Girl Power!: How to Empower Middle School Girls

MIDDLE SCHOOL GIRLS. What comes to mind when you hear those words? Moody? Self-absorbed? Preoccupied with peers? I often hear parents ask, “What happened to my sweet little girl?” or “Why doesn’t she open up to me?” As a parent, you may feel frustrated, confused, or sad about your daughter’s behaviors, especially if she did not act this way before.

The transition from childhood to adolescence, marked by the shift from elementary to middle school, is a challenging time. In fact, this transition marks one of the peak times when self-esteem decreases. These “tweens” may feel caught in the middle-given more responsibilities and expectations and no longer treated like a child, yet not treated like an adult. These changes they go through in the adolescent transition can challenge their self-esteem levels-how they think and feel about themselves and how they think others perceive them.

3 Challenges to Self-Esteem:

1. Shifts in academic expectations:

Middle School introduces multiple teachers, different classes, and an increased homework load that students are responsible to juggle and middle school girlbalance. Students may struggle with these changes, which can impact how they view their intelligence and ability to succeed. If they viewed themselves as good students in elementary school, this transition can be especially challenging to their academic self-esteem.

2. Shifts in social expectations:

Middle school involves students from multiple elementary schools, and girls navigate the transition from having the same best friends in elementary school to determining which groups they belong to in middle school. With more focus on cliques and popularity, girls may feel confused, isolated, and anxious about fitting in and feeling accepted. The emphasis on who is “in” and “out” can create a heightened sense of awareness in girls about how their peers view them. With the constant shifts of what behaviors, attitudes, activities, and clothes are accepted and rejected by, girls may feel the need to reinvent themselves, which can create instabilities in self-esteem levels.

3. Shifts in physical appearance:

Middle school marks the beginning of physical changes (ex. Puberty, acne, weight and height changes, braces, glasses, etc), which can feel scary, overwhelming, and embarrassing. These uncomfortable feelings can stop girls from reaching out and discussing these changes. Because of this, it is possible for girls to feel very alone, as if they are the only ones having difficulties with these changes.

So, how do we address these challenges to girls’ self-esteem? We empower. While the adolescent transition is a challenge to self-esteem, it is also an opportunity to improve and build high self-esteem. Teaching girls tools to explore who they want to be; take care of themselves; reach out for support; and create meaningful, positive relationships can help strengthen self-esteem.

4 Tips to Address the Challenges and Empower

1. Create an open space for conversation. Girls transitioning to adolescence may feel isolated, as if they are the only ones going through difficulties. Acknowledging to your daughter, “Middle school brings lots of changes for everyone” and asking open ended questions, such as “What have you noticed that is different about middle school?” can show her that these topics are on the table. Even if she does not want to answer right away, knowing that her parents understand that changes exist can help her open up in the future.

2. Listen and provide empathy before problem solving. As a  parent, you may want to help your daughter by giving advice and problem solving. Before these steps, however, your daughter needs to feel heard. Show that you are present with your daughter by nodding, asking open-ended questions (“What happened next?” or “How did you feel?”), and checking in to make sure you understand (“So you are saying that your friend said something that made you feel embarrassed?”). Demonstrate empathy by acknowledging that she could feel this way (“I could understand why you would feel angry”), even if you disagree with her behaviors or would feel differently yourself. Once you listen and provide empathy, empower your daughter by helping her problem solve. Ask questions, such as “What do you think you should do?” and “What do you think would happen if you did that?” Problem solving can help your daughter explore what type of student, friend, sister, daughter, and person she wants to be. Guiding her through this process can help your daughter feel supported and effective, which can increase the likelihood of her opening up to you in the future.

3. Begin potentially uncomfortable conversations.  There are many conversations (peer pressure, romantic relationships, puberty, etc.) that can be potentially uncomfortable or awkward to have with your daughter. Beginning these conversations, however, is important so that your daughter knows she can talk to you about these issues. These conversations can also serve as an opportunity to discuss the importance of self-care, which can improve self-esteem levels. Bring up the conversation in a gentle, matter-of-fact way (“There are many physical changes you will be going through that can feel confusing. Let’s talk about them together”). Acknowledge, normalize, and empathize with possible discomfort and awkwardness. Beginning the conversation can show your daughter that you are there to support them through this time.

4. Create opportunities for positive relationship building.  Because girls transitioning to adolescence can feel isolated, opportunities for meaningful, positive connections are vital. This can include enhancing already-existing relationships or seeking new ones. One way to build relationships is to join a social group. North Shore Pediatric Therapy is offering a 10-week group for middle school girls to strengthen their self-esteem levels. Click here for more information.

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