Help me deal with my teen’s insecurities

sizeQUESTION: My 14-year-old daughter, who used to be a happy, confident child, has become quite introverted and lacking in confidence. She makes lots of comments, putting herself down and implying that she is not attractive. For example, when watching TV she will mention how some skinny girl on the screen is “gorgeous” or “has a great figure”, somehow implying she is not. 

As her dad, I, of course, contradict her saying I think the one on the TV is ugly and that she is beautiful but she just rolls her eyes at me. Recently, she has been particularly down in the dumps and let slip that someone in school had made an unflattering comment about her appearance which really upset her (she wouldn’t say what it was). Trying to be helpful, I told her that I thought the person was an idiot, but she got annoyed and said I don’t understand what it is like .

I don’t like her feeling this way. What can I do to help her see that she is beautiful just the way she is and not to be bothered by what people say?

Your question highlights the big pressure on young women (and indeed on many young men) to be physically attractive and to conform to having a certain body shape and appearance.

This can lead to a lot of upset and misery for teenagers and pre-teens if they start comparing themselves with so-called “ideals” in the media and casting themselves in a negative light. At the best of times, becoming a teenager is a challenging journey.

Teenagers have to cope with huge changes to their bodies, increased sexual drive as well as pressure to fit in with their peer group and to succeed in education and life.

As you have discovered, sometimes a happy and confident pre-teen can become awkward and lacking in confidence once these pressures hit, which can be hard to witness as a parent.

As a parent, it is hard to reassure your teenager during these difficult times as frequently they become more private and don’t confide in you about their feelings.

In addition, their peer group become much more important to them and it is to this group that they increasingly look to for reassurance and affirmation, meaning that while your opinions matter, they only go so far in the face of what their peer groups think.

This is, of course, all part of normal adolescent development and the goal as a parent is to continue to be supportive, understanding and influential. There is a lot you can do to help, and your attitude as a parent can be crucial in helping your daughter develop a secure sense of self in the long term.

Try to listen and encourage your daughter to talk
When the subject of attractiveness comes up, try to encourage your daughter to express her thoughts and feelings, before you express your own. For example, if she makes a comment about something on TV, first encourage her to say some more – “Really, why do you think that?” – before you express an opinion.

It is especially important to listen if she is upset about something. For example, when she is upset by an unflattering comment from a peer, acknowledge how hard it must be to get a comment like that and encourage her to express more about what happened.

Even if she rejects your support – “you don’t know what it is like” – use this as an opportunity to find out a little more and to encourage her to talk. For example, you could apologise and ask her to explain – “I’m sorry, you are right . . . what is it like for you? I’d like to know.” Once she has spoken more, then you can express your own opinion and take time to reassure her positively.

Encourage her to be assertive in the face of negative comments – “I don’t like what you are saying about me” or “Your opinion does not matter to me” – which can help her feel a lot better in the face of perceived criticism.

Continue to encourage and affirm your daughter

I think you are doing a great job by continually affirming your daughter’s appearance and your belief that she is beautiful. Even though she might roll her eyes, getting this positive message from her father that you unconditionally love her is very important to her deep self-esteem.

Now that she is a teenager, you might want to experiment with different ways of giving her this message. For example, it might be more effective to make the comments more light or casual and to make them in private rather than public. The fact that you hold a positive belief about her and that she feels this coming from you is the most important thing.

Support your daughter finding her own sense of style
It is very important that teenagers find their own style and fashion, and dress in a way that makes them feel comfortable and attractive. While it is usually mothers who get involved in the practicalities of this, whether this is advising on clothes or going on shopping trips together, as a father your support and interest can make a big difference. Notice what fashion makes her comfortable and be sure to encourage her as she finds her own style.

Help your daughter challenge stereotypes
Unfortunately, in many young people’s peer groups there is a culture of women making self-depreciatory comments to one another about their appearance or body shape.

Researchers call such conversation “fat talk” which includes comments such as “I could never fit into those jeans” or “I could never look like that” and have found that it tends to make people miserable and does not lead to any positive change.

There are lots of different online campaigns that encourage “girl power” to challenge these stereotypes such as “Fight Fat Talk” or the “Campaign for Real Beauty”.

Engage your daughter in conversations about these ideas and encourage her to think critically about narrow media stereotypes about beauty and appearance which tend to oppress people.

Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, April 2014. John writes in The Irish Times Health+Family every Tuesday.