We haven’t come as far as we think we have in raising our daughters to feel comfortable in their bodies. Fear, shame, guilt and self loathing are still girls’ common responses to developing sexually. The reason mothers find it difficult to help is their anxiety holds them back.
In my book about girls’ sexuality, Your Daughter’s Bedroom: Insights for Raising Confident Women, here’s what I learned: If we don’t teach girls to understand and respect the capacities of their bodies, and help them navigate the complexities sexuality can impose on their social lives, it takes a toll on their self worth and makes them lose faith in us.
Girls want us to push through our own anxiety to be there for them because they know they’d feel stronger buoyed by our love.
When our daughters feel they can’t come to us for support around sexual matters, it’s often because they fear we’ll judge them and see them in a negative light. This can be experienced as an emotional abandonment by us that makes them feel badly about themselves, and the lower their self worth, the more vulnerable they’ll be.
Here’s what girls told me:
“I wish my mother had been more comfortable with her body and had been able to instill that in me.”
“I wish my mom had spoken to me about [my sexual development]. Not because I needed the information, but because I craved to bond with her as a woman and as her daughter.”
“I have been disconnected from my body and my sexuality for much of my life. The indoctrination I received [at home] set the tone for a sense of shame and guilt about it that lasted until much, much later in life.”
Much attention is paid to girls’ self confidence plummeting during puberty, and we’re trying to address it with things to boost academic confidence, like STEM programs. But if the problem is girls’ navigation of puberty, we should be putting greater effort into confronting the problem at its source: supporting them as they wade into their sexuality.
Engaging in other facets of personal growth, like STEM programs, is all well and good, but our daughters will find it harder to focus in class if they’re preoccupied with feeling ill at ease in their changing bodies and all the ways that’s reflected in their social lives.
I asked my 19 year old daughter what she would say to mothers who are anxious about treading this sexual terrain. This is her message to you.
I’m glad my mom has always talked to me about sexuality. We’re incredibly close.
When I was little, and it was just about learning my body parts, I don’t really remember too much about how it felt because it didn’t stand out as different than learning about anything else. She explained things to me in ways I’d understand, like she did with any other topic. I was given information fluently and without shame, and because of this I feel I can tell her anything.
Since she started the conversation at a young age, learning about sexuality didn’t feel like being introduced to a whole new world all at once. My understanding of it grew as I grew. In high school it was a little uncomfortable because I wanted my independence, so it felt more awkward, but I think that’s normal. Now that I’m in college there’s a nice balance between my freedom and choosing to go to my mom when I need her.
I think talking together over the years has made me feel comfortable in my own skin. I don’t see my sexuality or my body as shameful. I have the confidence to figure out what I feel and what I want, and if I’m ever confused, I know I can always talk it out with my mom—and I also feel more comfortable telling it like it is with my friends (both male and female). I was raised to value privacy and autonomy, so if there are things I choose to keep to myself I will. But if I need to work something out, I know if I share it with my mom or others that I love I’ll feel better. I also believe that because my relationship with my mom is so strong, I’ve gone on to have amazing, close friendships with my girlfriends, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that each of them is really close with their mothers.
It makes sense to be worried about talking to girls about sexuality because we live in a society that can make those conversations feel taboo. But moms shouldn’t feel afraid to teach their daughters things they believe are important for them to know just because of that taboo. Your daughter might respect you for teaching her because it’s brave to do things we’re taught to be afraid of.
Here are some suggestions for how to talk to your preteen daughter about sexuality:
- Speak to her and answer her questions simply and honestly. When she’s 8 or 9 you can read books on development with her, like It’s Perfectly Normal by Robie Harris. You’ll learn a lot about what she knows and doesn’t know through the conversations it will inspire, and it will teach her that you can talk about these things together.
- Rather than focusing on your anxiety, be motivated by her curiosity and the excitement she might feel in imagining what growing up will be like for her.
- Tell her explicitly that she can always come to you with any questions. Don’t assume she understands this without your having said it clearly.
Suggestions for how to talk to your teen:
- Continue to be truthful with her, but gradually begin to address the more complex issues of sexuality, like learning how to listen to her instincts, understanding the importance of mutual respect, and practicing holding her own in socially stressful situations, both platonic and sexual.
- Take advantage of the opportunity to talk about sexual content when it comes up naturally through what’s happening in school, sexualized advertisements, lyrics, television and movies. This approach is often easier for girls because it tends to feel less “lecturey.”
- Listen. Talk to her not at her. And speak without judgment toward her or other girls and women. These three acts will nurture her emotional connection to you as well as to herself because they’ll set the bar for self-respect and respect for others.
- If you’ve never spoken to your daughter about sexuality before, tell her you weren’t raised to be comfortable talking about it, but that you’re going to forge ahead because you never want her to ever question your regard for her wellness and happiness throughout her life.
Joyce McFadden is a psychoanalyst, speaker and author of Your Daughter’s Bedroom: Insights for Raising Confident Women, considered an “empowering resource for mothers and daughters everywhere” by Kirkus Review. To learn more visit her website.