Give your daughter the tools she needs

Girls today are growing up in a culture that puts an impossibly high value on looks and sex. The good news is that there is a lot mothers can do to help them withstand the pressures they are under, says Tanith Carey.

As the mother of two daughters, I know that my girls are not weak and defenceless – and neither are yours.

But I also recognise that in a world where, by the time they are 16, half of girls want surgery to change the way they look, they also need help to work out why they feel this way.

Modern life may be evolving at break-neck speed. But our children still need to go through the same developmental milestones they ever did to grow into emotionally healthy adults.

Girls, in particular, need parents to show them how to push back against some of the unhealthy messages in today’s culture about what’s most important about them – and how they should look.

The pace of change, powered by constantly evolving technology, is so fast, and the implication for our girls’ mental health so serious, that we cannot simply hope to fire-fight problems as they crop up – whether it’s body self-hatred, anxiety and depression, or self-harm.

Of course, when I had my two daughters – Lily, 13 and Clio, 10 – I assumed, at first, that these influences wouldn’t affect my girls. I imagined that if I didn’t mention the word diet around my daughters, then they wouldn’t get the body image hang-ups that so many young girls are beset with these days from an increasingly early age.

But I quickly had to wake up to the fact that no matter how many towels I pressed against the door frame, I could not keep these messages out of my home.

Whether we like it or not, my girls – and yours – are growing up in playgrounds where the most feared insult is the word ‘fat’. The dolls being marketed to them come with cleavages – while their pop idols behave like porn stars. Social media has turned their lives into beauty contests in which girls feel they have to post pictures of themselves in order to compete for ‘likes’ to feel they are pretty enough.

Childhood has changed out of all recognition, so we urgently need to change the way we parent our daughters too.

The good news is that however we might be feeling, parents – and their girls – are far from powerless. But it is essential that we parents don’t bury our heads in the sand. For example, few of us want to think about our daughters seeing disturbing, sexy images on the internet. But the easy availability of porn on the web means we have to tackle the subject with our kids head on – before the internet gets in there first.

That’s because if our girls do end up stumbling across it, the lessons they learn will be as far as possible from the healthy messages you want them to have about sex. They may not have gone looking for it but pornographic images still get through when kids misspell web addresses, see pop-up ads and get sent picture messages.

Don’t miss the boat. As they get older –and get increasingly more curious – it gets even more urgent. By the age of 12, seven out of ten children say they already know more about sex than their parents think they do.

As one mum told me: “If I try to discuss it, my 14-year-old daughter just rolls her eyes and says: ‘Why are you telling me now? It’s a bit late!’”

None of this can happen overnight. The sooner we begin helping our girls to decode all the messages – and reject them – the better.

I promise you that there really are age–appropriate ways to talk about everything from porn to self-harm. I wrote my new book Girls Uninterrupted: Steps for building stronger girls in a challenging world, to show parents how to have those conversations.

But, if because of the demands of jobs and busy lives, we fall for ‘anything-for-a-quiet–life parenting’, and allow them to spend hours in front of iPods, iPads and laptops, they will wander off into a cyber-world where we won’t be able to follow them. We will also lose our vital connection with our children, which we need more than ever, to help them through a world that has never been so challenging.

The tween years in particular – from around seven to 12 – are an important window. It’s our best chance to influence our children and shape their values – before their friends and peer pressure start drowning us out.

Just by becoming a more aware parent today, you can help protect your daughter against sexualisation by making her more media savvy. In the two minutes you take to show your daughter how an image of an ultra-skinny model has been airbrushed, you’ve taught her not to try and live up to an image of perfection that doesn’t exist.

By explaining where the pressures on your teen daughter to look sexy come from – and reminding her she’s worth more than that – you can shelter her against the drip, drip, drip erosion of her self-worth.

But if we sit back and do nothing because we think there’s nothing we can do, the price is high for our children. A rise in eating disorders, self-harm, casual sex, teen pregnancy and under-age drinking are some of the other side-effects of growing up in a celebrity culture which puts an impossibly high value on looks and sex.

My daughters are worth so much more than that – and so are yours.

+ Tanith Carey is the author of Girls Uninterrupted: Steps for Building Stronger Girls in a Challenging World (Icon ISBN 978 1 84831 820 5 £7.99)

How to tackle three common pressures

The constant selfies
Selfies have become the new mirror – according to a US think-tank, 91% of teenagers have posted one. There’s no problem of course if she’s taking a few pictures every now and then – or recording moments when she’s having fun. But if she starts constantly uploading them to social networks in order to compete for ‘likes’, suggest (in a non-critical way) that she considers the image that she is trying to project.

On what basis does she want to be judged? Does she want to join an online pageant in which anyone can be a judge? Encourage her to take pictures that are about personality, not just looks. Help her to make a collage of the items that represent her, such as her hobbies and what inspires her. Tell her it’s these things that make her special, not how she appears to other people.

The never-ending beauty contest
Our children are growing up in a culture where anyone who falls short of the high expectations set by celebrities from airbrushed photo-shoots and size zero selfies is considered to be failing. We mothers need to recognise that from an early age so many of our girls feel locked in a constant beauty contest they feel they can never win. Counteract this trend by training your daughter how to look in the mirror and concentrate on the good – how her body works and serves her – not just how it looks to others.
Make a point of valuing character over appearance in both the people you know and in your daughter. Show her looks are just a small part of who she is. Remind your daughter that, in the words of the late Anita Roddick, there are over three billion women who don’t look like supermodels and only eight who do.

Mean girl behaviour
Meanness among children has existed since the words “No, you can’t play with us” were first uttered in the playground. The sad thing is that nasty behaviour among kids, particularly among girls, appears to be starting sooner than ever – even in primary schools.

But these days, girls know better than to organise concerted campaigns of bullying. Instead, in a culture in which they are made to feel like they are not measuring up, they launch pre-emptive strikes with bitchy stealth attacks to temporarily shore up their fragile self-confidence. From the other side of the school gates, it feels like we have no choice but to leave our children to it.

But there are steps you can take. Teach your daughter how to respond before she is devastated because she has been called fat, been excluded or been at the receiving end of sarcasm. Explain that meanness says more about the person who says it than the person on the receiving end. Be a good role model in the way you treat others and teach empathy so she is not tempted to resort to bitchiness herself.