Five Steps Parents Can Take to Raise Strong, Bully-Resistant Girls

Professional ski mountaineer Caroline Gleich might have summited Everest and skied the Cho Oyu—the sixth-highest peak in the world—but nothing prepared her for the bullying she experienced on social media. “The ski industry is male-dominated, and I get trolled a lot,” she told me. One man made up more than 20 different user names to ask her questions such as, “How many sexual acts did you perform to get on the cover of that magazine?” “I was terrified, but I I told myself that this means I’ve made it,” she says. It took her a long time to admit she was being abused. “There’s such a stigma against victims, and I wanted to deny it.” When the man ratcheted up the aggression, however, she worked with police to identify him and hold him accountable.

As a school counselor and mother of a teen girl, I spend considerable time thinking about how parents can help raise confident daughters and use their voice, set healthy boundaries and resist societal norms that hold them back. As Caroline notes, “If you’re 13 and want to be seen as docile, compassionate and feminine, it’s so easy to lose your sense of agency. It becomes more important to fit in and be liked by others than to like yourself.”

In fact, one YPulse study found that girls’ confidence drops 30 percent between ages eight and 14. The good news is that 80 percent of those girls say they want to feel more confident, and parents can help. Here’s how you can give your daughter the skills and courage she needs to handle tough situations.

1. Solicit her opinion.

Ask your daughter how she feels about thorny ethical situations, divisive events or a difficult situation you’re navigating at work. Talk above her maturity level to signal she’s worthy of respect. Popsy Kanagaratnam, a teacher and doctoral candidate in education, recalls being raised to believe that her ideas mattered. “In class conversations and at dinner tables with friends and their parents, the conversations often turned to politics, and we were asked for our opinions,” she told me. “We were taught to analyze, consider—and if a rule didn’t make sense—to try to figure out what we could do to change it.”

Encourage her to share her thoughts publicly, too, whether she writes an op-ed for her school newspaper or challenges an unfair dress code. Girls might readily post a carefully curated selfie, but shy away from sharing ideas or accomplishments. She might feel more comfortable posting about friends’ substantive achievements, but even that will kick off a positive cycle. As Miranda von Tilburg, a health psychologist and associate professor at Campbell University in Buies Creek, NC, told me, parents have to challenge “the cultural ideals that women are supposed to be beautiful but not smart.”

2. Build her comfort with conflict.

“There’s a whole category of terms reserved for girls and women who are not mild, from strident to bitch,” says psychologist Lisa Damour, the author of Untangled and Under Pressure. Make it clear that she can give it her all and be a fierce but gracious competitor, whether she’s trying to win a tennis match or school election. Model that same behavior when you compete against her in a board or sports game.

Conflict is unavoidable and unpreventable, so teach her to manage it in a healthy way. “In unhealthy forms, you can be a bulldozer, a doormat or a doormat with spikes,” Damour explains. A bulldozer runs people over, a doormat allows oneself to be run over, and a doormat with spikes uses passive-aggression, such as involving a third party in a two-person disagreement. Urge her to be a pillar instead—to stand up for herself while being respectful of others. Underscore that being respectful is not the same as being friendly, and she doesn’t have to be nice to anyone who mistreats her. As von Tilburg notes, you don’t want her to submit to saying yes and being nice all the time. “It wears us out by the time we’re in our 30s and 40s,” she says. “Girls should be taught to like their passion rather than being likable to others.”

3. Scaffold her risk-taking.

When Caroline was 15, her half-brother was killed in an avalanche while skiing, so she’s always thinking about the worst-case scenario. “At Everest, I was a mess and crying in fear as we were getting ready to go to the summit,” she told me. “But after I noted all the ways I could die, I told myself, ‘OK, let’s just take it one step at a time.” She focuses more on the adrenaline rush than her anxiety. Similarly, explain to your daughter that feeling afraid doesn’t necessarily mean she should opt out, and reframe her anxiety as excitement.

But don’t push her too far, too fast. She might be afraid of giving a presentation, for example, but be willing to contribute more to class discussions. Start with small exposures to scary circumstances and talk about times you’ve had to overcome fear, whether you stood up to an aggressive supervisor or negotiated a higher salary.

4. Encourage her to use her voice strategically.

Give her articles about girls or women who challenge injustice, and encourage her to do the same. That said, help her understand when and how to be assertive, says psychotherapist Amy Morin, author of 13 Things Mentally Strong Women Don’t Do. She explains that it’s appropriate for a girl to speak up when a peer says she can’t sit at the lunch table with the popular kids, but important to stay quiet when she doesn’t agree with an umpire’s call in a ballgame. Teach her how to identify when her rights have been violated versus when it’s important to listen to an authority figure. “If someone touches her inappropriately, it’s OK to say, “No, you can’t do that,” Morin says. “But at the same time, don’t let her develop a victim mentality.” In other words, help her pick her battles. As Damour notes, “no functioning adult takes up every annoyance or slight—we are constantly making tactical decisions.”

5. Teach her to fail and recover.

Resist the well-meaning but misguided temptation to shield your daughter from all disappointment. “For girls who are used to receiving solely positive reinforcement at school, the workplace can be a difficult first step into the world of more blunt criticism and feedback,” says Jessica Lahey, author of The Gift of Failure. She adds that parents can help by teaching their daughter to extricate the feedback she can control and that’s specific to her. “Letting go of the things we can’t change with an eye to learning from the things we can is a healthy way to grow from workplace failures.”

To your daughter, your life can look like a straight line from point A to point B, so bring up times you hit bumps in the road and tell her how you recovered. Did you lean on friends? Exercise? Make a second (or third) attempt? When Caroline wanted Patagonia to sponsor her, for instance, she pitched them every six months for six years until they hired her.

Whether you’re 13 or 43, it’s not easy to go against the grain, so support your daughter when she stumbles, and emphasize that it’s okay to be super confident and to make waves. As Caroline points out, “if she’s disrupting the status quo, that probably means she’s doing good things for the world.”

Phyllis L. Fagell, LCPC, is the author of Middle School Matters, the school counselor at Sheridan School in Washington, D.C., and a psychotherapist at the Chrysalis Group in Bethesda, MD. Phyllis is also a frequent contributor to The Washington Post and other publications. She tweets @pfagell and blogs at www.phyllisfagell.com.

Back to Top