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Building Your Daughter's Confidence

Provide Honest and Specific Feedback
Every teen girl needs to know in what ways she shines, in what areas she needs extra effort or help, and the specifics of her personal style. Such self-awareness feeds her confidence and guides her best decision making. To learn about herself, your daughter needs feedback--from you, her teachers, and her peers.

For example, does she tend to be an energetic hard worker? Does she self-initiate, take responsibility, and work independently? Or does she typically slack off, turn passive, and wait for others to help? Your daughter must learn whether she is focused or scattered in a dozen different directions, whether she perseveres or gives up at the first sign of frustration, and whether she is willing to go the extra step or prefers to take the easiest shortcuts.

To help your daughter develop the most accurate picture of herself, give her diplomatic, yet truthful, feedback. The best praise is specific and selective. For example, rather than telling her that she is fantastic or brilliant, point out her improvement in goal tending or writing physics labs. Emphasize the glowing comments on her report cards. Notice when she volunteers to help or pitches in around the house without being asked. Acknowledge her self control when her sister baits her and she doesn't respond in kind.

But be cautious about exaggerating your daughter's assets. Although girls want their parents to rave about them, they are quick to sniff out false compliments. Toni, a senior, says, "Don't tell me I'm the best at something when we both know I'm not. That just makes me not trust my parents." When I sit down with teens after psychoeducational testing to tell them about their strengths, I of- ten hear, "Yeah, my mom (or dad) told me that too, but I figured they have to say that because they're my parents."

It is especially wise to refrain from well-meaning comments such as "You can do anything you set your mind to." Every girl knows that she has limitations. When you ignore or deny the truth, you lose credibility. Other girls tell me that when they overhear their parents embellishing their accomplishments, they actually feel more inadequate. "What's so bad about coming in third in track?" asks Hillary. "My dad obviously didn't think that was good enough if he had to brag that I came in first."

You can also be honest, though gentle and tactful, about your daughter's shortcomings. Some parents hesitate to do this for fear of damaging girls' self-esteem. However, in my experience the opposite is true. Teen girls are too savvy to be fooled. They already know they are not great at everything and are reassured by the confirmation of their flaws. Feedback helps our daughters to know exactly where they stand and to form the most genuine, realistic pictures of themselves. But avoid offhand comments spoken facetiously, in jest, or out of nervousness. These can act like pinpricks that instantly puncture their pride and self-esteem.

As long as you describe your daughter's weaknesses sensitively, she may feel relieved. For example, if she learns that her reading comprehension needs improvement, she now understands why English has been such a struggle. It is not that she has been lazy or stupid, as she had thought. Or hearing that she tends to interrupt people can shed light on why the girls at her lunch table seem annoyed with her. In fact, instead of making her feel bad about herself, this information prevents her from imagining even worse or more insulting reasons for their rebuff. Feedback also gives her specific ideas about how to set things right.

If your daughter can't trust you to be honest about her weaknesses, she also won't place much stock in your compliments. So if she asks what you think of her social studies paper and you are not impressed, you might say, "The information seems well researched, but the paper needs more careful editing" or "Your thesis is sharp, but the writing isn't smooth yet." Integrating your words with all the other feedback she gets from her teachers and peers, your daughter will form the truest sense of her abilities.

One last comment: Although I have just said that appropriate feedback is vital, sometimes recognition of achievement can back- .re. For teens who are excruciatingly self-conscious because they crave peer acceptance, public accolades can be intensely uncomfortable. For those who tend toward perfectionism, too much praise can worsen the unhealthy compulsion to excel. These girls are already worried about what other people think. And once their achievements are publicly recognized, perfectionists feel hard pressed not only to maintain them, but also to surpass them.

For these reasons, schools should rethink the ramifications of posting or publishing honor rolls. And parents might reconsider the wisdom of placing bumper stickers on cars that proclaim daughters as honors students.

More on: Teen Stress

From Stressed-Out Girls: Helping Them Thrive in the Age of Pressure by Roni Cohen-Sandler, Ph.D. Copyright © 2005. Used by arrangement with Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

If you'd like to buy this book, click here.


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