In a culture where girls are barraged with inappropriate images of what it means to be a female, it's no wonder that bringing up girls with a healthy dose of self-esteem can be a daunting task.
Fostering your daughter's self-esteem post-divorce is a top priority because girls are so vulnerable to cultural influences. For instance, there is a lot of evidence to suggest that how you talk to your daughter about her body can impact her body image and ultimately her feelings of self-worth.
In her article "How to Talk to Your Daughter About Her Body" Sarah Koppelkam writes: "How to talk to your daughter about her body, step one: Don't talk to your daughter about her body, except to teach her how it works." Although Koppelkam doesn't mention self-esteem, she posits that it's better to compliment a girl about something that has nothing to do with her body.
What is a girl's self-esteem based on? First of all it's related to her belief system. According to Leah Davies, M.Ed., it's a blend of the way a child feels about themselves and the way they believe others see them." A child's view of self influences their perception of what they can do, how to get along with peers, and coping with problems.
Keep in mind, children don't acquire self-esteem all at once and it fluctuates. They may see themselves positively in one domain, for instance, but negatively in others. Some daughters may feel confident in school, for instance, but lack confidence in relationships. Most of the over 300 women I interviewed for my book, Daughters of Divorce, reported more confidence in school and work than in interpersonal relationships.
A recent British study reported that a quarter of young girls with absent fathers grow up to be depressed teenagers if their father leaves before they are 5 years old and that boys cope better than girls with parental separation. There is consensus in the research literature that children of divorce are at increased risk for psychological, social, and academic problems compared to their counterparts in intact homes. However, it's important to recognize that this association is moderate and can be mediated by many resources.
My research showed that parental conflict -- before and after divorce -- was associated with low-self-esteem in females but not males in my study. Keep in mind that equal access to both parents and a daughter's perception of low-conflict and supportive parenting after divorce greatly reduced a woman's risks for low-self-esteem. My study also found an association between low-self-esteem and lack of access to both parents after divorce for daughters but not sons.
Truth be told, one of the most important factors in the development of self-esteem is the way a child sees their parents interact with one another before and after their breakup. By and large, when two people divorce, they haven't been treating each other very well for a while. Without a healthy template to follow, a daughter may not know how it feels to forge a relationship based on kindness, mutual trust, and love. Our relationships, and the responses we receive from others, helped to create our self-esteem.
Be mindful of modeling healthy communication with family members and intimate partners. According to E.M. Hetherington, a leading authority on divorce (who studied 1,400 divorced and remarried families) a successful remarriage and low-conflict in the home can counteract some of the negative impact of parental divorce. Consequently, it's important to model healthy ways of relating to others and to promote your daughter's bond with both parents.
Dads play a key role in the development of their daughter's self-esteem. A girl's relationship with her father and stepfather can help her grow into adulthood with confidence in her ability to love and be loved. Author Meg Meeker, MD, writes "It's important for every good father to know the impact of divorce on his daughter. Only then can he help her." After all, a daughter's relationship with her father is the first one that teaches her how she should be treated by a romantic partner.
What role does a mother play when it comes to helping their daughters establish a separate identity and healthy self-esteem? In my article Mothers and Daughters: A Crucial Connection After Divorce I write:
"Accepting that your daughter is different from you and has her own personality, interests, and choices will help you to stay back while she learns from her mistakes. You can't live through her or save her from the pain that comes from growing into womanhood -- but you can delight in her joys." Two of the best gifts a mother can give her daughter are the opportunity to have a strong bond with her father by encouraging shared parenting and by encouraging her independence.
Here are 10 ways to help your daughter boost her self-esteem:
• Encourage her to be assertive - speaking her mind even when it might not be popular to do so. Don't raise her to be a "pleaser." Create opportunities for her to express her opinions and validate them.
• Protect her from cultural influences which focus on her role as a caretaker. She can be nurturing but still be assertive, strong, and independent.
• Direct your praise away from her body and appearance and comment on her talents and strengths. Say things like "You look so healthy"; or, I can see how happy you are -- you are radiant.
• Teach her kindness towards herself and others. Demonstrate acts of kindness towards your friends, family and community members so that you are a role model.
• Create a safe atmosphere for her to discuss her feelings -- be sure to listen and validate them.
• Don't bad mouth your ex-spouse as this will only promote loyalty conflicts and made it more difficult for her to feel good about herself.
• Help your daughter to find enjoyable activities and healthy outlets to that build self-worth. For instance, joining an after school club or program; or taking up a new hobby or sport.
• Attempt to help her repair any father-daughter wounds. Leave the door open for your ex to reach out to his daughter and encourage her to do the same.
• Don't let cynicism, sadness, or anger get in the way of your daughter's future. If you have negative views of relationships don't pass them to her.
• Help your daughter to set goals and use intentions in order to achieve them such as "I will study one hour each afternoon." Daily affirmations such as "I am a loveable person" can be posted in her room or purse. Encourage her to accept her imperfections when she makes mistakes or doesn't reach her desired goal.
Since girls are like sponges soaking in messages from peers, the media, and family, it's important that parents and stepparents model good communication, problem-solving and conflict resolution skills. A girl's desire for authentic connection is strong and parental divorce can impact her view of herself. On the whole, children crave stability and low-conflict in their home. Often, they may feel their parents' divorce is due to their own defect. Help boost her self-esteem by being her cheerleader and praising her accomplishments each and every day!