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Ask the Expert: Parents and Their Daughter’s Self-Esteem

“What can my husband and I do at home to build and reinforce our eight-year-old daughter’s confidence so she is self-assured when she is with her friends?

Family - Mom Daughter AYou can do a lot, but exact amount depends on your daughter’s personality. Who she is determines what you can and can’t do at home, so be honest about her temperament. A lot also depends on who her ‘friends’ may be at any given moment. As you know, eight-year-old girls often have transient friendships. These are practice friendships; your daughter’s main influences are still mainly you and your husband, and not her friends, for the time being.

Thanks to a recent, thoughtful NYU study of the development of female self-esteem, we see confidence increase during kindergarten, plateau between eight and ten and then decrease, thanks to many factors, including hormones and confusing media messages. As thoughtful parents, planning ahead is necessary, because low-esteem can make her more susceptible to smoking, bullying, eating troubles, drug use, depression, premature sexual experimentation and more.

Tip the playing field in her direction. Both of you should tell her regularly that she is your treasure and praise her for her abilities, strengths, courage, overall smarts and attractiveness. Self-doubt is already bouncing around in her head, and in the heads of her friends.

Limit her screen time and monitor her media and phone use. Forget being hip and use parental controls. Media literacy is no longer an elective.

Practice listening carefully to her during your conversations, whether they are held at dinner or in the car, and let her know you have heard her. Her own voice is just now gaining strength and needs regular training.

Mothers are their daughters’ model for how to be a woman, so mothers should watch their own self-esteem during this period. Lots of moms begin to feel that they need to let go of their dreams while their children build theirs. A daughter notices this. If you support your daughter’s friendships but do not make time for your own, she may choose to imitate what you do, not what you say. Similarly, she develops her attitudes towards clothes, nutrition, weight issues and relationships based both on what you say and on what you do. Try to live by the values you want her to cherish.

A daughter’s relationship with her father is a model for her relationships with men. How you treat her affects how she will expect men to treat her. Most men significantly underestimate their influence on their daughter’s self-confidence and self-regard, and often focus too much on playing a supporting role to their partners, over-stressing discipline or teasing. Spending time alone with your daughter while participating in activities she likes helps build a firm foundation that can easily withstand puberty.

For more support, I recommend a website called New Moon. It was designed by parents and their daughters for eight- to twelve-year-old girls and offers them safe and authentic conversations about the issues that matter to families with daughters. Our family liked it a lot.