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Girls' Confidence Plummets Starting at Age 8: Here's How to Keep Her Confidence Strong

The authors of the bestselling confidence guide for girls share advice for parents on how to stop the steep drop in confidence common among tween girls.

Katty Kay and Claire Shipman are on a mission: helping tween girls keep their confidence so they can be resilient, empowered adult women! As authors of The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance - What Women Should Know, they've helped millions of adult women understand how to build their own confidence, but they frequently heard from women who wanted to know how they could help their tween and teen daughters. Kay and Shipman worked with a polling firm to learn more about the issue and were shocked to discover that girls' confidence drops by 30% between the ages of 8 and 14. "Right until age 8, there's really no difference [between girls and boys] in confidence levels," Shipman says. "We were surprised at how quickly, how deep that drop is."

They decided to address the problem head-on, and the result was The Confidence Code for Girls, a book adapted for girls ages 8 to 12. Full of graphic novel strips, quizzes, tips, and stories from real girls, The Confidence Code for Girls was an instant best-seller. Kay and Shipman followed that book up with the publication of The Confidence Code for Girls Journal, a companion journal they co-wrote with JillEllyn Riley for ages 8 to 12, which helps girls build confidence-boosting skills they can apply for the rest of their lives.

A Mighty Girl spoke with Kay, Shipman, and Reily about their research, their books, and why it's more important than ever that parents understand how to foster confidence in their Mighty Girls.

Our Conversation With Authors Katty Kay, Claire Shipman, and JillEllyn Riley

A Mighty Girl: In the A Mighty Girl community, we have a lot of supporters with young girls of 5, 6, or 7 years old who share stories of how confident and self-assured their daughters are. But, that narrative often shifts for parents of tween and teen girls who wonder what happened to their previously confident daughters and why they now seem so full of self doubt. Can you discuss what your research has found about changes in girls' confidence at different ages and what you believe drives these changes?

As girls approach adolescence, that openness to risk and failure becomes buried under an avalanche of biological and cultural signals telling them to be careful, value perfection, avoid risk at all possible costs.

Kay, Shipman, and Reily: Our research and the poll we commissioned about a year and a half ago make plain what we’d already seen — tween and teen girls are experiencing a severe confidence shortage. Working with Ypulse, a polling firm that focuses on teens and teens, we surveyed 1300 girls between the ages of 8 to 18, and their parents. What we found confirms what girls are telling us: confidence levels are evenly matched for boys and girls until the age of 12. But between the ages of 8 and 14, girls’ confidence levels nose-dive by 30 percent.

As girls approach adolescence, that openness to risk and failure becomes buried under an avalanche of biological and cultural signals telling them to be careful, value perfection, avoid risk at all possible costs. Parents and society reinforce a lot of these messages and behaviors at the same time that girls’ brains are being flooded with estrogen, which heightens emotional intelligence and curbs risk. Not because we are bad, but because there is such a premium on “doing well,” especially today.

This emotional intelligence allows them to better read the emotional landscape around them, but also makes them more observant, more cautious, less likely to TRY.

By many measures, girls are excelling like never before and, particularly in academics, their performance is exceeding that of boys. At the same time, girls' anxiety rates have been skyrocketing over the past ten years. How do these trends relate to your research on girls and confidence?

Achievement expectations and being a “good girl” are two things that increase girls’ anxiety. And the pressures from a bombardment of images on social media add to the pressure. Boys risk and fail more easily, so they build confidence. Yet for girls, we unwittingly encourage their perfectionistic, people-pleasing tendencies.

They need to increase healthy risks and failure in their daily diets. Risk and failure and then the process of recovery and mastery are the things that actually create confidence, build more of it.  And yet this is not where most parents focus their attention. And, most importantly, risk, and stepping outside of one’s comfort zone, is actually what is VALUED in the real world — once we leave the safe cocoon of school and college. Schooling plays to girls’ strengths — getting everything right. But that’s actually the wrong lesson for life. It’s not about being perfect and waiting for a pat on the head. It’s about trying and doing and failing and moving on.

Where are the perfectionist tendencies that appear to be so strong in girls today coming from? Do you see this as a new phenomenon or something that's always existed? How does perfectionism and fear of failure relate to girls' confidence?

Social media has amped up the pressure to be perfect, because girls are constantly comparing themselves to photo-shopped, airbrushed images of perfection.

In some ways, they have always existed because of the way girls/women’s brains work. Women have a more active prefrontal cortex earlier, so tend to be good at big-picture thinking and strategy. But often, since we can anticipate consequences, that makes us more likely to choose safe options, rather than riskier ones.

Also the anterior cingulate gyrex, aka the worrywart center, which is more developed in the female brain, which means that we SEE the consequences and we worry more about them. Also, social media has amped up the pressure to be perfect, because girls are constantly comparing themselves to photo-shopped, airbrushed images of perfection.

It all leads to overthinking and shuts down girls willingness to build confidence by trying and failing. Trying to achieve perfection (an impossible task) means that girls can’t fail, so they won’t take that risk. Our data shows that the percentage of girls who say they are not allowed to fail rises 150 percent between the ages of 12 and 13, with 45 percent of 13 year olds say they don’t feel able to fail.

In your books, you often stress the need for girls and women to take risks. Can you discuss the connection because risk-taking and confidence?

Confidence hinges on action. It’s the quality that literally turns our thoughts into action, taking them from random mental impulses to actual deeds. And that process, which usually involves some struggle and failure as well, is what creates more confidence. When girls try NEW things, hard things, their confidence grows.  If they play it safe and only do the things that they are good at doing, they won’t grow in confidence.

It’s impossible to build confidence staying in a comfort zone, only doing what you are already good at doing.

At a time that is sometimes called the 'age of fear' when parents are often more fearful about risks to their children and society is often more rigid about parents allowing children much freedom, how do you suggest parents encourage girls' to get out of their comfort zones and take risks?

Curb the impulse to help your daughters navigate the world. Let them mess up, make mistakes, and then figure out how to rebound. It’s counterintuitive, but it’s the only way to allow them to grow confidence.

There are regular reports about how many young people are spending vast amounts of time on social media. How is social media use affecting girls' confidence and, given its strong influence on many kids, what do you recommend to parents regarding their daughters' social media use? 

Social media has many benefits. It can provide connection and community to isolated people and it can allow kids to virtually explore their interests all over the world. But because it’s so ubiquitous, it can also shake their confidence tremendously. It’s hard for them to get away, so problems with friends or frenemies can escalate in the blink of an eye. And, of course, perfectionism feeds on the Instagram-worthiness ethos.

Parents should encourage their daughters to:

  • Take a Screen Vacation
  • Impose the 24 hour rule
  • Talk Face to Face
  • Apply the Grandma Test
  • Use it for Good

Also, recent research shows that when girls follow high-achieving women on social who share their interests, their world views are expanded markedly. They are able to see possibilities that they hadn’t imagined before and it helps to get them out of the narrow focus on friends, appearance, celebrity, etc.

So, instead of fighting the uphill against smart phones and social media, parents should insist that their daughters follow four women who are working in areas that interest them and then see where that takes them!

A lot of high-achieving girls may appear very confident on the outside, even to their parents, but still feel beset by self doubt on the inside. How can parents tell if their daughter is struggling with self-confidence in these cases? 

Our research shows that parents of teens find it harder to get on board with the idea that girls have to be able to fail, than parents of younger children. So parents really have to look at whether their daughters are taking healthy risks and failing and rebounding. We’ve also learned that dads are better at accurately gauging their child’s confidence than moms are, regardless of gender. In fact, 26% more likely to estimate that confidence correctly.

For women, our own confidence issues and expectations colors our ability to judge our daughters. It’s a perception difference. The confidence gap causes women to expect more from their daughters as was expected of them, and to assess their daughters more as they themselves have been assessed.

You've just released a new journal, The Confidence Code for Girls Journal, to complement your book, The Confidence Code for Girls, which has been a tremendous hit with our supporters. Can you tell us a little about it and what you hope girls will get out of it? 

In the first book, we’d tried to cleverly disguise a lot CBT [cognitive-behavioral therapy] techniques and strategies to help girls deep with rumination and other flawed thinking patterns. In this book, those strategies and techniques have been transformed into even more fun challenges and activities.

We hope to get confidence off the page and ingrained into the thinking patterns and muscle memories of girls. The journal is chocked full of fun actions and questions and ways to them to explore the way they think and start to really build their own confidence stockpile.

How does role modeling play into all of this, especially on the part of moms? And, for adult women who feel like they could benefit from boosting their own confidence, what are a few steps you recommend to get started?

If we never admit or share our own disasters, then girls will be measuring themselves against a false standard (and there’s enough of that it the world at large). Show your daughter what it means to screw up and then recover from it. If we are busy trying to be perfect, that is what our daughters will most notice, no matter how many books on confidence we hand her.

We have to learn to take risks too! Women, most of us anyway, still shy away from risks. But we always tell women — start small. First evaluate what actually is a risk to you. For some women it’s speaking up, for others, it’s owning accomplishments, for still others, it’s being even a tiny bit imperfect.

Claire found, for example, when she was producing television pieces, that she had to create a rule for herself that most of her work would be “good enough,” and she would only indulge in perfectionism occasionally. This enabled her to actually get more done and take on more assignments instead of exhausting herself each evening by working all night on a script. That was hard.

Katty found, when she was intimidated to speak up in meetings with top government officials, worried she wasn’t “expert” enough, that once she just decided to do it — guess what — the sky didn’t fall in, and nobody noticed, and she realized she didn’t need to know everything in order to participate.

We interviewed one top attorney who struggled to make decisions — because she thought each one had to be “right.” Her whole team was at a standstill. She finally told herself — ten percent of my decisions everyday will be wrong, and that’s fine. I will deal with the fallout, because 90 percent will be right, and that enables forward progress.

So pick your risk and take it on!

If you were going to sum up all of your advice, what are the most important things parents can do to keep their girls' confidence strong as they enter the tween years? 

As we’ve said, taking risks and failing is critical. Curbing rumination, catastrophizing and negative thinking is equally essential. Of course, the ultimate risk, especially for girls, is the risk to be their most authentic selves. Being who they are and letting that show to the world can be incredibly intimidating.

Between their tween and teen years, girls’ belief that other people like them falls from 71% to 38% — a 46% drop. More than half of teen girls feel pressure to be perfect. With these kinds of statistics, we can see that girls have trouble embracing who they actually are, rather than who they think people want them to be.

They can’t be truly confident until they are truly themselves. Encouraging and nurturing them to find their passions and be able to express themselves, take those risks and build resilience allows them to stockpile confidence to weather what comes at them.

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