Women are graduating with more advanced degrees than ever before and have more female role models in just about every public sphere you can think of. Empowering ad campaigns such as Always's "Like a Girl" series go viral in minutes.
Unfortunately, all of this high achievement comes with a downside. "It's true that girls are doing great on paper, but when we look at what we call the 'internal résumé,' we don't see the same success story," says Simone Marean, cofounder and executive director of Girls Leadership, national nonprofit serving girls in grades K–12, as well as their families and educators.
While girls' levels of academic achievement have risen to the point that they now outperform boys consistently, their rates of stress, anxiety, and depression have risen as well. A study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found the girls to have three times the number of depressive episodes as the boys, and the rate at which girls reported feeling depressed nearly tripled in just one year. In other words, while girls are doing everything possible to be all that they can, they're not enjoying it. And this "wellness gap" is what parents and teachers need to focus on, says Marean. Like you, I want my daughters to have boundless opportunity. But more than that, I want them to be happy—and a big part of that means making sure that they're ready for whatever challenges they'll someday face. In that spirit, I spoke to some of the biggest change-makers in our country—people who are leading the charge to make sure girls enter adulthood feeling good about themselves—to find out what parents can do to help their daughters thrive. Now I'm sharing what I learned.
Above All, Know Your Impact
It can be easy to forget that parents, particularly mothers, are a powerful influence. Even teenagers, whom we assume are easily swayed by peer pressure, say that their mom matters most: 63 percent of girls who report that they have a role model say it's their mom, and 48 percent turn to their mother for support when they have a problem, according to a survey of nearly 1,100 girls ages 13 to 18 by Keds and Girls Leadership. Only 15 percent go to their friends first for advice. Younger girls are even more reliant on Mom: "Gradeschoolers may get into the mix with their friends during the day, but their mother is the safe haven," says Robyn Silverman, Ph.D., a parenting expert in Morris County, New Jersey, who presents workshops on how to raise confident kids. Chances are you're everything to your daughter—including her biggest role model. Report after report finds that the way a mother acts in front of her daughter largely influences the child's behavior, and there are ways to model a healthy self-image that benefit both of you. First, watch what you say, especially gossip.
Help Her Feel Unique
All right, brace yourself: Between elementary and high school, a girl's self-esteem drops 3.5 times more than a boy's does, found the American Association of University Women, a national organization dedicated to improving the lives of women and their families through advocacy, education, philanthropy, and research. The antidote? Encourage your young daughter's individuality, and you'll lay a foundation that will be her emotional scaffolding as she enters the trickier tween and teen years. "Adolescence is when girls truly start to understand their identity as separate from their parents, so they will experiment with various types like the 'class clown' or the 'renegade,' " explains Dr. Radin. "But if they already have a strong sense of self, they have a much easier time navigating adolescence."
Instill Social Confidence
Right now, the highlight of your kid's social life is being the line leader, but tough social situations start earlier than you think. Research from Penn State Erie, The Behrend College shows that on average, half of kids and adolescents, a disproportionate number of them girls, experience "relational aggression" (when kids intentionally exclude a child or coerce other children to leave someone out) at least monthly from grades 5 through 12. Even more troubling: A State University of New York at Buffalo study shows that the behavior starts in kids as young as 21/2. "Conflict is inevitable in a kid's life," says Rosalind Wiseman, author of the best-selling book Queen Bees and Wannabes. "And for that very reason, you need to teach your daughter how to handle it." Showing her that it's okay to express a full range of emotions is the number-one way to do this. "Because girls frequently show a lot of emotion, we mistakenly believe that they are emotionally intelligent," says Marean. "But girls learn very early to take care of other peoples' emotions first. They think they are always supposed to feel happy and excited, and they push down so-called 'bad' feelings like jealousy, anger, or insecurity."