Girl power: How to raise empowered daughters

Having these conversations will help the girls in your life grow into young women who can confidently tap into their capabilities and help shape the world.

Women have so much talent, strength, compassion and intellect to offer the world – a fact celebrated on International Women’s Day.

But as parents or role models of young girls, how do you help them to find their voices and chase their goals and dreams?

Author and psychologist Collett Smart says adults have a big role to play in raising girls to become confident, empowered women.

“It’s important for them to know their voices are important. Just because they are female doesn’t make them less important,” Collett says.

While there have been advances in gender equality in recent decades, Collett believes today’s young girls will make further inroads.

“They are the next leaders, parents; they will create another shift,” she says.

Conversations to make a lasting change

In her new book, They’ll Be Okay: 15 Conversations to Help your Child Through Troubled Times, Collett outlines some of the key conversations parents must have with their girls to help them grow into confident, comfortable, compassionate women.

Body image, respectful relationships and friendships, and overly sexualised media, are important topics for parents to talk about with their daughters to help shape their attitudes about themselves, she says.

How to talk to girls about their bodies

“We still place a lot of emphasis on girls on how they look,” Collett says.

“When they focus on their bodies all the time it becomes a very narrow definition of what it is to be female.

“It comes a lot from social media, general media pressure, that how they look is the most important thing about them.

“I like to talk about beauty redefined, that their bodies are instruments, not ornaments, and they’re vehicles for doing wonderful things, whether it’s helping others solving problems, doing physical things that are healthy, rather than looking a certain way.”

Collett says this doesn’t mean girls can’t take pride in their appearance.

“There’s nothing wrong with fashion, there’s nothing wrong with make-up… that can also be an expression of the creative side of your personality,” she says.

“There’s nothing wrong with affirming their creativity. We need to affirm that by encouraging things they’ve done with their mind, or when they’ve done something kind.

The way parents talk about their own bodies communicates the importance we place on body image.

“As parents we need to model that their appearance is not the most important thing about them,” she says.

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Helping girls build positive friendships

Navigating friendships and relationships can also be tricky for all people, and Collett says it is important girls learn that arguments and disagreements among friends are normal.

But they also need to know it’s important they remain respectful.

“It’s OK that friendships will evolve, because people change and interests change,” she says.

Girls are often encouraged to be nice and to think of others first, but Collet says it is vital girls don’t allow this to develop into accepting abuse.

“We need to teach them how to be assertive when they’re feeling attacked or feeling disempowered,” she says.

“They don’t have to be nice all the time – that doesn’t mean not being kind – but teaching them how to use a strong voice, and be strong. You can still be kind in that, but have healthy boundaries.

“Teach ‘I’ words, which encourage girls to own their feelings and experiences, such as ‘I felt let down,’ or ‘I’m sorry, can we fix this?’,” Collett says.

What to teach girls about anger

While it is often accepted for boys to use anger to express sadness or stress, girls are taught to suppress it.

Collett believes we should instead allow girls to feel their anger and give words to their emotions.

“Show them how to express their anger without hurting themselves or being aggressive,” she says.

“Teach them that they can express anger in constructive ways to make changes in their life.”

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The power of listening

A key part of having conversations to teach young girls empowerment is listening.

All young people, even those who are confident, will go through their ups and downs.

As much as they might want to, parents can’t protect their children from everything; they just need to make themselves available as a safe place to come to when things get tough.

“Adults shouldn’t underestimate the power of listening and being there for their hurting daughter,” Collett says.

Let her talk

Allowing your daughter to express her opinions is key in raising an empowered young woman.

“Let her know, ‘Your voice matters, I want to hear your voice, I want to hear what you have to say’. Give girls the opportunity to give voice to what’s in their head,” Collett says.

“Particularly in their home, that’s where they learn their voice is important.

“Letting your daughter debate big topics with you, even if it gets heated sometimes, is teaching them to be assertive.

“But it’s not to be unkind. It can be heated, but not attack someone’s personality. You teach your children to have appropriate boundaries around disagreements.

“All of that is teaching daughters to be assertive but in a respectful way.”

#BalanceforBetter is the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day on March 8.

Written by Claire Burke.