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Re: Poor self-esteem is teenage girls...

Mark:

My daughter is 14 years old. She has always been difficult, but it is escalating to new levels. She has on several occasions pretended to be someone else – the first time was really big when she had a website as her handsome supposed cousin “Jake” and managed to fool almost everyone at school. When she was discovered a few months later, she was ostracized by a large part of the student body that was embarrassed by her charade. You would think she would learn!

Coincidentally, we moved out of state a few months later, and she has started texting people from school as “other people”. She has also continued to text people from her old school saying she is someone else too. Some of these “alter egos” are real people and some are made up. I have had a series of consequences (taking away electronics etc) yet it seems to have no impact whatsoever. Even the natural consequences (her lack of friends, the embarrassment etc) have had no effect. She truly dislikes herself, which is one of the reasons she pretends to be someone else.

So this week hit a new low. I got a call from my daughter this morning hysterical crying, asking me to get her from school. She then texted me and told me she had pretended to be someone else, took intimate pictures of herself and sent them to this guy at school. He figured out it was her, and started showing them around school. So then the principal called and told me the same story and that he had taken the boys’ cell phone away. I had the school take my daughter’s too, which I picked up from them. I am going to meet my daughter after school today, take away her phone, internet access etc., but I really don’t think it will do anything long term. Being shunned by her peers didn’t even help! The principal was perplexed, as we live in a small town now and he said they had never run into this (and didn’t think it was within the jurisdiction of the school anyway). I have read articles about how this could be considered child porn, so in a way I am glad for that.

She has recently started therapy (again), but it is really early on. Her school grades have hit an all time low and everything is just falling apart. Any advice would be appreciated. I really need some guidance of what would be appropriate to do at this point.

Thanks.

J.

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Hi J.,

Your daughter is receiving a series of natural consequences – so you should not add your own consequence to the mix.

Counseling may not yield much bang for your buck. These things (i.e., attention seeking behaviors) usually pass with time anyway.

Self-esteem is related to how confident we feel about our talents and abilities. Consider the following in order to understand the internal and external pressures girls feel and how these pressures affect the development of their self-esteem:
  • Eating disorders, low self-esteem, and depression are the most common mental health problems in girls.
  • 59% of 5–12th grade girls in one survey were dissatisfied with their body shape.
  • 20–40% of girls begin dieting at age 10.
  • By 15, girls are twice as likely to become depressed than boys.
  • Among 5–12th graders, 47% said they wanted to lose weight because of magazine pictures.
  • Health risks accompany girls' drop in self-esteem due to risky eating habits, depression, and unwanted pregnancy.
  • Girls aged 10 and 12 (tweens) are confronted with "teen" issues such as dating and sex, at increasingly earlier ages. 73% of 8–12–year olds dress like teens and talk like teens.

When and why does girls' self-esteem drop?
  • Starting in the pre-teen years, there is a shift in focus; the body becomes an all consuming passion and barometer of worth.
  • Self-esteem becomes too closely tied to physical attributes; girls feel they can't measure up to society standards.
  • Between 5th and 9th grade, gifted girls, perceiving that smarts aren't sexy, hide their accomplishments.
  • Teenage girls encounter more "stressors" in life, especially in their personal relationships, and react more strongly than boys to these pressures, which accounts in part for the higher levels of depression in girls.
  • The media, including television, movies, videos, lyrics, magazine, internet, and advertisements, portray images of girls and women in a sexual manner—revealing clothing, body posture and facial expressions—as models of femininity for girls to emulate.

The sexualization of girls and mental health problems—

In response to reports by journalists, child advocacy organizations, parents, and psychologists, in the American Psychological Association (APA) created a Task Force to consider these issues. The Task Force Report concluded that the sexualization of girls is a broad and increasing problem and is harmful to girls' self-image and healthy development. Sexualization is defined as occurring when a person's value comes only from her/his sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics, and when a person is sexually objectified, e.g., made into a thing for another's sexual use. The report states that examples of sexualization are found in all forms of media, and as 'new media' have been created and access to media has become omnipresent, examples have increased.

The APA Task Force Report states that sexualization has negative effects in a variety of domains:
  • Cognitive and emotional health: Sexualization and objectification undermine a person's confidence in and comfort with her own body, leading to emotional and self-image problems, such as shame and anxiety.
  • Mental and physical health: Research links sexualization with three of the most common mental health problems diagnosed in girls and women—eating disorders, low self-esteem, and depression or depressed mood.
  • Sexual development: Research suggests that the sexualization of girls has negative consequences on girls' ability to develop a healthy sexual self-image.

How can parents help their daughters develop healthy self-esteem?

Although the media, peers, and pop culture influence children, parents still hold more sway than they think when it comes to having an impact on a daughter's developing self-esteem. Here's how parents can help:

1. Monitor your own comments about your self and your daughter.

2. Get dads involved. Girls with active, hardworking dads attend college more often and are more ambitious, more successful in school, more likely to attain careers of their own, less dependent, more self protective, and less likely to date an abusive man.

3. Watch your own stereotypes; let daughters help fix the kitchen sink and let sons help make dinner.

4. Encourage your daughter to speak her mind.

5. Let girls fail - which requires letting them try. Helping them all the time or protecting them, especially if done by dad, can translate into a girl feeling incapable or incompetent.

6. Don't limit girls' choices, let them try math, buy them a chemistry kit. Interest, not just expertise, should be motivation enough.

7. Get girls involved with sports/physical activity, it can reduce their risk of chronic diseases. Female athletes do better academically and have lower school drop-out rates than non-athletes. Regular physical activity can enhance girls' mental health, reduce symptoms of stress and depression, make them feel strong and competent.

8. Watch television, movies, and other media with your daughters and sons. Discuss how images of girls are portrayed.

9. Counteract advertisers who take advantage of the typical anxieties and self-doubts of pre-teen and teenage girls by making them feel they need their product to feel "cool." To sensitize them to this trend and to highlight the effect that ads can have on people, discuss the following questions (adapted from the Media Awareness Network) with children:
  • Do you ever feel bad about yourself for not owning something?
  • Have you ever felt that people might like you more if you owned a certain item?
  • Has an ad make you feel that you would like yourself more, or that others would like you more if you owned the product the ad is selling?
  • Do you worry about your looks? Have you ever felt that people would like you more if your face, body, skin or hair looked different?
  • Has an ad ever made you feel that you would like yourself more, or others would like you more, if you changed your appearance with the product the ad was selling?

It is within the family that a girl first develops a sense of who she is and who she wants to become. Parents armed with knowledge can create a psychological climate that will enable each girl to achieve her full potential. Parents can help their daughters avoid developing, or overcome, negative feelings about themselves and grow into strong, self-confident women.

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