How Do We Build Our Teenage Girls’ Self-Esteem?

How doe we build our teenage girls' self-esteem?

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?

We have a role to play.

  • 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.













  1. January 17, 2018 / 9:17 am

    I suddenly remember my mother when I read this post. I remember she used to comfort me back in high school. I’ve had this phase when I thought I do not matter and everybody seems to be perfect and I’m the only one who’s flawed. I remember her telling me to stop thinking like that. She never fails to remind me that I am unique and that I matter. I hope to do the same to my child. Thank you so much for sharing this.

  2. October 16, 2017 / 4:25 am

    First of, that’s a terrible situation to be in, not being with your daughter when she needs a hug. Jo, you need a hug too. Being away with your children when they need you is heartbreaking, I know. It’s not enough to tell them to be strong, be confident, don’t mind those “nothing-to-do” idiots coz they don’t know you. Because these are just words. I have issues with my physical appearance too, but I don’t let my daughter see that it’s a big deal. I tried my best to raise her not to be a “pleaser”. That would make her life miserable. And it’s true, this issue is not just for girls. Boys have their shares of insecurities too. When my teenage son was a little overweight, I encouraged him to lose some. But I emphasized that it’s for health reasons. He’s always been described as the “chubby” one. It seemed it didn’t affect him. But I didn’t know for sure. Now that he’s into boxing, he’s fit, healthy, stronger and happier.

    • Jo
      October 16, 2017 / 11:25 am

      Oh Nena, bless you and thanks for the virtual hug. It didn’t help when my daughter said “why are you always away when i need you”, the phone is definitely not the right form of communication in those moments of crisis. My daughter has always stood aside and been a bit quirky, her looks mattered to her but they weren’t the be all and end all. Equally we would be lying if we said our looks don’t help us to feel more confident about ourselves. If I look good I feel good and I suppose this was a red flag moment from my daughter that she wanted to feel that too. Handling it carefully and with kid gloves is important too. Like you with your son. There is a way to guide them without making them feel down about themselves. All those little things do add up. Glad to hear your son has found something he is passionate about. x

  3. October 11, 2017 / 8:52 pm

    such an important post. i was that teenage girl with no confidence and im determined my little wont be the same
    Thanks for linking to #ablogginggoodtime

    • Jo
      October 16, 2017 / 11:18 am

      Thanks Katie. Life is a never ending journey of lessons and we can harness those lessons and use them to good purpose for preparing our daughters for life’s inevitable ups and downs. #ablogginggoodtime

  4. October 8, 2017 / 12:13 pm

    We have a lot of women over here. 2 moms with two girls. Our man of the house is Gatsby, our rescue pooch. The Mrs. and me, we have worked so hard after struggling ourselves as young people, to raise strong, empathetic women in a society that is ready at every turn to beat them down and pay them less. Your post is wonderful and absolutely true. As moms, we know we have worked too hard in therapy in our younger days to turn off that internal voice of criticism, or at least find the volume control when we need it — we focus on the effort while the world around them continues to tell them how beautiful they are. We read them stories of brave and courageous women like Frida Kahlo, Marie Curie, Hillary Clinton, Ruth Bader Ginsberg… so they know how important it is to be loving and brave. Love this post. Thank you! #ablogginggoodtime xoxo

    • Jo
      October 16, 2017 / 11:16 am

      Oh Lisa thank you so much for your lovely comments. It is a tough world for us and our girls and I am not sure if it will get any easier but all we can do is prepare them in the best way we can, bolster their egos in whatever way possible and give them strong role-models to follow and aspire too. Sounds like you are ticking all those boxes! #ablogginggoodtime.

  5. October 8, 2017 / 9:24 am

    I believe society and in particular celebrities have a lot to answer too, My Older girls as teenagers suffered from this it’s hard to convince them otherwise. Great read Thank you for linking to #ThatFridayLinky Please come back next week

    • Jo
      October 16, 2017 / 11:13 am

      It seems Nigel that it is expected our girls will go through this phase so we need to be prepared in whatever way we can to ensure we can support them. Thanks for hosting. #ThatFridayLinky

  6. October 6, 2017 / 7:32 pm

    I loved this Jo and I was especially pleased to see Dads get a mention. I am utterly convinced that our girls have grown up to be happy young ladies despite my parenting and because of my husband’s. He is such a rock solid presence in their lives and introduced them to sport and all sorts of experiences that have been so beneficial. Dad’s are a great antidote to the ‘girly’ culture. We read a lot about the importance of Dads as role models for boys but I think we need to examine their positive role in raising daughters too. xxx #TweensTeensBeyond

    • Jo
      October 16, 2017 / 11:12 am

      Oh thank you Sharon for your lovely comment and glad you agree with me on the valuable role Dads play in their daughter’s lives. The bond between my daughter and my husband is very strong and is lovely to see actually and their relationship is very different to the one we share as mother and daughter. #TweensTeensBeyond

  7. October 6, 2017 / 1:52 pm

    Yes to this. We have to be their cheerleaders because if we don’t…who else will and goodness they need it in spades these days. Thanks for linking up to #coolmumclub xoxo

    • Jo
      October 16, 2017 / 11:07 am

      Absolutely Talya, thanks for your comment and for hosting the link-up. #coolmumclub

  8. October 6, 2017 / 9:26 am

    I haven’t got any daughters, but three grown up sons, I had a low self esteem when I was a teenage girl, I think most of us have, I will try these ideas with my niece #thatfridaylinky@_karendennis
    Karen, the next best thing to mummy recently posted…Juggling ChildrenMy Profile

    • Jo
      October 16, 2017 / 11:07 am

      Thank you Karen for your comment and I am glad that you found some useful ideas to share. #thatfridaylinky

  9. Midlife Dramas in Pyjamas
    October 5, 2017 / 7:09 pm

    I think all teenagers suffer with low self esteem at some point in their journey from childhood to adulthood. However, girls are particularly at risk due to being constantly bombarded with pictures of silly reality celebrities with their false breasts, orange skin, fake nails & eyelashes and over the top make up. When I was a teen no-one wore make up at school; nowadays girls have to look like they’ve just come from a magazine shoot to feel happy about even crossing the school yard! I find it all very worrying… #TweensTeensBeyond

    • Jo
      October 16, 2017 / 11:06 am

      My daughter’s school doesn’t allow make-up and will send girls home if they come to school wearing any but as it’s a girls school it’s not a rule that many ignore, the one they do is the short skirt and the headmistress recently issued a note to all parents that any skirts more than two inches above the knee had to be lengthened or replaced. It does surprise that so many girls think a short skirt is a such a prerequisite to being cool and attractive. #TweensTeensBeyond

  10. mummy here and here
    October 5, 2017 / 6:47 pm

    Really insightful and informative post. I think communication is key to helping them understand how they feel X #ablogginggoodtime

    • Jo
      October 16, 2017 / 11:01 am

      Thanks for your comment. Glad you enjoyed the post and yes it all comes down to communication for sure. #ablogginggoodtime

  11. October 5, 2017 / 10:16 am

    Posts like this with such great advice are so important to get out there for parents to read! With Aspen now 13 she is becoming much more body conscious and putting more thought into outfits. She makes a few comments about her bottom being big, and is a little self conscious about her tummy. For the most part though she still seems confident in her clothes and comfortable in her own skin. She is a perfectionist and a people pleaser so I have to watch her. She is surrounded by amazing friends so that helps! And her friends are all different heights and body shapes which is also good as they are all healthy just very different. My reaction is always to say ‘you are beautiful’ and I like your advice on taking them seriously and letting them say what they need to say. Having feelings acknowledged is so important for all of us! Thanks for joining us in #ablogginggoodtime

    • Jo
      October 16, 2017 / 10:57 am

      It is like walking a tight-rope sometimes with girls as you do need to be so careful with what you say and how you react and I don’t get it right all the time for sure but as with everything it is work in progress and I am learning as I go. The early teen years are so difficult. I certainly found them hard to navigate myself and the external pressures were less during my period as a young teen. It is always interesting to read how others handle these situations. Thanks for your comment Mac. #ablogginggoodtime

  12. Fat Dad - Oscar's Reviews
    October 4, 2017 / 1:41 pm

    My daughter generally doesn’t care – she likes to dress and make an effort (when she can be bothered) but she’ll do that to make herself happy not to try an impress anyone. She is only 10 though so it may change as she hits secondary school next year…

    My son has major self-esteem issues but not about his looks.

    We have good communication though which, as you say, is vital. They know they can trust me as well as their mum if they have anything playing on their minds.

    Fat Dad – Oscar’s Reviews recently posted…Autistic 12 Year Old Boy Describes His Condition #AutismAwareness #AutismMy Profile

  13. Oldhouseintheshires
    October 4, 2017 / 11:43 am

    I love your post but I must add that we should be aware that both girls and boys can suffer from low self esteem about their looks and bodies. I know from personal experience, one comment from another teenager can spiral a child’s thoughts (and actions) down a self destructive path. You offer really great advice that building their self confidence is key here and that pointing out that most young people feel the same emotions as they do, also helped in our house. My son is a total perfectionist and one horrid comment by a “friend” aged 10 made him starve himself. He didn’t really understand what was happening or what he was doing. With lots of love and the benefit of sport, we managed to turn this on it’s head by talking about health and fitness. He is now 15 and still a perfectionist but he knows he has to be careful. I have to remind him by showing him how much he needs to eat based on his exercise….he likes the maths. All young people are bombarded every day with what I can only describe as perfectionism. It is our job as parents to make them see that these so called celebrities do not look like this every day! It’s such a tough one, it really is. In fact, it’s the hardest job of parenting so far for me…..making sure my children feel like they rock….we are getting there though. I hope your daughter feels stronger soon. Lovely post. Xxx #tweensteensbeyond
    Oldhouseintheshires recently posted…Words of Wisdom from Experienced Moms and Dads.My Profile

    • Jo
      October 5, 2017 / 9:24 am

      Oh Sophie, I am so sorry to hear about your son. You make a very valid point about how it can affect both sexes. I wrote a piece last year about my son and a period when he became overly obsessed with his appearance, over-exercising and changing his diet. As parents we have to be ever watchful and in tune with every slight change so that we can nip it in the bud. Now home I have learnt the trigger for my daughter’s comment and it is relatively innocuous in isolation but for her was the culmination of a longer period of self-doubt which has been bubbling beneath the surface. I am not going to demean the importance to her and say it is just a phase but I am confident she will get through it. I purchased a lightbox this week and am leaving little confidence boosting comments for her to come home to each day – funny but “You Rock” has been the one to provoke the biggest smile yet! Small steps. Thanks for sharing your experience and thoughts they are always so pertinent. #TweensTeensBeyond

  14. October 4, 2017 / 10:07 am

    Very interesting and thought provoking article. My eldest daughter used to model when she was younger, I was always quick to ensure that she saw it as fun and nothing to stress over etc, it was her choice to do it later giving it up as she got fed up with it. My other 3 never wanted to model. Ciara saw what goes on the other side of the camera and realised very quickly that what you see isnt always what it really is (if you know what I mean!). The most important thing for me is to set an example to my kids. How right is it when you say about Mothers being critical, I know all to well how infulential I have been over the years from little things like mimicking me in the car with my actions to songs etc, etc, therefore I have never obsessed over what I look like, I’ve never gone on about what I dont like about myself (and we all have those things we dont like), weight etc, etc, I really believe a lot of problems start within the home (my opinion) and its just easier to lay bame elsewhere like on magazine covers etc. My girls (and boys) are completely happy (most of the time) in their skin albeit the usual spots but nothing major. I tell them everyday how beautiful/handsome they all are, usually to their annoyance now lol. #tweensteensbeyond

    • Jo
      October 5, 2017 / 9:33 am

      Oh thanks Sharon for your comment and it is interesting to hear about Ciara’s experience too. It is really difficult as parents to get it right all the time, but I think you have a point. We are our children’s biggest role models and it is so easy to accidentally let our guard slip or for them to overhear a conversation and perhaps start a train of thought or behaviour. We all need to be so mindful of the impact of our words and actions. Like you I have always hugged and praised my teens at every opportunity. Whether it is enough only time will tell. In the meantime there is a few small steps being taken to address the low confidence levels in the house, maybe a home visit from her brother next week will be the remedy she needs too. #TweensTeensBeyond

  15. October 3, 2017 / 9:16 pm

    I’ve never made comments about their personal appearance but they have questioned their abilities and like your daughter they have taken me completely by surprise. I must say, ability is easier to deal with, I’m not sure how I’d respond with a statement like the one you faced, but your automatic response of ‘no you are not’ was the correct answer and one I’d like to hear as an immediate response. It must have been very worrying for you not to know what prompted this when you were so far away. #tweenteensbeyond
    chickenruby recently posted…Things I wish I’d never done as a parentMy Profile

    • Jo
      October 5, 2017 / 9:36 am

      My reaction was definitely prompted by shock as I have never heard her question her looks ever, only when she suffered from a period of acne and even then she was pretty resilient to be honest. It was tough not being with and dealing with the situation face-to-face, conversations like that are never easy down the phone but luckily my husband is in tune with his feminine side and handled it well in my absence. It is not over though, now that I am back I am making sure that it is not forgotten about and swept under the carpet but addressed. #TweensTeensBeyond

  16. Alisa
    October 3, 2017 / 8:56 pm

    How difficult that must have been for you- being away and only able to deal with it via telephone! This appearance/looks issue isn’t really new is it? It just seems to be even more fraught in these days of hyper-connectivity and awareness of mental health in teens. Sometimes I like to fool myself into believing that if I wave my arms around and spout feminist rants, I can distract my daughter from this concern. But I fear that actually I am making myself unapproachable instead. I’ve enjoyed this post and taken your tips to heart. Also very interested in the book about dads & daughters which I will of course be foisting on my husband! ? Alisa x

    • Jo
      October 5, 2017 / 9:40 am

      You are right the whole looks/appearance nightmare has been around for ever and a day and is certainly here to stay, it just manifests itself in different ways. I am sure this is the start of a long journey for us but at least the red flag has come early! The Dads & Daughters book is fascinating. My husband and daughter are very close and he really does take time to do things with her on a one-to-one so that in these moments of crisis if I am not around I feel confident he can help her. Thanks for dropping by and commenting. Always appreciated. x

  17. October 3, 2017 / 3:22 pm

    My daughter is only 10 and yet she still says things about her appearance that startle me. Yes, my gut reaction is to cheer, “you are beautiful!” etc. Your tips are practical and helpful. I feel like I’m trying to do them but it’s always good to get cheered on to do them some more.

    Katy recently posted…Conversations With My Family About 80s MusicMy Profile

    • Jo
      October 3, 2017 / 3:31 pm

      Thanks Katy. I am glad you found them useful. Like you I thought I was doing all the right things too but clearly I need to do them more frequently. Thanks for joining us. #TweensTeensBeyond

  18. October 2, 2017 / 5:17 pm

    Ouch Jo, reading this. So sorry to hear that you had to hear this whilst away. And I remember the post to which you refer too. Such an awful word and I’ve been thinking about this. Of course, we do all have our days when we feel a bit like this but we generally don’t voice it. Especially not with little ears around. Like you, we are very cautious about language and ‘I don’t feel comfortable’ or ‘I don’t feel my best today’ all point to the same thing in a nicer way. I hope for the sake of your daughter, that it is one of those temporary fleeting thoughts that she happens to have voiced (and great that she did so that you are aware). Could it be? I’m just speaking as one mother to another because I know sometimes my alarm bells go off when I hear something, only to find it never to rear its head again. I do hope that this is the case. And if not, then she has a lovely supportive role model in you to help her through this. Nicky x #tweensteensbeyond

    • Jo
      October 3, 2017 / 8:45 am

      Thanks Nicky for your lovely comment. It certainly was a shock and probably made worse as my initial exposure to it was down a telephone line and not face-to-face. As I have said she is an intelligent young lady and socially very confident but as with all those who exude that kind of external robustness there is invariably a chink in their armour somewhere. My husband was amazing with her whilst I was away and the three of us have discussed it lots since I have been back. It is unfortunately an inevitable part of growing up and entering that next phase I think. Perhaps because she did suffer from acne when she was younger her looks took a back seat and now that period is behind her, her looks have come centre stage which is natural for any young woman at some point and she needs a boost. Work in progress for sure. x

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