My daughter was just six when I noticed her body was developing differently than other girls her age. She wore an adorable red-and-white checked bikini, but she looked more like J. Lo than a budding first grader. With long limbs and pronounced curves, it was hard not to notice her.
My 12 Year Old is Getting “Looks” from Grown Men
Now she’s 12, and my tween daughter looks much older than her years. I have seen grown men stealing second glances or taking long, lingering looks up and down her body.
As a mother, it’s terrifying, yet I know this attention is something I need to prepare her to handle.
“Unfortunately, we live in a society that promotes physicality,” says Lisa Leshaw, M.S., a clinical mental health counselor. “And the objectification of young girls can have dire, long-term consequences on their self-esteem, including body anxiety, shame, eating disorders, and other mental health issues, if not addressed.”
But how can we arm our girls to protect their safety and boundaries while ensuring that they feel comfortable in their own skin?
How to Help Girls Feel Empowered
1. Start early.
According to Angelica Shiels, a Maryland-based licensed clinical psychologist, the key is starting early—ideally, much earlier than adolescence. “There is an important skill we need to cultivate in our young girls, which is getting them to feel comfortable making others feel uncomfortable,” says Shiels. “We want our girls to grow up tolerating the inevitable backlash of assertiveness. That means from day one we should applaud when they speak up or take themselves out of situations that do not feel right.”
2. Praise inside beauty instead of outside beauty.
Leshaw agrees that the conversations about sexual objectification and harassment need to start early and often for both daughters and sons. “It’s important that we explain to our kids the ways of the world—that the media and other outsiders may value physical beauty, but in your home, you value brains and heart. Repeat that message over and over.”
3. Discuss media messages.
Parents also need to pay attention to what their daughter is watching and following on social media. Point out messages that emphasize acquiring attention from boys. Left unchecked, these messages can contribute to girls engaging in body-objectifying behavior, including becoming overly concerned with their looks or body comparison, says Leshaw.
How to Handle Catcalls
A 2015 survey by anti-street harassment group Hollaback! found that most females experienced unprovoked sexual comments in a public place for the first time between ages 11 and 17. So what should you do when your tween or teen daughter receives unwanted attention from men, such as catcalls or sexual propositions?
1. Take catcalling seriously.
Parents need to start by taking it seriously, and understanding that a lewd comment or unwelcome advance can be uncomfortable and downright scary for a young girl. “Do not minimize the experience or write it off as part of life,” says Leshaw. “Parents need to send a clear message that their child’s feelings are valid, the incident was not their fault, and their boundaries deserve respect. Commend them for coming to you, and encourage them to report inappropriate behavior.”
2. Prioritize personal safety no matter how you respond.
In essence, we want to empower our daughters to become their own best advocates, and then give them practical tools to deal with this type of behavior. The truth is, there is no right or wrong way to respond to harassment, because it isn’t the targeted person’s fault, says Shiels. The response is a matter of choice, but parents of tweens should always focus first on personal safety. This may include encouraging your daughter to text you immediately for a ride, or to duck into a store until the harasser leaves and she feels safe.
Holly Kerns, founder and executive director of Stop Street Harassment, agrees that girls should respond however they feel most comfortable, but cautions that yelling or cursing at the harasser usually isn’t a good idea, as it could escalate into worse behavior from the harasser.
3. Maintain her confidence.
Some parents may want to downplay their daughter’s looks or physical assets that may draw unwanted attention, but Leshaw discourages this practice. “Let her dress how she feels best. The more confident she feels, the more she can develop self-respect and speak up for herself.”
4. Encourage smart choices.
On the flip side, parents can encourage their daughters to make smart choices in order to stay safe. This includes avoiding alcohol and drugs, remaining in a group when practical, having a plan for transportation, and most importantly, trusting their gut in uncomfortable situations.
5. Include males in the conversation.
Finally, Leshaw advises getting fathers and other male role models involved in discussing appropriate behavior from men; knowing what she is entitled to expect can have a powerful impact on a young girl’s self-esteem. “Don’t demonize or denigrate all men,” she says. “Remember, it’s about empowering our daughters, not putting down an entire gender.”