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The tightrope of parenting tween girls

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy  December 2, 2013 08:57 AM

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My 12-year-old, Natasha, loves all things fashion. In an attempt to move this obsession into the realm of concrete and creative, I signed her up for sewing lessons. It turns out she has an aptitude for sewing--and now she wants to be a designer. She is even more obsessed with fashion, and what she wears, than before.

Yet another example of a well-meaning effort gone wrong.

There are times when parenting feels like a tightrope walk, all about high-stakes balance. These days, in a society that is all about beauty, media and tech, it feels like there is nothing more tightrope-y than parenting a tween girl. We need to get the messaging right as parents, to combat the sexualization and bullying and help prevent eating disorders. It's scary stuff.

Even though I'm a pediatrician, and even though Natasha is my fourth child to reach adolescence (and my third girl), there are days when I feel like a novice tightrope-walker.

Natasha is more challenging than my others were at this age. She is more social, more intuitive, more connected to and affected by media. She is an uncomfortable mix of awkward and elegant; she is silly and young at one moment, full of attitude and swagger the next. She is pretty and popular, yet shy, uncertain and eager to please...just the kind of kid who can run into trouble with peer pressure.

As a pediatrician, I tell parents that we should de-emphasize physical beauty. That sounds incredibly sensible and straightforward--but sometimes I wonder how exactly to do it. If I tell her she looks pretty, does that make it seem like pretty is important? If I don't tell her she looks pretty, will it hurt her self-esteem? If I suggest we try a different cream for her pimples (I remember being mortified by every pimple I had at that age, and want to help if I can), does it draw attention to them? Would it be better to ignore them? It sounds silly, but every comment or compliment related to her appearance feels tricky and laden.

Food is another hard topic. I go out of my way to relate food to health and not weight, which is what I tell parents to do as a doctor--but is that enough? I limit junk food and sweets, because that's what I think parents should do, but the folks at Boston Children's who work with kids with eating disorders say that if you are too strict it can backfire and feed an eating disorder. Again--more tricky and laden conversations. 

I talk with parents about the importance of teaching media literacy to kids, about helping them understand how it manipulates and distorts. I do this with Natasha, too, but I'm not sure it sinks in. I showed her the really great Body Evolution video (I included it below), but even though it is a perfect illustration of how so much of what we see in the media isn't real, I can't help wondering if it only reinforces the idea that she is supposed to look a certain way. Can a 12-year-old really understand that it's not physically possible to look like Barbie?

It's just so hard to know what to say and do. And I honestly think it's harder than it used to be. There's nothing like media, and social media, to magnify the social drama, body image issues and other side effects of puberty that have always been intrinsic to middle school.

Ultimately, I guess, all I can do is love Natasha and talk to her a lot--especially about her good grades and her ability as a swimmer and her kindness and sense of humor and everything else about her that is strong and good and rises above the drama. That's all any parent can do in any situation, really. We do our best--and hope for the best.

After she finishes the dress she's making, she wants to make a snuggly blanket. Maybe I'll try moving her into quilting instead of fashion. At least for now.

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

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About MD Mama

Claire McCarthy, M.D., is a pediatrician and Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children's Hospital . An assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a senior editor for Harvard More »

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