Family & Education

How to help girls feel better about themselves

The author of a new guide for young women shares advice on what parents can do to ease the sense of relentless pressure experienced by children


Tired teenage girl learning at home

I wrote my new book, You Don’t Understand Me: The Young Woman’s Guide to Life, for girls about growing up emotionally competent in this fast paced, globally connected world. I try to help them feel understood and understand themselves.

I was driven to write it as we know that girls and young women are struggling with their mental health.

There are record levels of children waiting or engaged in mental health services, but girls are overrepresented among those waiting. I’ve seen lots and lots of girls and young women in my clinics in North London.

The reasons they come are varied: they are sad, worried, overwhelmed, obsessive. They are struggling with eating, their parents, their friends.

My job as a psychologist is to understand what thoughts are underlying these feelings and struggles — and of course their thoughts are varied and complex — but if I try to sum it up, all the mental distress, I would say that they don’t feel good enough.

Not good enough; not smart enough; not thin enough; not popular enough. Not enough.

I work with each one individually or with their family to break their cycle and try to understand how they came to believe it. Their parents are often keen to blame social media and their phone, and that does play a part, but the causes are more complex than that.

What I hear over and over is a sense of relentless pressure and expectations. It is as though they have come to believe that their worth is tied to the sum of their achievements, accomplishments, exam results and looks, rather than who they are in their heart and soul.

They are not searching for their unique path through life, but instead toxically racing towards some mythical place of best.

They are competing for the top grades, the best qualifications, the best body, the best social media feed and a place at the top university.

I believe that this attitude, pervasive as it is in society, is making a huge percentage of this generation of young women mentally unwell and I wonder what role we, as parents, are culpable in perpetuating it. We all worry about our kids doing well; we want to give them “the best start” and “every opportunity”.

This global society, with competition coming from all sides, makes us nervous. What will our child’s place be in it? But what I notice is that those opportunities, kindly offered, often feel like a heavy weight of expectation on the children I see.

The adolescents and young people I see in therapy find the chasing of achievements a never-ending exhausting path: always another mountain to climb.

And their parents’ reassurances to their child that they are so smart and beautiful, and they work so hard, don’t seem to help. Sometimes they even seem to add to the pressure by creating a standard the child has to keep.

Here’s what I think the secret is: largely, I don’t think children develop a sense of feeling good enough through achievements or being the best, or through “doing” more and more stuff. Nor do they develop that sense of value through platitudes such as being told they are clever and smart.

I think they develop a sense of being good enough through connection; through being with people who value them for themselves. Through hanging out, playing, eating, watching TV, walking. Through doing nothing at all with someone who loves them.

Your child is under relentless pressure under a school system that prizes qualifications over education,and on a social media where there is intrinsic culture of comparison. How are you going to mitigate against that at home?

I think the answer is spending time with them and loving them just the way they are.

That might mean shining less of your light on their tests, their tutor, their results and their achievements, and asking less “How did you do? Did you do your homework? Have you practised your piano?”

It means spending more time just being around for chat, humour and sharing their interests. And it is in that being, your unconditional, low-expectation investment of time, that hopefully kids will develop a sense that they are enough.

Dr Porter spoke at a meeting for parents last month as part of a series run by PaJeS on mental health and wellbeing. You Don’t Understand Me is published by Lagom

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