I’ve written extensively about daughters of divorce, the father–daughter bond, mothers and daughters, and divorce adjustment. When it comes to divorce, there’s no shortage of topics to write about. But what came to me recently is that fostering a daughter’s self-esteem after divorce is a top priority. 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.
A child’s self-esteem is based on their belief system. According to Leah Davies, M.Ed., self-esteem is 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 young women I interviewed for my book, Daughters of Divorce, reported more confidence in school and work than in interpersonal relationships.
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 raised in intact homes. When compared to sons, daughters of divorce may be more sensitive to disruption in a family. A recent British study reported that a quarter of young girls with absent fathers grow into depressed teenagers if their father leaves before they are five years old and that boys cope better with parental separation.
My research showed an association between low self-esteem and lack of access to both parents after divorce for daughters but not sons. Parental conflict -– before and after divorce –- was also associated with low-self-esteem in females but not males. However, it’s important to recognize that this association is moderate and can be mediated by many resources. Keep in mind that access to both parents, low-conflict in the family, and supportive parenting after divorce greatly reduced a daughter’s risks for low-self-esteem in my study.
Perhaps one of the most important factors in the development of self-esteem is the way a child sees their parents interact with one another. By and large, when two people divorce, they haven’t been treating each other very well for a while. Without a healthy model to follow, a daughter may not know how it feels to forge a relationship based on kindness, mutual trust, and love. After all, our relationships, and the responses we receive from others, help to create our self-esteem.
While divorce can be problematic for all children, it poses unique challenges for girls. When her family is broken, she may feel broken. Most studies report that girls tend to adjust better than boys immediately following divorce. However, several experts, such as Judith Wallerstein, have written about a “Sleeper Effect” –- a delayed reaction which can trigger negative emotions and wounded trust during adolescence and early adult years. As they venture out on their own and make decisions about love and commitment, daughters of divorce may feel pessimistic about love and become preoccupied with fear their relationships will not succeed.
As a parent, it’s crucial to recognize that intimate relationships may be hard for your daughter if she didn’t have a template of a healthy, intact marriage to follow. On the other hand, E.M. Hetherington, a leading authority on divorce who studied 1,400 divorced and remarried families, found that a successful remarriage, competent parenting, and low-conflict in the home can counteract some of the negative effects of parental divorce. Consequently, it’s important to model healthy communication and to promote your daughter’s bond with both parents -– as well as stepparents if you remarry.
The father-daughter connection is a key element of a girl’s self-esteem. A daughter’s relationship with her father 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 man.
Mothers are not off the hook when it comes to helping their daughters establish a separate identity and healthy self-esteem. In my article The Best Gifts A Mother Can Give Her Daughter After Divorce I write, “Lastly, 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 and encouraging her to be independent.
- Create a safe atmosphere for her to discuss her feelings –- be sure to 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 her to find enjoyable activities and healthy outlets that will encourage her to build self-worth. Praise your daughter for her efforts rather than her performance.
- Attempt to help your daughter repair any father-daughter wounds. A father’s effect on his daughter’s psychological well-being and identity is far reaching. A girl stands a better chance of becoming a self-confident woman is she has a close bond with her father.
- Don’t raise her to be a “pleaser.” Encourage her to stand up for what she wants. Create opportunities for her to express her opinions and make decisions -– honor her choices.
- Direct your praise away from her appearance and comment on her talents and strengths. You can model body acceptance by not focusing too much on your weight, diet, or appearance.
- 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.
A girl’s desire for authentic connection is strong and parental divorce can impact her view of herself. On the whole, girls crave stability and harmony in their home and they may feel their parents’ divorce is due to their own defect. Consequently, it’s important to model healthy communication and to promote your daughter’s bond with both parents. You can have a tremendous influence -- both by what you say and do. Promote your daughter’s self-esteem by modeling optimism and hope for her future.