Has your daughter ever called herself ugly? If so how did you react? Did you - like me - respond with a sharp intake of breath and a vehement "No you are not!"?
At the time of this shock announcement from my daughter I was in Paris on a girls trip, basking in the early evening sun, glass of wine in hand, overlooking the courtyard of the Louvre, after an afternoon touring the Dior Exhibition. My happiness boxes at the time were well and truly ticked.
The call started innocently enough with general chit chat about school, her mates, her test scores, hockey practice and then bam! Out of nowhere "Mum I'm so ugly. It'not fair. Being a teenager really sucks!"
Only six months ago she had challenged the perception of pretty described by her classmates, dismissing it as no more than the stuff of barbie doll dreams and flying the flag for being an individual not a type; championing the value of personality over beauty. Maybe as a result of this I had rested on my laurels too much, confident that she was well rounded and as such had missed some vital signs along the way.
My response was met with the retort "You are my mother, you have to say that!" As mothers we all want our children to be happy and that means shouldering their anxieties too when they come along. I had spent 14 years trying to bring up a confident young lady, who I hoped would embark on this final stage of her journey to adulthood feeling good about herself. Everyone praises her outward social confidence but if she felt like this inside had I failed? UCL's recent Millenium Cohort Study revealed that a quarter of 14-year old girls are depressed. Did this episode make my daughter one of them?
My maternal heart strings had been pulled and right then all I wanted was to see her beautiful face, her wide grin, give her a big hug and remove this "ugly" word from her list of personal adjectives. But until I returned home, words were all I had at my disposal.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder
Ugly like hate is a strong word, reserved for extreme circumstances. There are those that argue if beauty is in the eye of the beholder then ugly must be too. It is like a good bottle of wine, all a question of personal taste and what one person finds beautiful or ugly will be different to the next.
This is not, however, about defining what is ugly but rather pinpointing what we as mothers of teenage girls can do to boost their self-esteem. A strong sense of self gives them the emotional scaffolding they need to handle these moments of self-doubt and criticism. No-one had called my daughter ugly, just herself and even if it is just the once that is enough.
Beauty and appearance are thorny issues when raising girls. Our girls are vulnerable. All it takes is one throw away comment at the wrong time and their sense of self-worth can become quickly wrapped up in this body image nightmare, which even if they don't come to it until later, is still an issue to be confronted, not trivialised or ignored.
Dove's Self-Esteem Project (DSEP) is committed to helping young girls as well as women have a healthy and positive relationship with the way they look. Part of this is their Uniquely Me programme which gives parents heaps of practical advice and activities to help their daughters remove the emphasis on looks and focus on their inner "me" to boost their confidence.
So what can we do as parents?
- Model a healthy self-image. Therapist Michele Kambolis says “Our words and actions have a powerful impact on our children.” If we as mothers adopt a self-critical approach we risk our daughters following suit.
- Praise them not only about their looks but for their effort. Saying “I really like the way you put your outfit together” instead of “You look gorgeous”, puts the focus on their effort being the most important element, not the end result.
- Don't under-estimate the significance of fathers. Daughters look to their fathers for assurance, guidance and approval. In her book Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters Meg Meeker argues that a father has a valuable role to play in in guiding his daughter through a potentially toxic culture. I was glad my daughter had her father whilst I was away, they have a strong bond and he was quick to intervene.
- Congratulate them on all their achievements and don't forget to praise their imperfections as well. Remind them that life is not perfect all of the time and mistakes and disappointments provide valuable life lessons too.
Alison Bean, a fellow mother of teenagers, counsellor and psychotherapist had this advice when I asked her:
"As a mother the most important thing to remember is to communicate with our children. Encourage them to talk about how they feel, and why they feel ugly or dislike themselves. Don't dismiss their negative thoughts. This may be hard to hear at first, and all you want to do is cry out " you're beautiful to me inside and out" but their feelings are real to them and need to be acknowledged. As parents we need to make a conscious effort to balance our own compliments to them and try to direct our praise away from just their appearance and focus on the things they are good at; sports they play, art or creative work they excel in, musical instruments they play. Furthermore encourage them to spend more time with people they feel happy with, family members or close friends who don't constantly judge. This will help them to feel better about themselves, which in turn increases their self esteem and self worth."
In our family, we advocate a philosophy of sharing which I hope allows our teenagers to express their concerns, but more importantly gives us the opportunity to step in and provide support before an issue manifests itself into something bigger. Our teenagers need to know that we are on their side as parents and nothing is more valuable than unconditional love for those moments when their confidence takes a knock.
I would love to hear from you if you have had a similar experience or have some thoughts to share on building self-esteem.