What can we do to help empower our daughters in today’s world? How can we help them to develop self-worth?
I sat down with Yoon Im Kane, a Yale-trained psychotherapist and the founder & executive director at Mindful Psychotherapy Services, a private outpatient therapy center with offices based in Manhattan. Yoon is passionate about therapy and women empowerment. Here’s what she had to say:
We’ve trained girls to be nice and sweet. We rewarded girls who show empathy and cooperation. Now, we have an issue on our hands. Young women are confused and conflicted about how to be there for others while also taking care of themselves. This is evident in the thoughts that arise from young women in my practice:
Sometimes I don’t speak up when I don’t want to do something because I want people to like me.
I don’t want to be difficult and cause problems, so I act responsible and cooperative even when I don’t feel like it.
I get resentful when I sell myself out by taking care of other people’s needs instead of listening to mine.
From a young age, women receive messages about how to be nice, compliant, accommodate others, and gain approval, both from the families and the communities they grow up in. Messages are often subtle and not conscious. They can sound like: Be nice to your brother. Don’t interrupt. Stop being so dramatic. Why are you being so difficult? Don’t you care how I feel?
These messages can hinder women’s natural development of a sense of self-worth and entitlement. Healthy self-worth involves cultivating a level of self-acceptance that validates a full range of desires and feelings. Healthy entitlement requires self-compassion, accepting negative feelings without self-criticism, and making mistakes without shame. Not developing self-worth and entitlement early on can lead to bigger problems as girls grow into women.
Life is full of ups-and-downs, and while we can’t prevent the downs, how can we provide the right nutrients to bolster girls’ sense of self early on in a way that will insulate them later in life?
Empowerment is best modeled in the environment. Most learning comes from what’s demonstrated moment-to-moment. Opportunities abound in daily interactions with your daughter.
For example, sometimes your daughter doesn’t feel like being nice to her brother, seems angry for no reason, or refuses to join a family gathering. You may tell her to behave and stop being difficult. Whether she refuses or complies, consider that she also hears a disempowering message that harmony and keeping the peace is more important than what she feels and wants.
This doesn’t mean you can’t have expectations and set boundaries. Setting healthy limits will foster her sense of self-worth. When you try to understand the source of her feelings and help her put them into words, she will feel empowered to express herself.
For example, when you are annoyed at your teen’s interactions with her brother, saying something like, “You seem really angry at your brother, I totally get that.” This statement helps her feel understood and accepted. It’s important to support her in expressing her feelings constructively and negotiating conflict. Validating her feelings and helping her communicate them effectively is empowering.
Young women today are growing up in a culture in which people may be uncomfortable with women expressing feelings like anger. This sets up a dichotomy where the cost of feeling powerful and expressive is a loss of connection and belonging. Encouraging messages about “girl power” and women’s rights are juxtaposed with our public debate over issues of gender and power in which women’s voices are not always equally valued.
What can parents do to help empower their daughters? Here are three suggestions:
1. Foster Healthy Entitlement.
Encourage your daughter to express needs and provide opportunities for her to make real choices. Girls need to feel that their needs are worth just as much as others, even if they don’t get what they want.
Help them tolerate disappointments. Healthy entitlement grows from balancing self-care with caring for others.