Teaching Girls to Speak with Authority

Sophie, 14, has a younger brother with Downs Syndrome, and she loves him dearly and flutters around him like a mother hen. Ben has been hospitalized many times, and was close to death on several occasions. Sophie sobbed deeply as she described how terrified she is that Ben will get sick again and die. The whole family’s life evolves around Ben and his care, causing Sophie to grow up quickly and to become super mature, independent, and responsible.

It took a lot of prodding to get Sophie to admit that she sometimes wants her parents to notice her too. But she feels guilty asking for time, and thus is learning that other people’s needs are more important than hers, or even worse, to believe that she shouldn’t have needs, period.

It has become a cliché to talk about girls needing to “find their voice”, but we don’t often talk about how to do that. The following are 5 ways I teach girls in my retreats to speak with authority and get their needs met.

  1. Time: Sophie, like many girls I meet, has a difficult time asking for what she wants. The ‘curse of the good girl’, as Rachel Simmons describes in her book of the same title, means girls are conditioned to not speak up, not make waves, avoid conflict, and to put other people’s needs first. At the retreat, Sophie got to practice asking her parents for special one-on-one time so that she would have the confidence and words to do so when she went home. Most girls I work with are hungry for more intimate connection time with their busy and distracted parents. Teach your daughters that being aware of your needs and being able to express them in effective ways is a necessary ingredient for happiness.
  2. Care: When confronted with the opportunity to tell friends what they want, like what movie to go see, many girls slip into the selfless “I don’t care” mode and go along with the crowd. I teach girls that for the sake of their self-confidence, they need to care. Even if they aren’t really invested in the issue, caring enough to give your opinion teaches friends that you matter and deserve to have input. If your daughter is in the habit of automatically saying “I don’t care”, encourage her to pause before she gives a response, check in with herself to see what she wants, and then to express her thoughts and desires.
  3. Know: When I ask girls how they are feeling about challenging experiences, the most common answer I get these days is: “I don’t know.” I tell them that they do know, but they’ll have to quiet themselves down and go inward to identify what’s going on with them. Knowing what you are feeling and expressing emotions in healthy ways is another prerequisite for feeling happy and grounded. Make your home a safe place where all feelings are welcome.
  4. No!: Setting clear boundaries is vital for girls, and it is easier to do so if your level of worthiness is high. Many preteen and teen girls are afraid to stand up for themselves because of their fears of hurting the other person’s feelings or causing them to be mad and potentially lose the friendship. Teach them that healthy relationships include times of disagreement, and teaching people what is and is not okay with you is the only way to create lasting and wholesome friendships.
  5. Lead: Christina is a powerful 6th grader at an all-girls school who questioned whether or not she had been too harsh with a friend at lunch. The other girl was slacking on her cleanup duties, and Christina reminded her to pitch in and help out. She was appropriately holding the girl accountable, but she has already absorbed the cultural conditioning that tells girls to not stand out, not be too powerful, and lead but quietly and mostly from behind. She is a natural born leader who is afraid of being labeled as ‘all that’ or a bitch. Instill in your daughters that the world needs more confident, influential, assertive female leaders, and that becoming such a trailblazer might mean sometimes being too aggressive as she grows in her power. Give her lots of practice in being a leader, initiating and creating new endeavors, and putting her ideas and passions out there.
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