A Woman’s Journey

This is a directive for all women, but particularly those going through an emotional or physical crisis : find a picture of yourself from when you were just ten years old. Look closely at that girl. Remember her. Notice her brave, confident smile, and the light in her eyes. Remind yourself of the things this girl used to like to do. How did they make her feel? Remember that feeling.

Now ask yourself, what happened? Where on earth did that girl go? When I look at that picture of myself at the age of ten, I’m not sure how I should feel. I know that I miss her terribly. I miss her glow, her energy, her courage. If I could talk to her now, what would I say? What would I warn her about?

According to a recent article published in the journal Atlantic, girls’ confidence takes a pretty dramatic dive at right around the age of ten, once they enter puberty, though no one is exactly sure why this is. The authors of a new book « The Confidence Code for Girls », interviewed hundreds of teen and pre-teen girls during their research, and even did an on-line survey on Ypulse to rate girls’ confidence levels, both before and after puberty. Despite recent cultural efforts to encourage girls during the troubling teen years, their confidence levels still dropped 30% between the ages of 8-14. It’s pretty discouraging.

This crucial drop in girls’ confidence may have many causes, but psychology experts pinpoint a tendency to begin ruminating during puberty – something boys don’t do. Suddenly, girls begin to worry about how they look, about how many friends they have, and about how their body is changing and what it means. Don’t forget, girls first begin menstruating during these crucial years, and many aren’t prepared for it. The discomfort and inconvenience can mean a loss of concentration at school. The sudden growth of breasts stratifies friend groups that used to be stable, as some girls become viewed as sexual objects while others aren’t. It causes a lot stress.

Also, girls are often unintentionally encouraged to become « people-pleasers ». Compared with most boys, they follow directions so well, they work independently without bothering others, they consistently get good marks. It’s only natural that we would praise them for this, but it does make them more susceptible to perfectionism. And perfectionists fear taking risks. Without taking risks, girls don’t build confidence, and without confidence, they start to stumble.

How can this be prevented? I’m no expert, but I have some suggestions : for one, tell your pre-teen daughter she’s beautiful, but not without praising other qualities too, like her grit, perseverance, or intelligence. Spend quality time with her and listen seriously to her concerns. Encourage her to try new things, and if it doesn’t work out, encourage her to try something else. Always ensure she’s doing the things she likes to do, not what you want her to do, or what she thinks you want her to do. Finally, help her navigate her feelings by pointing out different perspectives. Offer her different ways of looking at things, so that she learns her feelings aren’t permanent, that she can think her way out of them.

If I could go back and talk to the ten-year old girl I once was, I don’t think I would warn her of the many pitfalls ahead of her. Why stress her out? I also wouldn’t give her precise instructions of who to avoid and what she definitely shouldn’t do. Instead, I think I would look at her with love and tell her how special she is, and remind to never forget it. I would tell her how important it is to believe in herself, and to trust her instincts. She’ll be so young, she probably won’t even understand what I mean. And maybe that’s one of the great mysteries of life. Maybe an older woman only gets her quiet strength because she loses her confidence so early, just when she’s on the cusp of life. Maybe we have to lose something so utterly and completely before we can finally understand how valuable and important it really is. Maybe it’s this long struggle to regain confidence that eventually makes a woman a force to be reckoned with.