Boys start to hide their vulnerability and mask their feelings at the age of four or five. Girls start to hide their (controversial, messy) feelings and lose trust in what they know at age 12 or 13. This happens because of the enormous pressure they feel to be “nice girls.” Our culture expects girls to be sensitive, caring, and nice, which “creates a burden on girls that plays into a larger myth that ‘girls are good.’ The ‘tyranny of the nice and kind,’ a phrase coined by Lyn Mikel Brown and Carol Gilligan, forces girls to express in public those aspects of girlhood that people expect,” as Sharon Lamb reports in The Secret Lives of Girls. This loss of voice is often experienced as a sacrifice necessary for connection, because for them to stay in relationships with other girls, they may have to avoid the truth of their own experience. As a consequence, girls’ ability to speak truthfully and trust what they know goes underground.

shy daughter

After speaking with girls, Carol Gilligan discovered that what psychologists had assumed was human nature regarding the development of adolescent girls was, instead, “an adaptation to a particular human landscape.” Gilligan notes that the girls vacillated rapidly between knowing and not knowing, which she describes as a “cover story and an under-reality.” She interviewed one girl who said, “If I were to say what I was feeling and thinking, no one would want to be with me, my voice would be too loud.” On the surface, silencing may seem contradictory to girls talking a lot, but they frequently spend their time presenting a “cover story,” rather than expressing their real feelings. You will need to make sense of the chatter and guide your daughter skillfully toward saying what is really on her mind.

According to Lyn Mikel Brown and Carol Gilligan in Meeting at the Crossroads: Women’s Psychology and Girls’ Development, the images of “the perfect girl” and “the nice girl” create a burden for girls as young as 10. During this period, according to researchers, many middle-class teens internalize the messages and expectations that the “perfect girl” is pretty, polite, compliant, and free from contrary or independent feelings and thoughts. Holly, a ninth grader in a large public high school, said, “I think I’m controlling because whenever I’m part of a group project, I take charge. It just feels natural to start organizing and get to work. I try not to be bossy, and whenever anyone complains I immediately step back and listen to their ideas about how to proceed. My mother says that I’m not controlling and if I were a boy I would be considered a leader.” In surveying teachers in Failing at Fairness: How America’s Schools Cheat Girls, Myra Sadker and David Sadker found that a teacher’s least favorite student is a noncompliant girl—who runs counter to traditional gender expectations.

hiding feelings

Holly is fortunate, because her parents point out that society has a double standard for boys’ and girls’ behavior. This awareness enables Holly to reframe her “controlling” identity into the identity of a leader. We believe that when girls try to keep up with the impossible demands of this unrealistic view of “perfect” feminine behavior, they must suppress some of their ability to express anger or to assert themselves. The pressure to conform causes girls to view themselves through the eyes of others, which prevents them from accurately judging their sense of self-worth.