By Gina McSheffreys Emmons, PhD
The impact of the current pandemic, societal upsets, and political strife has been difficult on all of us, and as adults it can be challenging to process everything. When we think about the impact on our youth during this time, it can be disheartening. Girls in general, both young girls and teenagers, have been especially vulnerable as they are experiencing increased isolation, loneliness, and a decrease in self-esteem. We can, however, use this time to help focus our efforts on teaching our girls some positive life lessons, thus fostering resilience and grit. Reflecting on the legacy of Ruth Bader Ginsberg with her recent passing, and now with Kamala Harris, the first woman Vice President-elect soon to take office, we are reminded of how far women have come in history, and still how much more work is needed. In a time of much transition and change around us, raising girls to be strong and confident individuals is an especially important topic to acknowledge now in today’s world.
Exploring the Impact on Girls
Part of what makes us successful as a human species is our ability to be social and connect with others. It is such an important part of our developmental growth as we strive to be accepted by our social groups and cliques. The disruption that this pandemic has caused in our social interactions has been devastating for some girls. While we are now immersed in a virtual world with more reliance on social media to communicate with others, there is a sense of artificiality to connecting this way. Some girls are missing the real and genuine connections that are made in-person. With so much of their identity wrapped up in their social relationships, the loss of normal connections has caused girls to experience loneliness and feelings of depression.
The pandemic has also changed the routines we relied upon and the social events we looked forward to. It seems as if life has been put on hold for most of us. Depending on one’s family situation, some may be more stringent about taking pandemic precautions while others may be more relaxed about them. Therefore, some girls are experiencing the “fear of missing out,” or just simply being left out while events are happening without them, all being portrayed on social media.
Also, in a society where differences are dividing us instead of uniting us, girls are questioning their places in the world and where they fit in. With the constant “perfect” female images that flood our media, girls are often left feeling insecure about themselves and their bodies. They tend to feel that their differences further separate them from what is considered the “norm.” They wonder if what’s on the outside is more important than what is on the inside. With more time for self-reflection, some girls have started to become overly focused on their flaws, thus creating a negative narrative for themselves and greatly impacting self-esteem.
Furthermore, the lack of consistent routines, connections with others, and the accessibility of supports makes it easier to isolate and withdraw, which may be exacerbating underlying issues or creating new ones. With pandemic restrictions in place, there is a tendency for some girls to detach, retreat into their own bubbles and not reach out to others. Some may be avoiding the anxiety that comes with socializing, or they may be grappling with real fears of getting sick from the virus. This, in turn, reinforces isolating behaviors and contributes to increasing anxiety and internalizing symptoms.
During this time, girls are also struggling with loss, grief, and stress related to changes in family dynamics, financial situations, or other problems at home. Balancing these emotional burdens while trying to keep up with schoolwork and changes in school schedules can be a lot to manage.
These are just some of the issues girls are experiencing during this time. Everyone responds to stress and change differently. How someone responds to these stressors depends on both external and internal factors, which can ultimately determine a healthy versus unhealthy response. If one does not have appropriate supports within their environment or the right coping tools in their repertoire, they can become easily overwhelmed by the stressors in their lives.
What is Resilience and Grit?
When examining the issues young girls and adolescents are facing these days, we must look to ways on how we can change the trajectory for them. The research on resilience and grit can help shed some light on raising our girls.
Resilience can be defined as the ability to adapt or bounce back from adverse events. It is being equipped with the right coping skills to get through difficult times. There are some protective factors that can serve to protect against or mitigate the impact of adversity. Some examples of protective factors include family cohesiveness, social connections, spirituality, good physical health, and an individual’s positive self-concept. Being mindful of resilience research can help inform our parenting and how we can cultivate environments for our girls to combat any risk factors or threats to their development.
Grit, according to psychologist, Angela Duckworth (2016), is “passion and perseverance for long-term goals.” When you are passionate about something and determined to persist with it, obstacles or failures that get in the way do not stop you. You continue to persist and stay focused on your efforts because you are determined to reach the end and accomplish your goals. Success is basically defined by one’s efforts and drive to accomplish something, rather than one’s innate talents.
So how can we apply what we know about resilience and grit to raising girls in today’s world?
As parents, we can help to raise strong, resilient, and “gritty” girls by simply keeping a few of the following guidelines in mind:
- Allowing our kids to fail goes a long way. The greatest lessons we learn about ourselves come from taking chances, trying new things, and learning from our mistakes especially when things do not go as anticipated. We do not do our kids any favors when we try to shield them from disappointments or challenging situations. Experiencing failure allows one to grow and become stronger. In fact, Duckworth (2016) suggests that challenging our children to a certain degree is something we should do as parents so that our children learn failure and hard work.
- Encourage a shift in mindset. Helping to reframe negative statements into more neutral/positive ones can be a powerful way to view situations. Using the word, “yet,” can also create a change in our way of thinking. For example, a young girl learning to ride a bike might say, “I don’t know how to ride my bike. I’m just not good at this.” You can work on reframing those statements into, “I don’t know how to ride my bike It will take some practice, but I can get there.” This also describes what is called a “growth mindset” where you believe that you can develop your abilities and skills through your efforts versus having a “fixed mindset” where you believe your abilities are innate and static, thus limiting the potential for growth (Dweck, 2006). Dweck suggests praising your child for their efforts and not for their talents, as they will learn to appreciate the process of hard work and will continue to push themselves instead of stop themselves based on their perceived limits.
- Girls need to learn that taking care of their whole self, their bodies and mind is important. Their physical and mental well-being allows them to be strong and accomplish the goals they want. Eating properly, exercising, and getting adequate sleep are important to maintain physical health not only during the growing years, but even as adults. Instilling good habits now will help to increase the chances that your child will continue them throughout their life. Tending to mental health is also important whether it is taking breaks, utilizing mindfulness and relaxation techniques, practicing coping strategies, or seeking therapy when needed. Sometimes it is difficult to figure out the tools that can help our children; therefore, it can be beneficial to seek expert advice and have a safe space for your child to express their feelings.
- Help your child make and maintain positive connections with others. According to resilience research, it only takes having at least one positive relationship with a parent, caregiver, or other adult in a child’s life to make a difference. It is the quality of that relationship that makes the connection meaningful and supportive. This highlights the important roles teachers and coaches can play in our daughters’ lives as well.
- Encourage your girls to express their feelings, voice their opinions, and do some perspective taking. Ask them how they would solve a particular problem instead of giving them the answer or solving it for them. Engage in role plays so that they can practice speaking their mind or even taking the “other” side to see how they can argue a particular point in a different way.
- Have discussions about current events and engage in healthy debates. Encourage them to formulate opinions and have a voice in the process. If your daughter is anxious or on the quiet/shy side, it is important for her to practice speaking in comfortable spaces. The more exposure she has speaking in front of a group, the less anxiety provoking it will be. Gradual exposure to feared situations and guided practice are the best ways to combat anxiety. It is important to address her anxiety so that it does not hold her back from accomplishing her goals, or prevent her from being the best version of herself.
- Embrace differences and accept ourselves and our flaws. It is okay not to look like or be like everyone else. Instead of following someone else’s path, encourage your daughter to create her own. She can join a group at school with other students who share similar interests, or start a new group and pave a different way for others to join.
- Allow for creativity by making sure there is down time. Every part of the day does not have to be scheduled. It is okay to be bored because boredom fosters creativity. Make time to listen and praise your daughter’s ideas–participate in her impromptu dance parties and puppet show performances, or just be the “student” in her pretend classroom.
- Let them choose their passions by figuring out what they like and what they want to do. Allowing them to choose the sport or extracurricular activity they want to try or continue gives them a sense of control and ownership. They may feel more responsible for investing their time in that particular activity, and may be better able to judge their appreciation for it or not.
- Don’t get trapped by gender roles. Encourage girls to sign up for clubs, sports, or activities that are typically considered for boys. It teaches girls that they can have a place at any table.
- As mothers, we are our daughters’ first female model. The roles, jobs, and activities we take on show our children how rewarding our work can be with effort and perseverance. They also see how we handle setbacks, the obstacles and disappointments that come our way. We can’t always be calm in every situation, but we can be consciously aware of how we respond when she is watching. Sometimes life rattles us or throws us a curve ball, but it is how we bounce back that makes all the difference. Adapting to change, going with the flow, and practicing acceptance are powerful life lessons.
- Educating our girls about strong women role models in history is so imperative in carrying out these women’s legacies. Discussing the visions they had and the obstacles they faced and overcame can be empowering. Ask your girls what they would like to change in the world today or how they see their futures. Maybe they can get more involved in their schools or within the community, taking on leadership roles and making changes on a smaller scale, which can have a lasting impact and may even spark future interests.
The events of this year have been difficult to process, but we must be attuned to their impact on our youth, no matter age or gender. The focus on girls is particularly relevant given their specific vulnerabilities at this time and the importance resilience and grit play in the female role now and throughout history. As parents of daughters, we have a special job to help raise resilient and “gritty” girls so that they can go out and be who they want to be and make their own lasting contributions to this world.
Duckworth, A. (2016). Grit: The power of passion and perseverance. New York, NY: Scribner/Simon & Schuster.
Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Random House.