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  • Writer's pictureCassandra Hyland


By ParentTV on 28 Feb 2020
When we have kids, no matter their gender identity, we want to pave the way for them to self-actualise and become everything they can be. But, we also want to balance this with allowing them to experience a full range of what life has to offer, and letting them build resilience by learning through hardship.

This balance can be particularly hard to achieve when you’re trying to raise girls. Boys have their own obstacles to navigate while growing up, but girls are still dealing with the legacy of a society that has undervalued and undermined women for centuries. It kind of seems crazy that we’re still fighting for basic rights like respect, autonomy, opportunities and recognition, but we are. Even though some great strides have been made, we’re a long way from equality, and these are the conditions our girls are working with.

Furthermore, girls are actually suffering disproportionately when it comes to mental health and wellbeing. ‘When we look at the data, we see a concerning trend,’ says ParentTV expert and psychologist, Dr Justin Coulson. ‘Even though girls are outperforming boys academically, girls are not doing as well as boys when it comes to stress, anxiety and depression, particularly in adolescence. In fact, in early adolescence, some studies suggest that self-esteem in girls drops by 3.5 times that of boys.’

In this conversation, it’s important to point out that we’re talking about anyone who identifies as a girl, not just those who are biologically female and have been ascribed this identity. This might seem like we’re just being fussy about words, but it’s important. For an interesting discussion of gender and neuroscience.

And in the meantime, in honour of International Women’s Day, let’s talk about three ways we can reduce the impact of the wellbeing challenges girls growing up today are likely to face.

Help them to critically examine media

In the world our kids are growing up in, they’re exposed to a lot of media, and the content they consume (whether consciously or subconsciously) can have a slow-drip effect that trains their brains in certain ways. Many of us have fallen victim to unrealistic concepts of femininity, womanhood and ‘acceptable’ female bodies that we’ve seen in the media over our lifespan, with sometimes devastating results. ‘Little girls see images that portray women as needing to be sexy, thin, and with a certain type of appearance, sometimes up to 5000 images before they’re even five years old. This is subtly conditioning them that this is what is expected of them,’ says ParentTV expert, Maggie Dent.

Then there’s social media, a whole other minefield. ‘There are many opportunities in social media for our kids, and we need to be alive to them but also alive to the dangers,’ says ParentTV expert and psychologist, Karen Young. One of the traps of social media is that everyone presents in a ‘perfect’ way, says Karen, and to address this, we need to help our kids push back against the inevitable comparisons social media gives rise to. Teaching girls to think critically about how people are curating and editing the images they’re seeing can help them resist the temptation to try and mould themselves to fit unreasonable female or beauty ideals, and what’s more, actively reject any obligation to do so. Girl power!

Help them understand body safety, consent and human sexuality

Teaching all children body safety using the concept of public and private is vital, as is educating them about pornography and consent, says Holly-ann Martin, ParentTV expert and Protective Behaviours expert. While this isn’t specific to girls, it’s statistically evident that girls experience higher rates of sexual abuse under the age of 15. Girls are never responsible for the abuse that they experience, but we need to teach them explicitly about consent and their rights so they can recognise and report it as abuse, if and when it occurs, says Holly-ann. ‘Kids need to grow up knowing that they own their own bodies and nobody should be touching them without their consent.’

Within these conversations, it’s important to make sure girls are also gaining an understanding of human sexuality, too, suggests Vanessa Hamilton, ParentTV expert and Sexuality Nurse Educator. ‘We know that children who have adequate, comprehensive and accurate sexuality education from a young age have much better outcomes. They’re empowered and can make better decisions.’ Benefits of sexuality education for kids include:

Increased body confidence, body positivity and acceptance of physical and emotional changes in the bodyAn appreciation and acceptance of human diversity, including gender diversityImproved communication and advocacy skills around these topicsA decrease in their vulnerability to abuse.

‘Ultimately, having a positive attitude to fulfilling, safe and pleasurable intimate partnerships and experiences is the goal of sexuality education,’ says Vanessa.

Help them to find a mentor

When your daughter is in her teens, it could be a tricky time in your relationship with her (and tricky might be an understatement!). But, even if it isn’t, it could be worth helping her to find a mentor, says ParentTV expert, Dr Arne Rubinstein. A mentor should ideally be someone outside your family group who can gently guide them and be a sounding board for them, without the complication of family dynamics and expectations. ‘Something I found when I worked in Emergency departments was that girls who came to hospital because they were in some sort of trouble actually did know before the incident happened that it was not a good idea. They had an inner voice telling them that. But, they didn’t, for whatever reason, have the strength, confidence or trust to listen to that voice and follow their own judgement.’ In some Native American Indian tribes, this is all par for the course, says Arne. ‘When these families are creating a rite of passage for their girls, one of the most important jobs they do is look outside the family to find a woman to mentor their daughter for her young adult years.’

There’s about a million other things we could say (and our experts have said) about girls and how we can support them. We can show them the ways that women are challenging stereotypes, resisting societal pressures, forging new paths in male-dominated industries, reaching new heights in leadership positions and coming together to redress the imbalances in our society. We can show them women who don’t fit within conventional beauty or femininity standards having rich, happy and fulfilling lives.

But, ultimately, they’ll be looking at us as the parents and teachers in their world and expecting us to not just talk the talk, but walk the walk. Role-modelling positive ways of being women in the world and setting an example of respectful relationships, boundaries, self-belief, independence and determination will inspire this generation of girls to be the ones that not only survive in a world that’s historically been owned and operated by men, but thrive in it.

Watch out, boys.

Girls coming through!

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