Preteen girl says she hates herself

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  January 11, 2012 06:00 AM

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My 8 year old daughter recently said, "I'm so ugly, I really hate myself." I must have looked horrified, and I said, "No no no, you are gorgeous inside and out!" She definitely noticed that this is a way to get a reaction out of me, because now she's constantly saying negative things about herself. I have always been careful not to put myself down in front of her (I have struggled with self-esteem issues all my life), so I do not think she is repeating things I say. How should I react when she says things like, "I'm an idiot," "I hate myself," etc?

From: Worried Mom, Sharon, MA


Dear Worried Mom,

These days, it is often not unusual for an 8-year-old girl to begin to express these kind of negative thoughts about her body. Our culture -- tv, advertising, billboards Bratz dolls -- teaches them from an early age not only that appearance is really important but also that a certain appearance is what counts: skinny & sexy. In their book, "So Sexy So Soon," Diane Levin and Jean Kilbourne call it "The New Sexualized Childhood."

There are several possible explanations for her saying, "I'm so ugly." Perhaps she hears her peers saying those words and is just repeating them without meaning it. Perhaps she compares herself to images of girls in the culture. No matter how she got to this statement, you're right that your reaction is fueling her to repeat it.

So how to avoid that? Stop with the "no, no, you're gorgeous," comments, even though you mean them, even though they are real. She'll only tune you out because you're her mom and she knows you're prejudiced.

Your goal is to get her to recognize that you're on her side because it's only then that she will listen to her and take your words to heart. So instead, reflect her comments back: "You don't feel good about yourself, huh?" That doesn't mean you agree with her. All you're doing is validating her feelings which, after all, she's entitled to. Letting her know you accept them as real will gain credibility for you with her. Then ask her, "What is it about yourself that you don't like?"

Let's say she says, "I'm so fat!" Again, rather than say, "No, you're not!" give her some facts: Girls this age, before they get their period, often see that their bodies start to change, including sometimes gaining a little weight. It's a normal part of growing up. If she has gained weight, even if it's just a teeny bit, it's still real to her. Offer something concrete and supportive: "Let's take a walk every night after dinner. That can help control weight."

What I'm getting at is this: When little girls start to grow up (and it happens at younger ages than it did when you and I were girls), the best way to be helpful and to keep your relationship strong is to be honest, not to pooh-pooh whatever it is she says.

Also, whenever possible, counter-act the culture's message and get into conversations about it. Thumb through a magazine: "I was looking through this magazine and noticed how thin these models are. It makes me think there's a lot of pressure on girls your age about weight. Do you feel that way?"

I also strongly recommend New Moon Girls as a resource for both you and your daughter.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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3 comments so far...
  1. This has been around for a long time. The ideal changes, but comparing is forever. Laura Ingalls moped that her face was tan when Nellie bragged about being porcelain-pale...but still didn't want to take her mom's advice to wear her hat.

    Posted by di January 11, 12 11:30 AM
  1. Do you really think it's appropriate to be talking to an 8-year-old about controlling weight? I would be very hesitant to reinforce a young girl's notion that she's fat by discussing weight control, unless it was a medical issue. I do agree with the suggestion to counteract cultural messages around weight.

    Posted by A January 12, 12 02:23 PM
  1. "Perhaps she hears her peers saying those words and is just repeating them without meaning it."

    ...and perhaps her peers bully her for her appearance and she hates her appearance for that.

    "Perhaps she compares herself to images of girls in the culture."

    ...and perhaps she compares herself to the sight of other girls in her classes, like I did as a preteen.

    "...All you're doing is validating her feelings which, after all, she's entitled to. Letting her know you accept them as real will gain credibility for you with her..."

    This is much, much better than just telling her to stop being sad, as if emotions can be turned on and off like a light switch!

    "...the best way to be helpful and to keep your relationship strong is to be honest, not to pooh-pooh whatever it is she says..."

    Good idea!

    In my case, it wasn't weight and it was the body hair that women inherit in my ethnic group. Mom pooh-poohed it by
    * claiming that billions of women have the same issue (she doesn't know the difference between billion and million)
    * bleaching parts of my face (IRL sending a 10-year-old girl to school with a blonde beard and moustache instead of a black beard and moustache does not protect her from bullies)
    * saying the bullies were just kids (as if American adults don't have the same women-shouldn't-grow-hair attitude)
    * badmouthing the looks of the other girls in my class pictures (hearing *more* putdowns didn't make me feel better!)
    * not listening when I asked her to please learn the difference between "he" and "she" in English instead of using male pronouns for me half the time (hearing her use male terms for me the same way I heard bullies use them for me at school hurt!)

    Posted by Zara January 22, 12 12:19 PM
 
3 comments so far...
  1. This has been around for a long time. The ideal changes, but comparing is forever. Laura Ingalls moped that her face was tan when Nellie bragged about being porcelain-pale...but still didn't want to take her mom's advice to wear her hat.

    Posted by di January 11, 12 11:30 AM
  1. Do you really think it's appropriate to be talking to an 8-year-old about controlling weight? I would be very hesitant to reinforce a young girl's notion that she's fat by discussing weight control, unless it was a medical issue. I do agree with the suggestion to counteract cultural messages around weight.

    Posted by A January 12, 12 02:23 PM
  1. "Perhaps she hears her peers saying those words and is just repeating them without meaning it."

    ...and perhaps her peers bully her for her appearance and she hates her appearance for that.

    "Perhaps she compares herself to images of girls in the culture."

    ...and perhaps she compares herself to the sight of other girls in her classes, like I did as a preteen.

    "...All you're doing is validating her feelings which, after all, she's entitled to. Letting her know you accept them as real will gain credibility for you with her..."

    This is much, much better than just telling her to stop being sad, as if emotions can be turned on and off like a light switch!

    "...the best way to be helpful and to keep your relationship strong is to be honest, not to pooh-pooh whatever it is she says..."

    Good idea!

    In my case, it wasn't weight and it was the body hair that women inherit in my ethnic group. Mom pooh-poohed it by
    * claiming that billions of women have the same issue (she doesn't know the difference between billion and million)
    * bleaching parts of my face (IRL sending a 10-year-old girl to school with a blonde beard and moustache instead of a black beard and moustache does not protect her from bullies)
    * saying the bullies were just kids (as if American adults don't have the same women-shouldn't-grow-hair attitude)
    * badmouthing the looks of the other girls in my class pictures (hearing *more* putdowns didn't make me feel better!)
    * not listening when I asked her to please learn the difference between "he" and "she" in English instead of using male pronouns for me half the time (hearing her use male terms for me the same way I heard bullies use them for me at school hurt!)

    Posted by Zara January 22, 12 12:19 PM
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About the author

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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