Don't Raise Good Girl

Discover Her True Identity

Dr Jill Weber, a licensed clinical psychologist, practices in the Washington, DC area. Dr Weber writes a blog for Psychology Today and is the author of Having Sex, Wanting Intimacy: Why Women Settle for One-Sided Relationships.
Don't Raise Good Girl Discover Her True Identity, Dr. Jill Weber, Parenting

Don't Raise Good Girl Discover Her True Identity, Dr. Jill Weber, Parenting

Help Girls to Develop Emotional Awareness: parents should notice if they have anxiety about raising their girl and, as a result of that anxiety, tend to focus her more on being a ‘good girl’ than on helping her to discover her true identity.

Instead of counseling and control, engage her in conversation. Carve out some time to wholeheartedly listen to her without telling her what to do. Simply reflect back what you hear her saying or what you notice she is feeling without any pressure that she needs to do something differently.

Parental appreciation of feelings and how a girl understands media’s role in the world can powerfully influence the successful development of an emotionally confident and successful woman.

Studies show that mainstream media is sharply focused on a narrow standard for female physical attractiveness. Unrealistic as it may be, a narrow standard is so widely disseminated that it has considerable credence.

This is particularly troublesome for girls and young women who are in the process of forming their own identities. When achieving someone else’s definition of perfection is the primary standard, girls begin to discount their own feelings. They can do this with such sharp dedication that by the time they turn into women they have thoroughly suppressed their own internal feelings. And as a result, they may find it perfectly natural to embrace those who, like themselves, do not take their feelings seriously. Women in this dilemma often turn to external avenues for self-validation, picking partners and products that take them further and further away from self-knowledge and emotional intimacy.

Girls can be exquisitely perceptive about the emotions of others and in perceiving what they feel. This gift backfires if they discover that relationships with caregivers run more smoothly when they do not directly express negative emotions and thus begin to tamp down their emotional worlds. Research shows girls begin to perceive emotional cues from their caretakers at a very early age, as a group much earlier than boys.

Caregivers may become frustrated with a girl’s emotional expression and dismiss it as “drama” and punish the expression of negative emotion. Critical looks, a disparaging tone, repeated persistently to curb expressions of emotion register strongly when girls have finely tuned sensitivities. The lesson for a girl in this situation may be that it is only acceptable to reveal a limited range of emotion—after that, pretend you feel something else. In this way the stage may be set for a young girl to stifle her authentic self as she turns her energy to developing an inauthentic self to be used as a tool for protecting relationships.

In my work as a clinical psychologist, parents tell me they want to help their girls. But, parents are often so caught up in the cultural/media juggernaut described above that they do not know how to help their daughters discover who they are on a deep and authentic level. In my book Having Sex, Wanting Intimacy—Why Women Settle for One-Sided Relationships, I discuss how to raise girls to be less focused on being ‘perfect’ and ‘good’ for others and more in touch with developing a strong, core identity for themselves. Here are a few strategies for nurturing girls to become women who will know how to form reciprocal, emotionally intimate and sexually fulfilling romantic relationships.

Help Girls to Develop Emotional Awareness:

Parents should notice if they have anxiety about raising their girl and, as a result of that anxiety, tend to focus her more on being a ‘good girl’ than on helping her to discover her true identity. Instead of counseling and control, engage her in conversation. Carve out some time to wholeheartedly listen to her without telling her what to do. Simply reflect back what you hear her saying or what you notice she is feeling, without any pressure that she needs to do something differently.

Notice if your girl continually turns to external avenues for self-validation, focusing on how she appears for that male gaze while neglecting the pursuit of self-knowledge and authentic emotional intimacy. Talk to her about how different internal contentment feels versus an anxiety- filled quest for perfection. Discuss how cultural and media influences train girls to think appearance and pleasing others through appearance matter more to her happiness than they actually do.

Help Girls by talking with them about how they feel:
How they matter and how they can be appreciated in more ways than their external appearance. Let them know that fostering healthy, sexually fulfilling and emotionally intimate relationships with men in adulthood means training oneself in girlhood to stay steadfastly connected to what she herself values emotionally.

Help Girls to Develop Media Awareness:
A large number of studies demonstrate that women, more so than men, are typically shown in popular media in an objectified manner. Girls are growing up in a world where they see their own gender being sexualized in popular culture—movies, music videos, music lyrics, video games and television shows. Young girls are extremely vulnerable as their identity and sense of self is not yet formed. It is close to impossible to shield girls entirely from such media and, as a result, many develop their sense of femininity and how they see themselves as women by emulating what they see in the media.

Work to develop a dialogue with girls about how women and girls are portrayed. Observe with them media that tends to sexualize girls and media that help girls to have a positive self-image. Notice with them media that only shows a constricted view of femininity and beauty. Let them know that how they feel about themselves is more tied to what they do, how they spend their time and how effective they are in their life than how they appear on the outside. Talk with them about how to notice if they are objectifying themselves and internalizing the male perspective. Instead of evaluating themselves against what they see in the media, help them to get in touch with what drives their happiness separate from how closely they approximate the expectations of others. Train them to be critical and to notice if media or peers are manipulating them to think that a certain product or change in their appearance will improve their happiness or social rank.

Help Girls to learn do real things in their lives that make them feel important:
Encourage girls to try out various extracurricular programs, sports or all girl clubs so that they may have activities in their lives that help them to feel empowered and competent. As they accomplish things that remind them that they can have a larger impact, girls (and women) tend to focus less on striking the perfect pose and more on their internal sense of contentment.

Help Girls to Develop Mutually Reciprocal Relationships:
Parents who promote an ongoing dialogue with children and teenagers have greater influence. Rules about what she may and may not do are fine. But, if rules are used to shut down conversation, parents are missing a good opportunity to help children learn about how to be close and intimate in relationships. Parents can model healthy intimacy merely by asking girls questions about their relationships and listening carefully and patiently to what they say. Ask them how they feel about the events and people in their lives so that they can get used to hearing their own voices and so they may become skillful in self-reflection.

Start talking with children early about romance and intimate feelings. Talk about how meaningful relationships with trust and respect are difficult to develop and take time. There are no short cuts for real relationship development and if it seems there is, she may be entering risky territory.

Talk with girls as young as nine or ten about what qualities healthy men project. Discuss men who do not project health. Society provides plenty of well publicized examples, real and fictional, that can be used for conversation. Explain how a man may appear attractive on the outside but that it takes time to learn a person’s true inner character. Debunk the fantasy of the dark, aloof, sexy and mysterious man through communicating the reality that these men are often emotionally cut off from themselves, cold with others and make lousy partners. And be sure girls hear you say that they deserve and should expect more than that.

Dr Jill Weber, a licensed clinical psychologist, practices in the Washington, DC area. Dr Weber writes a blog for Psychology Today and is the author of Having Sex, Wanting Intimacy: Why Women Settle for One-Sided Relationships. Follow her on twitter @DrJillWeber
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