Image: Stephanie DeAngelis
By Claire Shipman, Katty Kay and JillEllyn Riley
The early weeks of a school year can rattle even the most self-assured kid — the swirl of new classes, teachers and tribes, and the pressure to try out new extracurriculars, sports and even personalities.
Tween and teen girls face an added challenge because their confidence is already plummeting during those years. Of course, puberty is a turbulent time for confidence in both genders. But girls experience a much more significant, dramatic drop.
For our book, “The Confidence Code for Girls,” we worked with Ypulse, a polling firm that focuses on tweens and teens, to survey more than 1,300 girls from ages 8 to 18 and their parents. Between the ages of 8 and 14, girls’ confidence levels fall by 30 percent. At 14, when girls are hitting their low, boys’ confidence is still 27 percent higher. And the effects can be long lasting.
So how can you spot the signs of this confidence plunge in your daughter? She may grow more unwilling to take risks, to try something new, to fail. It might be a reluctance to speak up in class, to try out for a new sport or put herself out there with an unfamiliar classmate. Overthinking, people-pleasing and perfectionism typically kick in, effectively grinding her confidence to a halt.
But the good news is that confidence can also be encouraged, nurtured, even created during these turbulent years. It’s just that the recipe seems counterintuitive: Your daughter’s daily diet must include a regular helping of risk, and the failure that comes with it. That process — of risk, failure, recovery and mastery, of more action and less thinking — is the key to confidence-building.
It’s not easy to convince girls to embrace risk and failure, to turn off the negative soundtrack in their brains. So here’s a confidence cheat sheet, based on our research and recommendations from therapists and behavioral change experts.
1. Trade her comfort zone for her danger zone
Comfort zones inhibit growth. That doesn’t mean she has to quit the soccer team because she’s already great at soccer. But you should encourage your daughter to move beyond what she does well and tackle something scary. Risk looks different to every girl — for your daughter it might be inviting a new friend over, or checking out the debate team, or getting to school on her own.
Make a worst possible outcomes list. Looking at her fears together makes it obvious that the worst is not likely to happen and that she can handle it if it does.
Create a list of previous risks. Talk about what she learned. Remembering those experiences actually makes her feel braver.
Help her become her own coach. Come up with some positive, catchy phrases for her mantra. “You’ve got this!” “You’ve done stuff like this before!” Eventually, this becomes an automatic script in frightening situations.
2. Take the fear out of failure
Failure will strike. It’s inevitable, especially when your child is taking risks. It’s also essential for her to learn to move through it, normalize it and rebound, to be ready for it the next time it happens.
Change the channel. Immediately after a disaster, do not analyze what went wrong, or assure her that you can fix it, or tell her that it doesn’t matter. Her amygdala (fear center) is on fire. Before rational thought can ensue, she needs a break. Have her take 30 minutes, or three hours, to do whatever will allow her brain to switch gears and take a breather. She can read a book, watch a show, play with the dog, kick a ball or take a walk. Even looking at pictures of nature on her phone or computer can reduce stress, or looking at pictures of cute animals can help her focus on something else.
Take a virtual hot air balloon ride. When she’s ready to put things in perspective tell her to imagine herself floating way above her problem, looking down above her house, her town, her school. Talk about how she sees her situation from up there, compared to what she usually sees. This will help her pull her brain from the fiery center of the drama and go wide.
Next steps. Help her make a plan to study differently for that next exam, or to practice dribbling to get the ball down the court, or to come up with language to use in a confrontation. Learning from failure allows her to move forward, rather than retreat.
3. Retrain her brain
Of course, at the center of the confidence changes in adolescence is what’s going on in girls’ brains. The largely female trait of rumination really kicks in at puberty, which can be brutal because girls don’t usually know what’s hijacked their heads and feelings, and overthinking creates even more risk avoidance. There’s tremendous evidence, however, that recognizing the way our brains are working is the most powerful move we can make toward retraining and rewiring.
Diagnose toxic mind-sets. Is your daughter absolutely certain that all of her friends hate her? Does she know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that she will never be any good at _______ (fill in the blank). Ask her if these sound familiar at all. If you help her look at her knee-jerk reactions, she will start to recognize that when she’s insisting that nobody will ever be friends with her ever again in her whole life or that she will never get into a good school so she might as well live in a cave, she might just be trapped in one of these catastrophic thinking patterns.
Tell the maybe story. This is the single best tool for stopping a wild cycle of rumination. If your daughter can’t stop obsessing about how she tanked a class presentation and now everyone thinks she’s a moron, then help her create a new story and start with the word “maybe.” Maybe people weren’t really paying attention. Maybe somebody else will bomb tomorrow. Maybe there was an alien landing outside the window. Research shows it doesn’t matter how realistic the maybe is, it can still stop the spinning and get things into perspective. Eventually this trick can become a healthy habit.
So much worse list. Jot down or talk through all of the ways it could have been much more cataclysmic. The house could have collapsed. She could have thrown up on a teacher. Her socks could have burst into flames. Concoct the most dramatic, ridiculous situations you can, which usually leads to the balm of laughing.
4. Do it yourself
To make these tips really resonate with our daughters, parents must become role models for risk and failure.
Talk about your nerves. Let your daughter know when you are worried about a new challenge, when there’s something you might want to try but it scares you. Even better, include her in your process and ask for her advice about it. Let her be the expert because she will internalize the advice she gives you.
Keep great failure stories on hand, the bigger the better. Talk through what you did to show your daughter what it means to mess up and then recover. If we are also obsessing about being perfect, our daughters will absorb that unhealthy standard, no matter how many books on confidence we hand them.
Admit it. When you might be a tad obsessive, focusing on the worst case scenario, imagining the worst — call yourself out. Admit to your daughter, “Sorry, I think that was my catastrophic thinking getting the best of me again.” Your acknowledgment of your own toxic thinking patterns will help her see them in herself.
5. Embrace the bumps
This is a useful directive for parents more than for girls. If the school year seems rocky already, instead of resorting to panic or racing to fix things, remember that your daughter actually benefits from challenges. A bumpy path will build more confidence than a smooth one.
Claire Shipman, Katty Kay and JillEllyn Riley are the authors of “The Confidence Code for Girls.”