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How to raise young girls in a vanity-focused world

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Family

How to raise young girls in a vanity-focused world

I cannot fathom how difficult it is to be a teen in today's hyper-sexualized, social media–based culture. It's difficult enough watching it as a parent. There's so much pressure for young women to be beautiful, thin and sexy. But then, when a line is perceived to be crossed, girls are shamed publicly. (Observe the outcry over former Disney Channel star Miley Cyrus' MTV Music Video Awards performance with Robin Thicke.)

Alissa Sklar confronts these issues daily, both as a consultant to school boards on the use of technology and as a mom to three girls. "Part of the problem is the conflicting messages we send to girls today. They're told that their worth is based on being attractive, then they're punished for being sexual," says the Montreal-based mom. "It's confusing for me, not to mention for the girls."

1. The pop-culture pull
I think about these issues whenever my eight-year-old daughter preens for the camera in a flirty pose, mimicking what she sees on billboards and in commercials. There is no way to shut out all the oversexualized images of girls. I can barely even find appropriate clothing for my daughter that isn't too short or too cutesy-sexy. (A 2012 study found that at least 30 percent of clothing for young girls had sexualizing characteristics.)

I'm also concerned about the sexualized images teens are posting of themselves on social media sites. I want my daughter to feel empowered and comfortable in her own body, but I think the pull of outside influences is stronger than any true-beauty-comes-from-within lecture I could give.

Pop culture is a powerful force that parents can only partially mitigate, says Kate Sharpe, a researcher and adolescent health education programming consultant. If they are posing in bikinis on Facebook, they may just be copying a Victoria's Secret ad or other images they have seen, with the intention of saying, ‘I belong to this group.' It is not about sex. They may not even be aware of the sexual messages they are sending.

2. Ask, don't tell

Both Sklar and Sharpe say that instead of doling out lectures, parents should be discussing the consequences of actions with their teens, and be asking open-ended questions.

"I spend a lot of my time asking questions, and just listening," says Toronto-based mom Jill Donald. She has two teen girls and has questioned the amount of time they spend posting photos on Facebook. "I can't judge their friends, but I can ask questions like: ‘What do you think about that photo? What would your grandmother think?'"

Jill grabs any opportunity she can to discuss issues with her daughters. "I try to talk to them when they are captive in the car. One moment my daughter is talking about how everyone has a boyfriend, and after a random comment I am telling her she is in charge of her own sexual health," she says. "You never know what is going to sink in."

Sadly, a connection with parents is something many Canadian kids don't feel they have. Canada ranks near the bottom of 38 developing countries when it comes to the quality of relationships between teens and parents, according to a 2012 report by the World Health Organization.

Building strong relationships needs to start when kids are young, says Sharpe. "Parents have to listen deeply to what kids are saying, and to what they're not saying," she says. Instead of pointing out when an actress looks too thin or too sexy, Sharpe suggests asking your child what she thinks about the celeb's motivations and the possible repercussions. The goal is to create critical thinkers who can watch Miley "twerk" and Britney "werk" and see beyond the images.

The teen brain isn't fully formed, and until it is, parents have to prod their kids with the sorts of questions they may not be asking themselves. "Until they develop critical thinking skills, I want them to hear my voice in their head," says Sklar.

3. Listen and learn
Teens are going to rebel, try on new identities and push boundaries – that's what being a teenager is all about. Talking with, and listening to, your child about the kinds of activities they enjoy, or their academic and social strengths, will remind them of who they are at their cores.

Research shows that when children feel truly listened to by their parents they get a hit of oxytocin – the pleasure chemical. That powerful feeling of connection, of grounding, is every parent's secret weapon against the larger social forces that buffet children and teens. In fact, it may be our best defence.

We have more tips on raising teens, including how to raise your daughter's self-esteem.
                                               
This story was originally titled "Object of Beauty" in the December 2013 issue.
           
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How to raise young girls in a vanity-focused world

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