“I’m terrible at soccer. I’m not as good as my friends. I’ll never be good.” A 9-year-old girl sits in my office, verbalizing the critical thoughts that hold her back. She’s focused on soccer because she’s anxious about an upcoming game, but her negative thoughts also cover her abilities in school, comparisons to her brother (“Everything is so easy for him!”), and her perceived friendship fails. Her inner critic is loud and overwhelming. It also stops her from taking chances, showcasing her strengths, and building her social relationships.
Recent research shows that perfectionism is on the rise among children and adolescents. In our current culture of succeed-at-all-costs, young girls are internalizing a dangerous message: They have to be perfect and they have to be the best.
Girls experience a wide variety of negative emotions as a result of perfectionism. Perfectionism is linked to anxiety, depression, social stress, and increased anger. The inner critic that drives this behavior isn’t simply a nuisance, it can lead to emotional distress and mental health concerns.
The good news is that parents can help girls learn to cope with negative emotions and manage their inner critics. Though middle childhood and early adolescence is a time of building independence, girls often tell me that they still need help and guidance from mom and dad. They might not want step-by-step instructions or constant feedback on every little thing they do, but they do want support, understanding, and time spent together.
Try some of these strategies to help your daughter learn to manage her inner critic:
Start with empathy.
Girls face a number of stressors — from achievement pressure to toxic competition to peer pressure to social media, girls have a lot to cope with on a daily basis. It’s no wonder their inner critics demand perfectionism at times.
When I ask girls what they need most from their parents, they often respond, “I just want them to listen.” Girlhood is exhausting these days, and the best thing parents can do is sit back and empathize. It’s natural for children to feel overwhelmed at times. It’s perfectly normal to have moments where everything feels negative. Trying to fix things won’t help our girls work through their low moments, but listening and empathizing will.
Play bounce back.
Sometimes girls become overwhelmed by the things they think they can’t do, which makes it difficult to reframe their thoughts to think about what they can do. Helping girls learn to focus on their strengths and shift their thinking from negative to positive plays an important role in developing both resilience and problem-solving skills.
Grab a basketball and play a game of bounce back to help your daughter learn to replace negative thoughts with positive ones. Ask her to share an “I can’t” thought and bounce the ball to you. Now bounce the ball back with an “I can” thought. If your daughter says, “I can’t pass the math test,” for example, you can bounce the ball back with, “You can ask for help if you need it.” This process of reframing helps girls tap into positive thinking to help work through challenging moments.
Create a power thoughts wall.
Negative thinking is closely tied to low self-esteem. When girls question their abilities and feel like they don’t have what it takes to thrive, negative thoughts consume their inner dialogue. It’s important to help girls identify their unique strengths.
A power thoughts wall is a great way to create a visual reminder of how much your girl has to offer. If you’re the crafty type, get out those fancy colored pencils and write one positive thought per piece of paper that speaks to your girl’s strengths (an example might be “I am a great problem-solver”). Create 5-10 power thoughts specific to your girl and tape them to her bedroom door. Whenever she needs a reminder of the great things she can do, she can refer to her power thoughts wall for a pick-me-up!
Navigating girlhood can be difficult at times and it’s perfectly normal for girls to experience ups and downs. Be sure to provide plenty of unconditional love and support to your daughter by listening, empathizing, and guiding.
Learn more about helping your daughter manage her inner critic in Katie Hurley’s No More Mean Girls.