How do you help teenage girls build their self esteem?

Children’s mental health is a huge concern during Covid-19, but it was already a huge issue, particularly for girls. How can parents help?


Covid-19 is likely to have had a huge impact on teenagers’ mental health, although new research suggests anxiety among some teenagers has dropped in the lockdown months.

As they return to some semblance of ‘normality’ and social life, however, this is likely to change. Anxiety about school is high, heightened by the exams fiasco of the last weeks. Many are worried they will be way behind when they return to school and will not be able to catch up. Anxiety about health, particularly for those who themselves have underlying health issues or who live in families which have been shielding, may also be high. Family worries about jobs and finance will also have affected them. Their families may have suffered bereavements. Home may not be the safe place we generally portray it as. All of this will impact their mental health.

Yet before Covid, levels of anxiety were high. I have often written about the mental health problems of teenage girls, mainly because, having three – and having been one myself, I have been shocked by the extent of the suicidal behaviour, self harm, anxiety and other disorders I have seen among their different cohorts. The teenage years are often extremely difficult as young people struggle to understand who they are. It’s more difficult if you are being bombarded with all sorts of different and aggressively promoted messages about who you should be, about what is ‘popular’ and about how you are viewed by others – and it’s interesting that there is research showing a decline in mental health issues for some teenagers during lockdown, a time when some of the social pressures – particularly those associated with school life – have lessened and they are slightly distanced from the constant messages about GCSEs.

Girls and looks

Returning to school means returning to the judgment of others. For girls the huge emphasis on what you look like creates enormous pressures at a time when your body is changing and hormones are having all sorts of effects. The last decades have seen the hypermarketing of supposed gender difference. When my kids were little the children’s shops were quite clearly demarcated – blue and pink. Girls were sold princess gear and make-up, even when they were at pre-school. Boys got action heroes and guns.

As they’ve grown up, they’ve lived through the rise of the Kardashians with their hyper ‘feminine’ curves. To an extent every age has its preferred female type, but the marketing of all of this is massive, vastly outweighing any positive messages, and it comes through every channel. Instagram seems to be full of teenage girls posing, desperately seeking approval that they are attractive. Does this make them feel happy? Maybe some who conform to the current model of attractiveness that is pushed – or who can afford to buy their way towards it – feel ’empowered’. But arguing against it makes you sound like an old fogey. My daughters tell me I am being a misogynist when I rant about instagram posing even though my intention is the exact opposite. Instagram is their reality. Telling them the whole thing is nonsense doesn’t help them.

So how do you guide them through all of this? Where does self-esteem come from? Surely it stems from an awareness and acceptance of who you are and that is a process. So how do you get there amid all the many distractions and judgmentalism that abounds today? Just scrolling down Twitter is draining. This is the world they live in, though. Trying to work out who you are amid all the noise is tremendously hard. All parents can do is help them to appreciate who they are from the early years on, keep talking to them [even when they don’t appear to listen], share their own experiences – because mothers too have been through at least some of them – and hope some of it goes in.

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