A pre-teen girl is at a unique moment in her life.
The spark that is her potential grows more intense, yet she’ll have to fight against gender norms that threaten to diminish it.
Those expectations might convince her to sacrifice ambition for popularity, or shame her for rejecting feminine beauty standards. There are countless ways she’ll feel pressured to hide or change her authentic self.
Most adolescent children, regardless of gender, feel that tension, but girls often face distinct challenges. Research shows, for example, their self-esteem plummets compared to boys.
“Girls are at their fiercest and most authentic prior to puberty,””Girls are at their fiercest and most authentic prior to puberty,”says Rachel Simmons, author of three books on girlhood and cofounder of Girls Leadership, a national nonprofit that provides training, education and workshops to girls and the adults who support them.
Parents can prepare their daughters for the trials of being a teenage girl by teaching them vital skills early on. These include honest communication, assertive behavior, self-compassion and developing a positive relationship with their body.
Talking about these and other issues, says Simmons, should also be an exercise in learning about your daughter’s interests and who inspires her. Draw from pop culture examples after you’ve asked about, for example, her favorite song, celebrities and YouTube videos.
“That’s your best way to get an education,” says Simmons, “and win some love and respect from your kid in the process.”
Here are seven skills to consider teaching your daughter by the time she turns 13.
1. How to respect and express her feelings
Popular stereotype portrays girls (and women) as in touch with their feelings and naturally good at communicating them. That idea, however, has a harmful corollary: When girls and (and women) are overcome by their emotions, they become incapable of making decisions.
We so frequently assume that girls and emotions are a natural pairing, for better or worse, that we neglect to actually teach girls emotional intelligence. That skill, says Simmons, means having the ability to describe and convey the full range of human emotion. But when girls are taught to value being happy and liked, they often suppress or can’t acknowledge their more difficult experiences.
Instead, parents need to show their daughters how to “flex the muscle of expressing their strongest feelings,” says Simmons. They can do that by modeling their own emotions with an expansive vocabulary using words like happy, nervous, excited, scared, angry, frustrated and confused.
They can also “authorize” their daughters’ emotions by honoring their experiences as opposed to diminishing or questioning them.
“When your girls express authentic emotions — even if they’re difficult — you take them seriously,” says Simmons, “you don’t deny them or challenge them.”
2. How to feel self-compassion
It’s easy to be one’s most unforgiving critic, no matter gender. But girls, says Simmons, get a lot of messages that it’s important to please others. So when they experience a setback, it often feels like letting someone else down.
Research shows that adolescent girls may be exposed to more interpersonal stress than boys. That makes them more likely to ruminate on negative feelings, which puts them at greater risk for depression.
To help prevent this cycle of suffering, Simmons recommends parents teach their daughters how to deal with failure:
“What we want is for girls to have is the capacity to move through a setback without beating themselves up.””What we want is for girls to have is the capacity to move through a setback without beating themselves up.”
This means teaching a girl how to relate to herself and practice self-compassion in a moment of crisis. It’s important that instead of criticizing herself harshly, she focus on the universality of disappointment and practice self-kindness. By realizing others share that experience, she’ll be better prepared to treat herself compassionately and develop resilience.
3. How to develop a positive relationship with her body
Lost in a sea of selfies and reality television, where the lines between self-objectification and self-empowerment are frequently blurry, girls might not know how to view themselves beyond objects of desire.
One way to help them develop a holistic, positive relationship with their body is to introduce them to sports. The physical activity gives them an opportunity to see their bodies as capable of strength and stamina, rather than being defined by appearance only. Research shows that sports can directly affect a girl’s self-perception and self-confidence.
But even girls who feel physically capable and confident might still feel ashamed of their body and its sexuality. Simmons recommends talking with girls about their bodies from toddlerhood. Parents should know and use the right names for genitalia and do their best to
“represent sex as a healthy, beautiful experience that should be had with joy and consent.””represent sex as a healthy, beautiful experience that should be had with joy and consent.” And yes, that means talking about what consent means early on and emphasizing that a girl’s body belongs to her alone.
Parents who are uncomfortable discussing sex and the body communicate those feelings to their daughter. “When girls feel uncomfortable with their bodies,” says Simmons, “they can also disconnect from how they are really feeling, and worry more about how someone else is feeling, or what they want, instead.”
4. How to learn from friendships
Girls are frequently told that friendships are paramount, and that may be why they can be so singularly focused on those relationships. There’s a reason why Taylor Swift’s “squad” was the subject of numerous news stories and think pieces this year.
But we shouldn’t take female friendship for granted, says Simmons. Relationships help girls learn to assert themselves, compromise and set boundaries.
Parents should view friendships as an opportunity to show girls what healthy relationships look like and how they can relate to others and themselves.
One example might be helping your daughter respond when her friend doesn’t save a seat for her on the swing. That could start with asking her what choices she has in the situation and working with her on role-playing an assertive response. Encouraging her to communicate honestly and reasonably assert herself, says Simmons, provides her with skills that she’ll need to push for a raise as an adult.
5. How to deal with bullying
No parent wants to learn his or her child is being bullied — or has become the bully.
Dealing with either situation is challenging because it involves so many factors: communication, friendship and a parent’s own emotional intelligence. Digital bullying, the subject of multiple educationcampaigns this year, adds another layer of complexity.
“Girls will bully because they don’t have the tools to deal with their feelings,””Girls will bully because they don’t have the tools to deal with their feelings,” says Simmons. And when girls are bullied, they often feel powerless to stand up for themselves. In both cases, Simmons recommends making sure they ask for help from an adult as needed and practice assertive but respectful communication. She admits, though, that approach won’t always work, so girls must know when to step away from a situation that is “unkind” and “unethical.”
These are critical skills to teach a girl, but many parents don’t even possess them. Some will encourage bullying behavior or intervene every time their daughter complains about a difficult interaction. Parents, says Simmons, have to accept responsibility for their own role: “They have to set the tone early on for what’s OK in relationships and not.”
6. How to embrace her gender identity
From exposure to stars like Caitlyn Jenner and Miley Cyrus to Facebook’s 50-plus gender identification options, girls are learning about gender identity and fluidity at increasingly early ages, says Julie Mencher, a Massachusetts-based psychotherapist and educator who specializes in gender diversity and LGBT issues.
The message they’re hearing is that gender is not simply male or female anymore. This increased attention to gender, says Mencher, “gives us the opportunity to teach [children] that
there’s not just a spectrum of masculinity to femininity out there in the world, but inside each of us as well.”there’s not just a spectrum of masculinity to femininity out there in the world, but inside each of us as well.”
Mencher recommends parents use language that expands the gender binary beyond boy and girl to include identities like transgender, genderqueer, gender-fluid and gender-neutral. It’s also important to describe human characteristics and emotions not just in gender-based terms (see: girls are always emotional).
Parents should reflect on their own identities as well, noting how much they embrace their “female masculinity” and “male femininity.”
Creating this kind of openness in your language and relationship will help a girl develop confidence in her own gender identity — no matter what that might be.
7. How to lead
We have more powerful female role models than ever before: Hillary Clinton, Serena Williams and TIME Person of the Year Angela Merkel, to name a few. But girls still find it difficult to develop leadership skills amidst the stigma of being called aggressive or bossy.
It’s even harder when they don’t know how to communicate their honest feelings, assert themselves, practice self-compassion, handle bullying or embrace their identity will probably have a tough time becoming a leader. That’s why it’s so important for a girl to cultivate a diverse set of life skills.
There are, however, specific strategies parents can use to encourage their daughter to take a leadership role. Fathers who evenly share household duties are more likely to raise daughters who believe they have a broader ranger of career options. Mothers can set their own example by taking on a leadership role at work or in a volunteer capacity.
Sports, says Simmons, is another way to teach leadership skills to girls; it’s a “pre-professional environment” that can help them succeed well past the season’s end.
“There’s a very powerful and painful unwritten communication code among girls that you’re not supposed to say what you really think to someone’s face and you’re not supposed to promote yourself,” says Simmons. “Sports perverts all of that; they can do that and be rewarded for it.”
These important skills aren’t easy to master, but the more chances a girl has to practice them under the guidance of a trusted adult, the more likely she’ll feel confident and self-assured as a teenager.