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Building Your Daughter's Confidence

Tolerate Her Imperfect Behavior
Although most parents want to raise well-behaved and well-mannered kids, the most confident girls are able to show their less than ideal sides. These girls can say what is really on their minds. They can be sullen, annoyed, and even annoying without being stressed out about disappointing people. They feel entitled to debate, argue, and complain. Freedom from pleasing others helps girls to cope more successfully with achievement pressure. Although it is often easier to parent a quiet, submissive teen who doesn't make waves, you might convey to your daughter that having or expressing negative feelings doesn't make her a bad (or unsuccessful) person.

The headmistress of an independent girls' school told me about a confident student whose parents likely agreed with this philosophy: "The editor of our school newspaper is always whining and complaining, but the great thing is, she doesn't care if she pleases me or her mother or her father. She's going to do what she wants to do. She's a great student. She has a great time. She's doing it for herself." Wisely, this woman added, "The ones who whine are safer than the ones who don't. They may make adults irritated, but they're getting it out."

When the girls in my focus groups discuss what they most admire about their mothers, it isn't just their positive, socially acceptable traits they speak about. Kimiko, for example, tells us, "My mom is the strongest woman in the world. It can be such a negative thing. She's very thickheaded and opinionated. But she taught me to be opinionated and strong as well. To stand up for what I believe in. Maybe that causes fights sometimes, but it's okay because I know she'll always support me."

Give your daughter the liberating message that she has to do her work but is not obligated to like it--or to pretend that she does. All girls--and especially perfectionists--need permission to grumble about their teachers, protest the amount of homework they get, and complain about school. By keeping your own nervous energy in check, you avoid becoming alarmed by these remarks. For many girls, expressing imperfect feelings and displaying imperfect behaviors offers an escape valve for tension. Ironically, this enables them to buckle down and focus on their work. Regardless, knowing themselves well requires being in touch with the full spectrum of their emotions.

Give Her the Gift of Time
It is easy to overreact to your daughter's stumbles and setbacks, but try to be open-minded about when her achievements should occur. If you expect success by a certain age or grade level and she doesn't come through, you risk conveying your disappointment rather than waiting it out and allowing her progress to take its natural course. Predictably, the former approach harms her self-confidence.

Maturation plays an enormous role in girls' success. Maybe your daughter's abstract thinking hasn't developed enough yet for her to conquer algorithms. She is not going to shine on the tennis or basketball court by her early teen years if her motor coordination kicks in slowly. But if you believe that learning is a lifelong pursuit--as opposed to a rat race that ends with getting admitted to college or grad school--you are more apt to give your daughter the gift of time.

Stella, a junior, looks like a classic underachiever because she does not fit the mold of a diligent, successful high school student. Though she has a brilliant mathematical mind, she rarely does her assignments, which she perceives as rote, repetitious, and meaningless. When the zeroes she gets for skipping her homework are averaged in with her perfect test scores, she usually gets C's, even in the advanced math and science classes that come easily to her.

Her mother tells me that she has had to make a conscious choice: either to be on Stella's back all the time, checking up on her homework until it's all done, or to let her daughter go through high school on her own terms. Fortunately for Stella--and their mother-daughter relationship--she chose the second option. This mother knows that her daughter won't be able to fully use her intellect or skills until she is passionate about what she does. Stella knows this too. She has been encouraged to know her own mind; she too makes a conscious choice to get mediocre grades with the understanding that she will probably not attend a highly competitive college.

Although you already know that girls mature and develop at different rates, it is hard to be patient with your own daughter, especially if you see her struggling or suffering. But maturation can be wonderful. Try to sit back and watch your daughter evolve. As her brain continues to develop, you might marvel at her new ability to plan, make connections between ideas, use her burgeoning self discipline, and tolerate frustration. As she figures out who she is, your daughter will gain much-needed confidence. And as you apply the suggestions in this chapter, she will use that self-knowledge and assurance to discover her passions and ideals.

When all this comes together, she is most likely to succeed in whatever she does. Until then, I suggest following psychologist Harriet Lerner's no-nonsense, straightforward advice to parents; in The Mother Dance, she writes, "Children move forward according to their own timetables and not in a predictable fashion. . . . You cannot predict your children's future. No matter how terrible (or well) they appear to be doing now, you don't have a clue as to how they will turn out over the long haul."

What you can be sure of is this: Giving your daughter permission to know herself well and to remain authentic allows her to enjoy learning and achieving. She is more likely to experience the thrill of an Aha! moment when she finds a creative solution to a problem. She is better able to relish the sweet satisfaction that comes from accomplishing something important. And beyond her degree of success, staying in touch with herself has tremendous psychological benefits. Your daughter's awareness of her feelings and ability to express them appropriately is an antidote to many of the mental health problems that specifically afflict young women today.

More on: Teen Stress

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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.

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