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How to Encourage Girls to Lift Each Other Up, Instead of Tearing Each Other Down

Too often girls and women view each other as competition or threats, rather than allies -- here's how to change that.

Too often, girls and women are taught to think of other girls and women as competition or even threats, not as allies. In fact, Caroline Adams Miller, a positive psychology expert and the author of Getting Grit, says that when she asks female professionals if they feel like one of the biggest challenges they face isn't just how they are treated by men but also getting torn down by other women, "It’s not half the room raising their hands — it’s 100 percent of the women." When girls are empowered and confident, however, they can learn how to team up in ways that encourage and support one another, making it more likely that all of them will find success! Phyllis Fagell, a professional school counselor, spoke with a variety of experts for a recent Washington Post article to find out why girls are prone to see one another as competition — and how parents can encourage them to build empowering friendships that lift each other up instead.

Part of the reason girls are prone to compete is that they worry about losing out on opportunities: "scarcity theory might lead young girls to believe that there are limits around how many good things can happen to any one person," Miller says, "which could also lead them to believe that their own success will be limited." A recent survey by Plan International USA showed that 30% of teenage girls felt they had fewer opportunities at school than boys do, particularly when it comes to sports and leadership opportunities. That means that girls may conclude that losing one chance to another girl means they'll never get another one, says business leader and pro basketball pioneer Donna Orender: "Unfortunately, it’s been communicated to us over the years that there are fewer spots for women — a limited inventory."

So what can parents and educators do to help girls understand that it's not a zero-sum game? An important first step is helping to grow her own confidence, which tends to drop significantly in girls as they reach the tween years, since confident girls are more likely to see one another as allies rather than threats. One way to do this is by encouraging girls to use expansive body language, says Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist and author of Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges, since she observes that girls often start showing "shrinking behavior," where they try to take up less space, around middle school.

Cuddy explains that feeling "powerlessness can be really dangerous and make it hard to know who to trust." While on the flip side, "feeling powerful activates what we call the behavioral approach system and makes us more optimistic, generally happier, and more confident and willing to take risks." So when you see her slumping, slouching, or otherwise avoiding taking up space, ask her, "How do you feel when you’re ­sitting like that?" Showing girls images of confident girls and women standing with strength can also help reinforce this message. When Cuddy went to see the Fearless Girl sculpture, which depicts a girl standing with her feet apart, with her hands on her hips, boldly starting down the Wall Street Bull, for example, she says, "there were probably 60 girls there. That’s what they want to see, and what we need to be showing them."

It's also important that parents teach their kids to value personal mastery and improvement over their performance relative to others. For example, if she's a runner, instead of asking herself if she ran further or faster than others, she can ask herself if she ran further or faster than she did yesterday. "You can be competitive without thriving on doing better than someone else," Allie Riley, the senior vice president for Girls on the Run, reminds her runners. Moreover, encouraging girls to join a team — not necessarily a sports team, but any group with a shared goal — helps them learn how to invest in one another's success and build each other up. "In theater, you have to make it about what’s best for the performance, and in a marching band, you have to trust that the person next to you won’t hit or step on you," explains consultant Jon Gordon, the author of The Power of a Positive Team. "It’s all about being better for each other — no one achieves greatness in isolation."

Of course, competition can also be beneficial to girls as well and help them build confidence and assertiveness, as long as she knows that there is a respectful way to do it. "We’ve been so militant about getting girls to be nice, they don’t even know there’s such a thing as healthy competition," says Lisa Damour, psychologist and author of Untangled: Guiding Teenager Girls Through The Seven Transitions Into Adulthood. Encourage girls to do their best in competitive situations, but emphasize the importance of good sportsmanship and empathy throughout. As part of this, experts recommend introducing girls to fierce but kind female characters in media, such as those found in the many books and films found in A Mighty Girl's extensive collection of girl-empowering resources.

Another way that girls can help lift one another up is by using social media for good. While surveys have found that many girls believe that society most values their physical appearance, and this is often taken to an extreme on social media, Miller encourages girls to change this dynamic by celebrating one another's substantive achievements on social media. She suggests that girls write shout-outs and compliments to friends who have achieved a goal as a way to start a positive cycle of encouragement and shift social media exchanges away from a fixation on appearance.

This kind of positive relationship doesn't have to be restricted to peers: Orender regularly pairs tweens and teens with older mentors, including women age 65 and up, to show them that everyone needs help sometimes — and that they can be the helpers as well as those in need. But when it happens among same-age girls, the result is truly astonishing. Ashley Eckstein, who has voiced empowering characters like Ahsoka Tano from the Star Wars universe, recalls being mocked for her success when she started performing professionally in the fifth grade, but this year, when she took her niece to a girls' leadership summit, she saw a totally different dynamic. "The cheers, hugs and high-fives literally gave me goose bumps," she recalls. "Something very right was happening in that room full of confident girls all doing their own thing."

Books to Encourage Supportive Female Friendships

Crafty Chloe

Crafty Chloe

Written by: Kelly DiPucchio
Illustrated by: Heather Ross
Recommended Age: 4 - 8

When another girl has already purchased the most perfect birthday gift for Chloe's friend Emma, Chloe decides she'll make a present -- something you can't buy in a store. But crafting isn't easy, and it's beginning to look like she won't have a great idea in time. Fortunately, with a good doodle session and a whole lot of glitter to inspire her, Chloe figures out just the thing to save the day — and with a little help from her trusty glue gun, she just might save a friendship, too!

The Princess in Black and the Mysterious Playdate

The Princess in Black and the Mysterious Playdate

Illustrated by: LeUyen Pham
Recommended Age: 5 - 8

Princess Magnolia and Princess Sneezewort have an awesome playdate planned — the perfect chance for Magnolia to take a break from her secret life as the monster-defeating Princess in Black! But then a shout comes from outside Sneezewort's castle: a monster is on the loose. Princess Magnolia makes her excuses and transforms into the Princess in Black, but when she gets outside, the only thing she sees is another mysterious masked avenger. Who is this unexpected hero? And was the cry of monster really a false alarm? This new title in The Princess in Black early chapter book series is an ode to friendship and a reminder that two heroes are better than one!

Bink and Gollie

Bink and Gollie

Illustrated by: Tony Fucile
Recommended Age: 6 - 9

Meet Bink and Gollie, two precocious little girls — one tiny, one tall, and both utterly irrepressible. Setting out from their super-deluxe tree house and powered by plenty of peanut butter (for Bink) and pancakes (for Gollie), they share three comical adventures — arguing about socks, pets, and personal boundaries — that remind them that, no matter what, they will always be the very best of friends. This Theodor Seuss Geisel Award-winning book is full of exuberance, friendship, and fun. Fans of this book should also check out Bink and Gollie: The Completely Marvelous Collection.

Friends: Making Them & Keeping Them

Friends: Making Them & Keeping Them

Written by: Patti Kelley Criswell
Illustrated by: Stacy Peterson
Recommended Age: 7 - 10

This interactive book features a combination of tips, anecdotes, quizzes, and hands-on activities to help girls learn everything from where to find new friends to how to introduce yourself to how to handle when a friend is being mean — or when a friend says you’re the mean one. A series of examples demonstrates how to respond to a friend in a positive way, while “trouble starters” show how particular behavior can cause strife in a friendship. It's the perfect guide to help kids develop their social skills for a lifetime of strong, healthy friendships.

Drita, My Homegirl

Drita, My Homegirl

Written by: Jenny Lombard
Recommended Age: 8 - 12

10-year-old Drita is a Muslim Albanian refugee, struggling with the transition from war-torn Kosovo to Brooklyn, New York; she doesn’t speak any English, and her mother is falling into depression. Maxie is an African-American girl who still wrestles with grief after her mother died in an accident, and as one of the “cool kids,” she doesn’t want anything to do with this strange new girl. But when their teacher assigns a project to Maxie, interviewing Drita about her life in Albania and her move to the US, the two girls slowly develop a friendship as they discover unexpected connections between their lives. This unique novel alternates between both girls’ perspectives, creating a poignant and powerful tale of bridging cultural divides.

The Confidence Code for Girls

Taking Risks, Messing Up, and Becoming Your Amazingly Imperfect, Totally Powerful Self

The Confidence Code for Girls

Taking Risks, Messing Up, and Becoming Your Amazingly Imperfect, Totally Powerful Self

Recommended Age: 8 - 12

Many girls are consumed by self-doubt on the inside, especially during the tween and teen years — but if they can crack the confidence code, they can learn how to set worries aside and focus their energy on what's really important: confidently pursuing their dreams and embracing their authentic selves! In this book, Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, the authors of the best-selling The Confidence Code for adult women, draw on the latest research to help tweens understand how to short-circuit the thoughts that drain your confidence and hold you back. Illustrations throughout help draw girls into the book, while lists, quizzes, and stories from real-life girls help readers understand how to embrace risk (and failure), overcome anxieties, and be happy in their own skins.

A Smart Girl's Guide: Friendship Troubles

A Smart Girl's Guide: Friendship Troubles

Written by: Patti Kelley Criswell
Illustrated by: Angela Martini
Recommended Age: 9 - 12

Even the best friendships run into trouble occasionally! Whether your Mighty Girl is feeling left out, trying to figure out how to talk to a friend about a problem without hurting her feelings, or dealing with a friendship turned toxic through rule-setting, backstabbing, or bullying, there are tips to help her out in this book. Despite the focus on friendship troubles, the overall message is positive, reminding the reader that a true friendship will buoy her up, support her through the tough times, and leave her feeling her best.

The Baby-Sitters Club: Kristy's Great Idea

The Baby-Sitters Club: Kristy's Great Idea

Recommended Age: 9 - 13

The Baby-Sitters Club is back to delight a new generation in this series of full-color graphic novel adaptations! When Kristy has the idea to create a club of baby-sitters to get more baby-sitting jobs, she enlists her two friends Mary Anne and Claudia, and later new friends Stacey and Dawn. No new business goes smoothly, but with friendship to see them through, the baby-sitters will create something extra-special! Fans of the series can check out the box set of the first four graphic novels, illustrated by Raina Telgemeier, and the two follow-ups adapted by Gale Galligan, Dawn and the Impossible Three and Kristy's Big Day.

Lumberjanes Vol.1: Beware the Kitten Holy

Lumberjanes Vol.1: Beware the Kitten Holy

Illustrated by: Brooke Allen
Recommended Age: 9 and up

Jo, April, Mal, Molly and Ripley are best friends who are looking forward to a fun few weeks at camp, that is, until they see a woman turn into a giant bear! Suddenly, the friends find themselves in the midst of mysterious and supernatural adventures. Fortunately, “Miss Qiunzella Thiskwin Penniquiqul Thistle Crumpet’s Camp for Hardcore Lady-Types” can provide them with all the skills they need. It’s going to be quite the unexpected summer! This collection gathers issues 1 to 4 of this fun series, which also makes reference to inspiring women of history. Fans of the first volume will also want to check out more of the Lumberjanes series.

Just as Long as We're Together

Just as Long as We're Together

Written by: Judy Blume
Recommended Age: 12 and up

Stephanie and Rachel have been best friends since second grade — but then Alison moves into the neighborhood, and suddenly the old friends are keeping secrets from each other. Stephanie wonders if it’s possible to have two best friends, or if she has to give up one to be friends with the other. Fortunately for Stephanie, when she needs a friend to help her through her parents’ separation, she discovers that the only thing better than a best friend is a group of friends who can count on each other — always. The friends' story continues in the sequel, Here's to You, Rachel Robinson.

The Teen Girl's Survival Guide

Ten Tips for Making Friends, Avoiding Drama, and Coping with Social Stress

The Teen Girl's Survival Guide

Ten Tips for Making Friends, Avoiding Drama, and Coping with Social Stress

Written by: Lucie Hemmen PhD
Recommended Age: 13 and up

Strong, supportive friendships can make all the difference in the teen years, and this book will help girls learn how to find the friends that she can lean on! Psychologist Lucie Hemmen offers ten tips grounded in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to help teen girls find good friends, work through conflicts, and weed out negative social habits. Individual chapters elaborate on key elements of friendship like using communication to nurture friendships and how to be the person you want on social media or while texting. By developing these social skills, Mighty Girls will be ready to find good friends wherever they go — and to help good friends through their own bumps in the road.

No More Mean Girls

The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls

No More Mean Girls

The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls

Written by: Katie Hurley

Many parents think big social stressors first hit girls during the middle school years, only to discover that tough issues like low self-esteem, cyberbullying, and peer pressure are cropping up at younger ages. This invaluable book tackles "mean girl culture" and provides practical advice for parents on how to to teach girls to seek out and build strong, positive friendships; express themselves in a healthy way; and stand up for themselves and for others, empowering young girls to be kind, confident, and resilient leaders who work together and build each other up.

UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World

UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World

Written by: Dr. Michele Borba

Studies show that teens are 40% less empathetic today than they were thirty years ago – a trend that hurts both kids and society as a whole. In fact, self-focused behavior can hurt academic performance, lead to increases in bullying behavior, and reduce kids’ resilience when things go wrong. This thoughtful parenting book explores nine research-based habits to build kids’ empathy. From identifying and controlling their emotions to thinking about "us" not "them", these strategies can be used daily to encourage kids to see the world from the perspectives of other people around them, reducing rudeness and bullying and setting them up for a lifetime of positive relationships.

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