Parenting with a PhD: Teaching your Daughter to "Own It"

By: Kristen Berthiaume:

If you’re the parent of a young girl, you probably worry from time-to-time about whether she’ll have a healthy body image in 5 years. And with good reason – research indicates that around 40% of 1st through 3rd grade girls want to be thinner and eating disorders are being diagnosed in girls as young as 6. Fortunately, there are many ways you can help your daughter to form a healthy body image, even when she is quite young. However, before your daughter can feel good in her own body, she needs to have ownership of it.  Here are some tips for encouraging that to happen. Some of these ideas apply to your son, too; a good thing since body-related issues for boys are on the rise.

Teach your kids the proper names for their body parts – all of their body parts. Using cutesy euphemisms for genitalia sends the message that these body parts are embarrassing or “secret” and not to be mentioned. Of course, you’d be mortified if your daughter exclaimed loudly about her “VAGINA!” in a crowded restaurant but, even more so, you don’t want her to keep quiet if someone has touched her genitals because she doesn’t think she’s allowed to talk about them. Of course, it’s important to specify that some body parts are private and should only be talked about, looked at, or touched in certain instances. Decide with your spouse or partner ahead of time what those situations are (e.g., at a doctor’s visit, when mommy or daddy is helping with a bath, etc), and explain them. Give reminders when your child seems to have forgotten the parameters (i.e., dropping trou in public) but try to remain neutral and avoid statements that might shame her.

As difficult as it can be to explain to well-meaning relatives, your child does not have to give out hugs and kisses upon request. Affection should always be voluntarily given and received, and you can’t teach this lesson too early. If your daughter shows signs or states directly that she’s uncomfortable with physical affection at a certain time or from a certain individual, empower her to politely decline. She may be open to giving a handshake or wave versus a hug. Keep in mind that the rule applies to you, too. Even though you’re wanting a goodbye kiss, your child might have other plans. Forcing affection, even with the best of intentions, teaches your child that she is not in control of what happens to her body and that there may be negative consequences for asserting herself. You can probably guess at the potential outcome if your daughter then encounters someone with very bad intentions. Teaching your young child that she has the right to say no to any kind of affection at any time will enable her to set boundaries with romantic partners and to trust her instincts if someone is offering inappropriate affection. Avoid using guilt or emotional pressure to gain your child’s affection – that’s the same as punishing her if she refuses to hug grandma. She may come to recognize that withholding affection bothers you and use it against you at times but, if you remain calm, the novelty of having that power will eventually wear off.

Recognize bullying for what it is. I recently read a blog post (the link is here but please be aware that some might find the language offensive. Read at your own risk) that cautions parents against using the trite phrase, “That means he likes you!” in response to their daughter’s complaints of physical bullying. This explanation has been given for decades by countless adults to help millions of little girls feel better about how they’re being treated. But, consider the message such a statement sends: The way boys show that they like girls is by hurting them. As the blogger points out, can you imagine a parent telling her son that another boy hit him because he wants a playdate? When a girl accepts this kind of skewed logic as a reasonable response to her complaint, she is less likely to report relationship violence later. Why should she? She’ll have learned that physical violence is an expression of love, that she deserves it, and that nothing can be done to stop it. To encourage our daughters to stand up to bullying, we must express empathy when they report physical aggression. Then, we have to take steps to stop the bullying. Immediately. Without excuses.

Encouraging your daughter to “own” her body is just the first of many steps toward helping her develop a positive body image. Getting her involved in sports can lead to an appreciation of the ways her body can be strong and fast. Limiting her exposure to media, especially media that portray girls and women as pretty scenery, decreases the likelihood that she’ll compare herself unfavorably to the unattainable ideal. Encouraging her to think, create, help, play, and get involved all contribute to forming a positive self-concept. What are ways you encourage the little girls in your life to “own” who they are, inside and out?

About this column: Send your parenting- and kid-related questions my way and I’ll tell you what I can: Please be aware that email is not a secure method of transmitting personal information so it’s best to keep your questions general. If your question is featured, your name and email will not be published. Submitting a question does not constitute a professional relationship in any way and this column is not meant to substitute for face-to-face therapy. If you feel you’re doing the best you can and still need help, it may be time to bring in a professional. Start by talking with your child’s pediatrician to get a referral.

About Kristen:

Kristen Berthiaume, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist with Grayson and Associates ( She obtained her doctorate in clinical psychology from the University of Kentucky. She completed a predoctoral internship in clinical psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a post- doctoral fellowship in the Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders (ADHD) Program at Duke University Medical Center. She specializes in providing assessment and treatment of children, adolescents, and families dealing with the following issues: ADHD, learning disorders, social skill deficits, organizational problems, behavioral difficulties, anxiety, and depression. She generally focuses on behavioral and cognitive- behavioral techniques, but maintains a flexible approach to therapy. Her other day job is as mom to her five-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son.

One thought on “Parenting with a PhD: Teaching your Daughter to "Own It"

  1. My daughter has always been very sensitive and very wary of new people. Especially those who get in her face or push her for a response. I would never imagine forcing her, it would only result in tears and a twenty minute calming session. Sometimes I suggest she gives them a wiggle or a jump instead, this breaks the tension because she loves to wiggle and jump. She also doesn’t say she loves me (or any other thing that isn’t food). Instead, she has a special word for each person. She knits me, she crazys her dad, she sillys my mom, and she Marios her super mario obsessed friend. The affection is there, we just have to give her the space to express in a way that’s comfortable for her.

    And I can’t resist sharing an incident with her friend yesterday on an elevator at the subway station. There were several people in there and her friend giggled and loudly stated, “That tickles my gina!” We just laughed and shook our heads.

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