For our daughters there is much good news, Rachel Simmons explains in Enough As She Is: How to Help Girls Move Beyond Impossible Standards of Success to Live Healthy, Happy, and Fulfilling Lives. Their opportunities have never been more abundant. They are taking on the world like no generation of women has ever before. It is exhilarating to watch and, as parents of teens and young adults, immensely gratifying. But there is a more sinister side to all this opportunity. Simmons explains to us the price girls pay when they try to outcompete boys, each other and even themselves.
The pressure is relentless, truly 24/7, and the results are a diminished sense of self-worth, anxiety and depression. We see it as news headlines, in our schools and even in our own homes.
Our teens are growing up a world where stress is the norm and overachieving the goal. They are taught that perfection is attainable because they see it on social media every day. And even when they know that it is engineered, that photos are fixed or that only one side of the story is showing, it is hard not to believe their own eyes. They have never know any other world.
We can help. We have known a different world. We know this is unhealthy and will not lead to happiness and perhaps not even to success. We have within our power, Simmons shows us, ways to teach our kids to step back, look at their own lives and reframe the way they see themselves and others. But as parents, we need to learn these methods. Combining her own research and that of others, with years of working with girls in high pressured environments, Simmons give us the tools we need.
As she describes,
We are raising a generation of girls who may look exceptional on paper but are often anxious and overwhelmed in life—who feel that no matter how hard they try, they will never be smart enough, successful enough, pretty enough, thin enough, well liked enough, witty enough online, or sexy enough. No matter how many achievements they accrue, they feel that they are not enough as they are.
For parents of high school and college daughters, Simmons’ exceptional book is full of insight on ways in which we can, not only understand our daughters, but help them cope with the pressures they feel. We can talk to them about some of the challenges they face. We have an essential role to play in helping them cope. According to Simmons,
But teens, and especially girls, want to be connected to their parents, even when they roll their eyes and tell us we’re clueless or worse. In fact, parents are girls’ best hope in the face of the most toxic messages they hear.
Simmons offers us ways to reframe how we talk to our daughters (and frankly sons) to move them away from a fixed mindset, where they believe they are good and bad at certain things and nothing can be done, to a growth mindset where effort can lead to change.
To be clear, a girl’s ability is not the issue here. It is what girls believe about their ability. The good news is that parents can move the dial on this, just by changing the way they talk to their daughters about their achievements and setbacks.When your daughter does something praiseworthy, focus your attention on her effort: ‘You worked really hard at that,’ or ‘I’m so impressed by how you stuck with this, even when it was hard.’ Try asking her about the strategies she used to achieve her goal, and if she had to change course along the way. This is called process praise.When used in response to a success, process praise reminds a girl that she can improve herself through practice and that nothing is ‘fixed.’ Change is possible, always.
One of the important and easily overlooked parenting lessons offered in Enough As She Is is a reminder to talk to our kids about our failures and how we rebounded. They are impacted both if they cannot see times we have failed (and as a parent it is tempting to paper over the low moments of your past) and if they see our fear and panic at our or their prospects of failure. The healthiest outcome is when they learn how we faced down any setback and carried on. It gives them courage and a roadmap. Simmons explains:
How do you tend to explain your successes and failures? Look inside before you begin coaching her. As you move through a set-back, take note of your patterns. Do you quickly fault your own lack of ability, consider an outside circumstance, or speculate about both? When you succeed, do you credit only your hard work? If you need to shift your script, spend time practicing before you begin working with your daughter. As always, be ready to own your own need to change course as you begin talking with her.
The next time your daughter screws up, steer clear of faulting her ability, and stop her from doing the same. Look instead at the choices she made, and the larger context. Ask her: What could she do differently instead of how could she be different.
We had a chance to ask Simmons a few questions about Enough As She Is:
G&F: You remind parents that they, too, are enough. We all have doubts about our parenting moments or longer, when we fear we could do much better. How do we come to feel we are enough and why is it so important?
RS: Doubting your parenting is not only normal, but it may be a critical form of self-reflection. Some degree of checking yourself will prevent arrogance and impulsivity. The key, however, is not to confuse natural moments of self-doubt with whether or not you’re enough as a parent. One way to connect with your enoughness is to stop linking it to how well or poorly your child is doing at any given moment, particularly in areas that the culture has deemed important — like grades, athletic achievements, or other extrinsic rewards.
Try this: for 30 seconds, say as many things that you love about your child out loud, like this: “I love her sense of humor, I love the way she kisses me goodnight, I love how she plays with her cousins….”. You’ll find two things: one, that what you most love about her has little to nothing to do with her achievements in the world; and two, that your good parenting has played a big part in helping her become the person you love.
G&F: Social media seems out of our control even as we know it is one of the sources of our daughters’ poor feelings about self-worth. You say the process uniquely harms girls. How can parents combat this?
RS: Ironically, one of the best ways parents can combat the toxicity of social media is by making an effort to understand what their daughters love about it. So many experts have adopted a gloom and doom mentality about social media, and have coached parents to do the same. By focusing on everything that’s “bad” and “wrong” about social media, teens recoil before conversations even start — because, even if social media can be harmful for girls, there’s plenty about it that they love.
Parents should ask their daughters what they like about social media, and how they have used it in ways that make them feel proud or excited or purposeful. Ease your way into a conversation about the ways that social media also makes them feel less-than. Ask her about ways she can use social media that cut down on the “less-than” moments and offer her more happy moments. The point, in other words, is to talk about strategies for her to regulate herself — but not for you to have to do it for her. Read “The Virtual Second Shift” chapter of Enough As She Is together, and talk about strategies you can learn from the stories of the girls profiled.
G&F: The college admission process is where the need to be perfect seems at its most acute. By 11th grade the process seems to take on a life of its own. What can parents do leading up to this point to help girls keep high standards but not unattainable ones?
RS: This has to be one of the hardest, and most thankless, periods of parenting a teen. Encouraging her to remain true to herself, let go of being perfect, and remember that all will work out in the end will often be met with rolling eyes and sighs — and who can blame her? She is subject to an endless stream of pressure from peers and adults telling her that nothing short of perfection will do. Yet that’s exactly what you have to do as her parent: be the voice of reason where there often isn’t any.
Affirm how unfair the system of college admissions can be, and let her know that her stress is not her fault; this is genuinely a difficult time to be a teen (hearing it’s not her fault, and that you get this, goes a long, long way). Encourage her to take breaks when she can. Tell her to keep doing her best, and remind her of the ways your family defines success and a good life. Is it community? Hard work? Doing what you love? Again, you probably won’t get lots of thanks in the moment, but she is listening. You may be the only counterpoint to the culture that she hears.
G&F: We often fall back on telling our kids to do the best they can. We remind them that if they always try their best that is all we can hope from them. No adult always tries their best. Are we increasing the pressure on them by asking something unrealistic?
Yes, that’s so true about adults! It reminds me of that famous quote from Eleanor Roosevelt: “Do something that scares you every day.” But, as I tell my students, who wants to be scared every single day?! Not me. I’ve suggested something a bit more realistic: Do something that makes you a little nervous every day. It’s not as catchy, but it’s certainly more do-able and forgiving.
Similarly, we should ask our kids to do their best when they feel they can. That means trusting our kids when they say they need a break, or are having an off day — and not overriding their own instincts about themselves. When they can’t try their best, we should ask them: what do you need in order to get to a place where you can do your best? Is it more sleep? Some exercise? A walk with someone you love?
G&F: Finally, as I am a mom of three boys I have to say that so much of what you wrote also resonates with me a just good constructive parenting regardless of your teen’s gender. Do you have any suggestions for helping our sons when they don’t beleive they are enough?
Honestly, I think most of what I’ve written applies directly to boys, and I regularly address co-ed audiences. I wouldn’t suggest anything different.
Rachel Simmons is the author of Enough As She Is: How to Help Girls Move Beyond Impossible Standards of Success to Live Healthy, Happy, and Fulfilling Lives and the New York Times bestsellers Odd Girl Out and The Curse of the Good Girl. As an educator, Rachel teaches girls and women skills to build their resilience, amplify their voices, and own their courage so that they—and their relationships—live with integrity and health.
The cofounder of national nonprofit Girls Leadership, she is an experienced curriculum writer and educator. She is currently the leadership development specialist at the Wurtele Center for Leadership at Smith College, and is Girls Research Scholar in Residence at The Hewitt School in New York. Rachel has served as a national spokesperson for the Always #LikeAGirl and Keds Brave Life Project campaigns, and consults nationally on women’s professional development.
Rachel was the host of the PBS television special, “A Girl’s Life,” and her writing has appeared in the Washington Post, Atlantic, Slate, and The New York Times. Rachel is a regular contributor to Good Morning America and appears often in the national media. Odd Girl Out was adapted into a highly acclaimed Lifetime television movie. Rachel lives in Western Massachusetts with her daughter.