My friend first brought my attention to this sad but all too common phenomenon.
She told me her niece, Lucy, at just nine, had been comparing herself to her pal. She felt her friend was not just more athletic and popular; she was also prettier.
Lucy threatened to ruin her well-being by ruminating on their (imagined) differences. She felt not worthy of her friend’s attention and so acted differently, prompting her friend to hang out with other girls, thus neatly leading Lucy’s thoughts to a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The confidence drop is staggering
While Lucy’s story sounds disconcerting, I don’t think she’s the only girl who feels like she’s less than her pals.
Statistics certainly back this up.
With US girls experiencing a confidence drop between age eight and fourteen of 30% and taking into account girls’ belief that other people like them tumbling from 71% to 38% (almost 50%) between their tweens and teens, something is going on with our girls’ confidence levels.
Of the 1,300 polled, one girl heartbreakingly said:
“I feel like everybody is so smart and pretty, and I’m just this ugly girl without friends,”
“Right until age 8, there’s really no difference [between girls and boys] in confidence levels. We were surprised at how quickly, how deep that drop is.”
So why does girls’ confidence nosedive?
According to Claire Shipman and her co-writers, when girls receive an influx of estrogen, their emotional intelligence increases, allowing them to read the emotional landscape around them.
This development makes them more observant but also more cautious, so less likely to take risks.
Combine this with a more developed worrywart center (anterior cingulate gyrus) compared to boys’ brains, and it’s easy to see why girls tend to ruminate.
What happens to boys?
In puberty boys receive a massive testosterone boost, supporting risk-taking.
While boys do take a confidence hit during puberty, they take risks, fail, and start again, which builds confidence, and sets them up for working life where risk-taking is part of the course. But with girls remaining cautious, it’s easy to see why females won’t catch up with males, and the confidence gender gap stays.
In fact, I’d say women reading this can attest to an inner critic sabotaging their confidence. And it happens to the best of us, with Michele Obama speaking out about her struggle with imposter syndrome:
“I had to overcome the question ‘am I good enough? It’s dogged me for most of my life. Many women and young girls walk around with that question in their minds.”
Is society to blame?
Whereas the female brain can help girls do well academically, it often leads them onto a path of perfection and even people-pleasing.
Considering parents and teachers alike tend to promote and reward girls with ‘good behaviour,’ it’s easy to see why girls overthink and worry about failing.
“If life were one long grade school, women would be the undisputed rulers of the world. But life isn’t one long grade school.”
However, it’s not just caregivers and teachers who (unwittingly) help set in motion the tumble. As their brain develops, girls become aware that society treats men differently from women.
Social & mainstream media; a potent mix
Kids live in a social media-saturated society. So when something happens at school or a friend’s house, they don’t get respite when they’re home. Instead, they are always on, tuned in to public praise but also disapproval.
With more than half of all teen girls feeling stress to be perfect, social media can add to girls’ internal pressure cooker.
And consider this: 80% of girls distort the way they look online by 13.
Shocking as that may be, most women won’t be surprised by the high use of online filters. Girls grow up in a society with impossible beauty standards and watch skinny models and actresses from a young age before realizing the media manipulates most of these images.
“And it’s not just stretching; it’s visual effects to take away lines and blemishes and I would say at this point half or more of the women on TV are wearing wigs or extensions.”
How can you spot the signs of low confidence in your daughter?
- She is risk-averse.
- She is unwilling to try new sports or hobbies, preferring to stay in her comfort zone.
- Like Lucy, she overthinks everything.
- She is reluctant to make new friends.
- You might notice the kicking in of people-pleasing and perfectionism.
Five tips for parents: how to help your daughter build it back up
According to the writers of The Confidence Code, Claire Shipman, Katty Kay, and JillEllyn Riley, these five tips are worth a try:
- Expose your daughter to risks; let her move outside her comfort zone by exploring new sports or even walking to school alone.
- Deal with her fear of failure calmly; if something goes wrong, don’t promise to fix it. Instead, give her a break, so take her for a walk or let her read a book.
- Change her destructive inner voice by using the maybe tool. Optimistic maybe statements work well when something ‘bad’ happens, as in, ‘maybe my friend didn’t reply to my text because her mum told her to get off her phone’.
- Social media recommendations: encourage your girls to apply the grandma test (before posting something online, consider whether you could show it to grandma), take regular screen breaks, and follow inspirational women who work in jobs/charities that interest them.
- Model the behavior you want to see. Keep a lid on your quest for perfection and discuss your failures and what you learned from them.
When girls approach puberty, their emotional intelligence increases, making them more observant, but also more risk-averse. In contrast, boys get a shot of testosterone and are more inclined to build confidence by taking risks. This difference sets children up for a confidence gap, that doesn’t close in adulthood.
So is there anything we parents can do to help our daughters?
Well, our girls, like Lucy, need to know they can’t be truly confident until they are truly themselves. By all means, encourage them to take risks and build resilience. And you will go a long way to make them feel, that yes, they are good enough, just by being themselves.
This post originally appeared on Medium and is reposted here with permission