Modern life offers more choices for young women and girls than at any other time in history. As a result, girls find themselves both confused and exhilarated. Many girls are unaware of the struggles their mothers’ generation engaged in to provide this generation with the gains and choices they enjoy. One mother said, “My daughter, Kathleen, can hardly believe that when I played basketball in high school,we weren’t allowed to run full court. The coaches must have thought we were delicate weaklings who would pass out if we caught a rebound and ran full court to score. I can remember screeching to a halt at halfcourt and passing the ball to another player. It seems so antiquated. Kathleen has absolutely no appreciation of how things have changed.”

educating teen girls

While many of our daughters are more independent than we were at their age, they still struggle to have a positive sense of self. Girls who fare the best both during and after the teenage years develop a secure identity and a flexible set of skills that allow them to address a wide variety of life experiences. As a parent, you can help your daughter by offering sound advice and providing a safe place for her to learn that there is a relationship between her feelings and experiences. If your daughter is feeling rejected by a group of friends, it is appropriate for her to feel sad, embarrassed, and scared. When your daughter is comfortable expressing herself honestly, she validates her feelings and begins to trust what she knows to be true.

We believe that a firm sense of self begins with girls building an internalized set of core values, including these:

✱ Being accountable for one’s behavior; knowing that every action or inaction has consequences.

✱ Understanding that self-acceptance must be valued over social acceptance.

✱ Finding a balance between being true to oneself and responsive to the needs and opinions of others.

✱ Maintaining positive connections with important people in one’s life.

✱ Having the courage to honestly articulate one’s feelings.

✱ Assuming responsible sexual behavior and engaging in open discussion of sexuality.

✱ Understanding that excessive risk taking can put one’s life or health in jeopardy.

✱ Engaging in activities and pursuing careers based on interest and ability rather than gender or the expectations of others.

You have tremendous influence on supporting these values, by both what you say and what you do. For girls to internalize these values, you must encourage them to have a voice, enable them to use their voice, and give them the message that what they have to say matters. Preparing yourself to parent and coach your daughter through adolescence takes knowledge about the dynamics of the teenage years and trust in your instincts about what works best for your own child. Adolescence requires a different kind of parenting from raising young children. To be an effective parent, you must move from controlling your child to providing guidance and influence.

parent's guide

Our research and work with focus groups have shown that the most effective way to help your daughter is to assist her in developing an understanding of these core values and how to apply them to her life experiences. Mastery of this process enables her to develop what we call “competent spheres.” Competent spheres matter because they provide your daughter with more than one area of proficiency, so that when one sphere fails there is always something else to rely on.

✱ Physical changes and brain development.

✱ Having a voice.

✱ Being responsible for her own sexuality.

✱ Tension between being a “nice girl” and being her authentic self.

✱ Pressure to fit in and reliance on external sources for self-definition.

✱ Pressure to be thin and beautiful.

✱ The cult of technology.

✱ Dangers of excessive experimentation.

✱ The frequency of depression in adolescent girls.

Responding to these challenges, one parent said to us, “If a girl can have someone she trusts telling her the truth about the options and pitfalls she faces, she feels more confident to face the world.”

Let’s Get Physical

Eileen, the mother of a 16-year-old, said, “When Sophie enters the room wearing sandals with her three-inch platforms, she towers over me. I’m not used to looking up to speak to her. Her growth spurt seemed to happen overnight. One day Sophie was short, and now I feel like Gulliver’s mother. What must it be like to be in that rapidly changing body?” The physical changes in height and sexual development are obvious to everyone; however, the less apparent changes in a teenager’s brain are just as dramatic.

With new techniques such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), we now understand that the brain overproduces cells and connections, first when we are babies and again during adolescence. At the 2000 White House Conference on Teenagers, Jay N. Giedd, Chief of Brain Imaging at the Child Psychiatry Branch of the National Institute of Mental Health, reported in “Brain Imaging of Children” that the brain is very busy during adolescence pruning and eliminating unneeded connections. According to Daniel Siegel and Mary Hartzell’s Parenting from the Inside Out, recent research shows that “By adolescence, a process of brain reorganization takes place that shifts the nature of thinking in profound ways.” Behavior during the teenage years creates the “hardwiring” for the adult years.

better daughters

This new information explains why teenagers don’t have the same understanding of consequences as adults. Teenage judgment is different. How many times have you asked your daughter with incredulity, “Why did you do that?” and she has answered, “I don’t know.” “Why did you invite 10 kids to the house knowing that in a millisecond, the situation could explode?” The answer, invariably, is, “I don’t know.” She gives you this answer because she honestly doesn’t know why. Her judgment is affected by the fact that a teenager’s brain is not yet fully formed. Specifically, the frontal lobe in the brain, which affects impulse control, is still developing. Therefore, teenagers don’t think through consequences as thoroughly as you would.

Because adolescents rely on the area of their brain called the amygdala, they are prone to respond to stimuli with a gut response and are less able to modulate, inhibit, or understand the consequences of their behavior. The amygdala, an almond-shaped area located in the temporal lobe of the brain, is best known for triggering the fight or flight response in reaction to fear. Adolescents use the amygdala more to process emotional content, such as fear, until their frontal lobes are developed more fully, when they’re in their twenties. The development of the frontal lobe will enable them to be less impulsive and to understand that every action has consequences. Knowing about the science of the brain may not help you to change your child’s behavior, but it can help you to better accept and respond to your teenager’s angst, her sense of invulnerability, and her attraction to experimentation and risk.