A preteen girl is at a unique moment in her life.

The spark that is her potential grows more intense, yet she’ll have to fight against gender norms that threaten to diminish it.

Those expectations might convince her to sacrifice ambition for popularity, shame her for rejecting feminine beauty standards, or negatively affect her mental health. There are countless ways she’ll feel pressured to hide or change her authentic self.

Most adolescent children, regardless of gender, feel that tension, but girls often face distinct challenges. Research shows, for example, their self-esteem plummets during adolescence compared to boys.

“Girls are at their fiercest and most authentic prior to puberty,” says Rachel Simmons, author of four books on girlhood and cofounder of Girls Leadership, a national nonprofit that provides training, education, and workshops to girls, nonbinary youth, and gender-expansive youth, and the adults who support them.

While there’s growing awareness of what girls experience during adolescence, particularly when it comes to social media and comparison to others, Simmons says navigating these dynamics has only become more complex.  

“It’s not that we’ve really updated our expectations of girls – it’s that we’ve added to the old expectations,” she says. 

Simmons believes that girls face “unrelenting pressure” to excel at everything they do, a sense that has become “inextricably intertwined” with pleasing those around them. This is partly due to the competitiveness of college admissions, according to Simmons.

Indeed, new survey data published by Ruling Our eXperiences (ROX), a nonprofit research organization dedicated to promoting confidence in girls, found that more than three-quarters of respondents felt they were going to “explode” due to pressure. They named grades, school, friendships, and family issues as their top stressors. (The survey collected answers from 17,502 fifth through 12th grade girls, between 2022 and 2023.)

Simmons, who wasn’t involved in the research, notes that girls are dedicating a significant amount of their time to managing their relationships via digital technology and social media. That means keeping up with notifications, group chats, and their own social media posts, often at the expense of sleep, hobbies, and physical activity. 

Thanks to social media and other perceived obligations, like getting into a four-year college, Simmons says many American girls are consequently experiencing “role overload” or “role conflict.” This may also look different depending on a girl’s characteristics, like her race or ethnicity. A Black girl, for example, may experience “adultification bias,” a phenomenon in which Black girls are seen as older and less in need of nurturing.  

Parents, caregivers, and adults who regularly interact with preteen girls can prepare girls for adolescence by teaching them vital skills early on. These include honest communication, assertive behavior, self-compassion, and developing a positive relationship with their body. It’s equally important for girls to learn how to use these skills in the context of social media, which can affect their development in positive and negative ways. 

Talking about these and other issues, says Simmons, should also be an exercise in learning about a girl’s interests and who inspires her. Draw from pop culture examples after you’ve asked about, for example, her favorite song, celebrities, and YouTube videos.

“That’s your best way to get an education and win some love and respect from your kid in the process,” says Simmons.

Here are seven skills to consider teaching your daughter by the time she turns 13.

1. How to respect and express her feelings

One popular stereotype portrays girls (and women) as in touch with their feelings and naturally good at communicating them. That idea, however, has a harmful corollary: When girls and (and women) are overcome by their emotions, they can become incapable of making decisions.

We so frequently assume that girls and emotions are a natural pairing, for better or worse, that we neglect to actually teach girls emotional intelligence. That skill, says Simmons, means having the ability to describe and convey the full range of human emotion. But when girls are taught to value being happy and liked, they often suppress or can’t acknowledge their more difficult experiences.

More than two-thirds of ROX survey respondents said they withheld their thoughts or opinions because they want to be liked. To combat this impulse, adults need to show girls how to “flex the muscle of expressing their strongest feelings,” says Simmons. They can do that by modeling their own emotions with an expansive vocabulary using words like happy, nervous, excited, scared, angry, frustrated, and confused.

Parents can also “authorize” their daughters’ emotions by honoring their experiences as opposed to diminishing or questioning them.

“When your girls express authentic emotions — even if they’re difficult — you take them seriously,” says Simmons, “you don’t deny them or challenge them.”

“We’re almost telling Black girls they have to be silent.” 

– Dr. Marketa Burnett, University of Connecticut

Black girls and girls of color can encounter specific barriers to self-expression, says Dr. Marketa Burnett, an assistant professor of Human Development and Family Sciences & Africana Studies at the University of Connecticut. While they may, in fact, know how to express themselves, they may also have to consider and navigate how their self-expression will be interpreted by peers and adults, especially in school settings. 

Burnett, who studies Black girls’ identity development, says they may be reprimanded in school more frequently than their white peers for behavior that teachers or staff define as defiant or disrespectful when exhibited by a Black student. 

“What does that teach Black girls about their ability to speak up?” asks Burnett. “We’re almost telling Black girls they have to be silent.” 

Burnett notes that Black girls in education have been criminalized and urges schools to adopt policies that don’t inflict disproportionate disciplinary measures on them. She adds that encouraging self-expression among Black girls and girls of color will require self-reflection from the adults around them to “ensure that all girls have the opportunity to thrive in all settings, and that’s just not the reality currently.” 

2. How to feel self-compassion

It’s easy to be one’s most unforgiving critic, no matter what gender. But Simmons says that girls get a lot of messages that it’s important to please others. So when they experience a setback, it often feels like letting someone else down.

Research shows that adolescent girls may be exposed to more interpersonal stress than boys. That makes them more likely to ruminate on negative feelings, which puts them at greater risk for depression. Girls may also expect perfection from themselves, which means that minor disappointments may feel like catastrophe. 

To help prevent this cycle of distress, Simmons recommends parents teach their daughters how to deal with failure: “What we want is for girls to have the capacity to move through a setback without beating themselves up.”

Simmons says that it’s particularly important for adults to show girls how to be “comfortable with discomfort.” That skill can help them avoid overvaluing happy and positive emotions. Simmons emphasizes that adults should model what it’s like to fail and keep trying. 

At the same time, girls’ activities and interests should be self-directed instead of prescribed by her adults and caregivers. Simmons says girls need the freedom to explore and fail on their own, with appropriate — instead of overbearing — adult support.

Girls should also learn how to relate to themselves and practice self-compassion in a moment of crisis. It’s important that instead of criticizing herself harshly, a girl should learn how to focus on the universality of disappointment and treat herself kindly. By realizing that others share that experience, she’ll be better prepared to treat herself compassionately and develop resilience.

Concepts like self-compassion and kindness are universal, but all girls need to hear and see multifaceted examples of wellness to believe they can develop related skills, says Burnett. 

She adds that while self-compassion is stereotypically portrayed as an individual act, girls may benefit from the opportunity to practice the skill with their peers, in community settings, or at home, says Burnett. 

“Wellness doesn’t have to look one way,” she adds.  

3. How to develop a positive relationship with her body

Lost in a sea of selfies and TikToks, where the lines between self-objectification and self-empowerment are frequently blurry, girls might not know how to view themselves beyond a brand or object of desire.

One way to help them develop a holistic, positive relationship with their body is to introduce them to sports. Physical activity gives them an opportunity to see their bodies as capable of strength and stamina, rather than being defined by appearance only. Research published by ROX shows that sports can positively affect a girl’s self-confidence.

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But even girls who feel physically capable and confident might still feel ashamed of their body and its sexuality. Simmons recommends talking with girls about their bodies from toddlerhood. Parents should know and use the right names for genitalia and do their best to “represent sex as a healthy, beautiful experience that should be had with joy and consent.” And yes, that means talking about what consent means early on and emphasizing that a girl’s body belongs to her alone.

Parents who are uncomfortable discussing sex and the body communicate those feelings to their daughter. 

“When girls feel uncomfortable with their bodies,” says Simmons, “they can also disconnect from how they are really feeling, and worry more about how someone else is feeling, or what they want, instead.”

4. How to learn from friendships

Girls are frequently told that friendships are paramount, and that may be why they can be so singularly focused on those relationships. 

But we shouldn’t take female friendship for granted, says Simmons. Relationships help girls learn to assert themselves, compromise, and set boundaries.

Parents should view friendships as an opportunity to show girls what healthy relationships look like and how they can relate to others and themselves.

One example might be helping your daughter respond when her friend doesn’t save a seat for her on the swings. That could start with asking her what choices she has in the situation and working with her on role-playing an assertive response. Encouraging her to communicate honestly and reasonably assert herself provides her with skills that she’ll need to push for a raise as an adult, says Simmons.

5. How to deal with bullying

No parent wants to learn his or her child is being bullied — or has become the bully.

Dealing with either situation is challenging because it involves so many factors: communication, social dynamics, and a parent’s own emotional intelligence. Digital bullying adds another layer of complexity.

“Girls will bully because they don’t have the tools to deal with their feelings,” says Simmons. And when girls are bullied, they often feel powerless to stand up for themselves. 

In both cases, Simmons recommends making sure they ask for help from an adult as needed and practice assertive but respectful communication. She admits, though, that approach won’t always work, so girls must know when to step away from a situation that is “unkind” and “unethical.”

These are critical skills to teach a girl, but many parents don’t even possess them. Some will encourage bullying behavior or intervene every time their daughter complains about a difficult interaction. Parents, says Simmons, have to accept responsibility for their own role: “They have to set the tone early on for what’s OK in relationships and not.”

Girls who experience racialized bullying can benefit specifically from parental or caregiver support that affirms their beauty and self-worth, says Burnett. 

In her research on Black girls’ identity development, preteen and teen girls have told Burnett that they struggled with racialized bullying that occurred in elementary school but felt better when their caregivers identified the physical features they were bullied for as beautiful. In that scenario, a parent might look in the mirror with their child and name what is special about both of their appearances.

6. How to embrace her gender identity and expression

Dr. Danielle Ramo, a clinical psychologist and chief clinical officer of BeMe Health, a platform supporting teen mental health, says that ideas and conversations about gender identity and expression have expanded greatly over the past decade. 

Despite right-wing attacks on both gender identity and expression, there is generally improved openness to how young people express their gender, and what it means to be a girl, says Ramo, who has worked with LGBTQ+ youth. 

The message that girls hear more frequently today than in previous generations is that gender is more than binary, and that their expression of that identity can fluctuate based on a broad spectrum of masculinity and femininity. 

Ramo says it’s important for parents to understand or educate themselves about this distinction first and then talk to their daughters about both gender identity and expression. Parents can help girls embrace their identity by encouraging them to be confident in who they are. Instead of encouraging them to dress “like a girl,” parents should applaud them for choosing what feels right. 

Ramo says it’s normal for preteens and teens to try out different types of expression as they mature. Parents, caregivers, and adults should expect some degree of fluidity from their children as they test their own boundaries. 

This may not feel simple or straightforward in states or communities where nonstereotypical gender identity and expression is under attack by lawmakers or activists. Yet Ramo says it’s critical for parents to accept their children unconditionally. 

Research shows growing up in an accepting home is a bulwark against the negative effects of being targeted or bullied for one’s sexuality, gender identity, or gender expression. 

“The best gift parents can give is believing and respecting as valid who they say they are, at any given time,” says Ramo.

7. How to lead

There is no shortage of powerful female role models. Beyoncé and Taylor Swift, for example, spent the summer selling out stadiums with messages of acceptance and kindness. They made billions of dollars while they were at it, too. 

Despite the massive appeal of figures like these megastars, girls still find it difficult to develop leadership skills amidst the stigma of being called aggressive. The ROX survey found that while 59 percent of girls reported that they like to be in charge, more than half said they were afraid to lead because they feared being labeled as “bossy.” 

It’s even harder to become a leader when they don’t know how to communicate their honest feelings, assert themselves, practice self-compassion, handle bullying, or embrace their identity. That’s why it’s so important for a girl to cultivate a diverse set of life skills.

There are, however, specific strategies parents can use to encourage their daughter to take a leadership role. Fathers who evenly share household duties are more likely to raise daughters who believe they have a broader range of career options. Mothers can set their own example by taking on a leadership role at work or in a volunteer capacity.

Simmons says that sports is another way to teach leadership skills to girls; it’s a “pre-professional environment” that can help them succeed well past the season’s end.

“There’s a very powerful and painful unwritten communication code among girls that you’re not supposed to say what you really think to someone’s face and you’re not supposed to promote yourself,” says Simmons. “Sports perverts all of that; they can do that and be rewarded for it.”

These important skills aren’t easy to master, but the more chances a girl has to practice them under the guidance of a trusted adult, the more likely she’ll feel confident and self-assured as a teenager.

This story, originally published in December 2015, was updated in October 2023.