  In one recent study, two groups of fifth graders received two different kinds of praise after taking an IQ test. Kids in one group were told, “Wow, that’s a good score. You must be really smart at this.” Kids in the other group were told, “Wow, that’s a good score. You must have worked really hard.”

Kids in both groups then had the opportunity to try a challenging task, with the promise they could learn from it. The kids in the “smart” group weren’t interested. The kids praised for their effort took it on. Not only that, the kids in the second group performed better over time, outpacing their “smart” peers on follow-up IQ tests. It appears that seeing intelligence as a fixed trait instills fear of failure that makes kids less able to handle setbacks.

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