This is an excerpt from Swimming Upstream: Parenting Girls for Resilience in a Toxic Culture by Laura H. Choate.
GIRLS ‘ CRUSHES AND ROMANTIC RELATIONSHIPS
Okay, steel yourself: I have talked about the complex world of girls’ friendships; now it is time to dive into even deeper waters—their romantic relationships. It is normal for girls to be driven toward romantic relationships starting in early adolescence. Remember, as reviewed in Chapter Two, part of this need for a relationship stems from an awakening physiological drive for relational closeness.
Does this mean that she is biologically driven toward romance craziness? In a way, yes. But if biology is what lights the match, it is cultural, media-driven messages that fuel the spark that then causes a wildfire. Cultural pressures are quite strong in this life dimension: Consider the fact that girls regularly receive the following messages: (1) romantic relationships should take precedence over friendships, (2) other girls are competitors in the serious game of finding a romantic partner, and (3) most important of all, your success and worth as a person is tied up in finding and keeping a romantic relationship.
If she buys in to these cultural messages, a romantic interest can supersede her priorities in all other areas, including her friends, interests, and personal goals. How ironic that when girls need true, supportive friendships the most, they often drop their friends at the first sign of male or female attention. Sadly, girls become distrustful of other girls who might potentially “steal” a boyfriend or girlfriend. Being “in a relationship” becomes intertwined with self-worth; it is a status symbol that is seen as worth almost any sacrifice.It should be acknowledged from the outset that although all girls receive cultural pressures about prioritizing romantic relationships and most are starting to explore their emerging sexual identities during this developmental period, their experiences in this area are not at all uniform. Although many girls are drawn to heterosexual relationships, others are questioning and exploring their identities as individuals who might be lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. I certainly do not want to ignore their particular concerns and challenges. Although specific parenting strategies for girls who are exploring same-sex romantic attraction is beyond the scope of this chapter, some recommended readings to help you and your daughter are included at the end of this book. Because cultural messages primarily revolve around the importance of girls’ success in seeking and maintaining attention from a romantic partner (whether male or female), many of the issues discussed throughout this chapter apply regardless of a girl’s sexual orientation. For ease of discussion, though, I will sometimes use the term “boyfriend” or use a male pronoun in referring to a romantic interest while remaining aware that it does not apply in every case.
If a girl soaks in the cultural pressure that she must be in a relationship, it follows that she might compromise her beliefs and values in order to stay in that relationship. If she is looking to others for approval, trying to grasp a sense of being affirmed and valued, she will be vulnerable in the relationship and will have trouble saying no to the person who is providing that affirmation. As an obvious example and one that many parents fear is that in order to maintain their relationships, some girls engage in sexual activity only because they believe that their partner will break up with them if they say no. Many girls say that they regret their first sexual experience and report that they had sex only because they didn’t want to upset their boyfriends (saying things like “I didn’t want my boyfriend to be mad at me”). Others have sex in order to try to obtain a relationship in the first place, mistakenly believing that this will make the other person like them. A girl may be so in need of validation that she would rather accept brief sexual attention rather than feel alone, empty, and unworthy of acceptance. Unfortunately the very feelings she is trying to avoid are only intensified when the sexual encounter does not bring her the lasting acceptance she craves.
A Word About Sexting
These concepts and statistics help us better understand a current phenomenon sweeping through middle and high schools today: sexting. In a recent national study, 22 percent of middle-schoolers (yes, that is ages 12 to 14) admitted to sexting. If you are like me, at first thought it is hard to imagine why a girl in middle school would send someone a partially nude picture of herself via cell phone, knowing that it would likely be shared with others around the school (and even the world) within a matter of seconds. After reading these paragraphs, however, you grasp the context in which this happens. For example, Whitney has a boyfriend and feels that she has finally obtained the approval and status she was searching for, but then he asks her to send some pictures. She doesn’t want to, but he threatens to go find another girl who is willing and promises that he won’t show the pictures to anyone else. She wants to please him, to make sure he likes her. And so she sends the pictures.
Other girls sext in order to get others’ attention in the first place. They believe it is the price they have to pay in order to get the attention they are seeking. We know that if a girl is unable to say no to sexting, she is also less likely to say no in real life, and surveys of students bear this out. Studies of middle school students who sext found that these students were four to seven times more likely to be sexually active (this includes kissing, having oral sex, or sexual intercourse) than those who did not participate in sex- ting. In particular, girls who sext are more likely to have multiple sexual partners and to use illicit substances. Heavy cell phone use is also related to sexting and sexual activity: those students who text 100 or times per day are more likely to have sent or received a sext and to be sexually active than those who text less frequently.34 Again, this is happening regularly in the world of middle-schoolers. The numbers are even higher for high school students. To be able to swim upstream, your daughter clearly needs your support and guidance in this area; consider the resilience strategies that follow.
What to Do: Resilience Strategies for Healthy, Romantic Relationships
Love, approve, validate. As discussed extensively in Chapter Four, it is vitally important for your daughter to feel loved and accepted just for who she is. W hen she believes that she has your approval, she won’t feel desperate to seek out others’ validation to prove that she has value. She will not need the validation that comes from romantic attention or from having a boyfriend (or girlfriend) in order to feel good about herself. She won’t be as vulnerable to losing herself in a romantic relationship.
Dad, you are the model. A girl’s relationship with her father is generally the first one she has with a male, and it sets the standard for how she will expect to be treated by boys and men (or any romantic interest) in the future. First, observe your interactions with the women in your life; your daughter is watching you, her father, to see how you treat women and especially how you interact with her mother. Next, consider your current relationship with your daughter. She wants to have a special relationship with you, one in which she knows she has your approval. She needs to hear you say you love her, but she also needs to see it through your actions. She feels valued when you spend time with her. This occurs when you clear your calendar to take her on a father-daughter outing, when you hug her and show her affection, when you listen to her problems, when she knows without a doubt that you are on her side and that you are her biggest fan. When she feels that you love and like her, she will feel less need to frantically search for validation from other males.
Make space for conversation. The stereotype of having “the talk” with our adolescents is one of mumbling, awkwardness, and relief when it is over. In reality, what our daughters need is not a one-time lecture about relationships, sexuality, and sexual pressures but an open atmosphere of trust characterized by ongoing conversation. Madeline Levine writes that we as parents are responsible for being the sex educators of our children, for “if we don’t discuss the most critical issues our kids will face—new bodies, sexual choices, intimacy—then the information is likely to come from their equally confused peers.”
Therefore, as uncomfortable as it may feel, you have to deal with reality: Your daughter will be faced with sexual pressures, and probably a lot sooner than you think. Rather than ignore it and wishing it would go away, you need to clarify certain issues for yourself: What are your expectations and standards in this regard? What are your values? (Revisit the list you created in Chapter Four).
Second, once you are clear on where you stand, you need to communicate your values to your daughter in multiple conversations and over time. You should communicate your expectations in a clear manner, but you also don’t want to become too dogmatic so that your daughter will be reluctant to ever approach you with questions. Instead, she needs to know that you want her to come to you when she is confused or feeling pressured; she won’t do this if she fears that you will demean or punish her in some way. As Kathy Masarie recommends, be an askable parent; demonstrate that you are open to questions. Your goal should be to make your daughter feel comfortable in coming to you when she is actually facing a dilemma or decision.
Some parents mistakenly believe that talking about sexuality and relationships will encourage their daughters to actually engage in sexual activity. Instead, research shows that girls who have had ongoing conversations about sexuality and dealing with sexual pressures are more resilient and make better choices than other girls when actually faced with pressures in these areas. This is because they have information, they know how to assert their boundaries, and they are able to make informed decisions grounded in their parents’ belief systems.
Establish rules for dating. As already stated, decide in advance how old your daughter should be in order to be allowed to go on group dates and then one-to-one dates (see Box 6.8). Many experts recommend the age of 16 as a safe age to begin one-to-one dating. They also recommend that you should have a rule against dating someone who is more than one school grade above or below her. In this way she is more likely to be on an equal footing psychologically and mentally with her romantic interest when inevitable sexual pressures do arise. Meg Meeker—pediatrician, parenting expert, and author of the blog “Family Matters”—claims that teen dating should be discouraged until the later years of high school.
A guide to help parents teach their daughters to resist negative cultural messages.
Never before have adolescent girls faced so many confusing and contradictory expectations. From a young age, popular culture teaches girls that their worth is based on their appearance, their ability to gain attention, and an ever-increasing accrual of accomplishments. With such unattainable standards, it is no wonder that many girls experience stress, self-doubt, and even mental health problems. Girls struggle to develop an authentic sense of self, even as they attempt to meet a set of impossible cultural expectations.
Many parents feel helpless against the onslaught of negative influences targeting their daughters, but in Swimming Upstream: Parenting Girls for Resilience in a Toxic Culture, Laura Choate offers a message of reassurance. This book provides parents with a set of straightforward tools they can use to help their daughters navigate the trials and demands of contemporary girlhood. Choate draws upon years of research and counseling literature to teach parents how to instill the power of resilience in their daughters, including developing a positive body image, maintaining healthy relationships with friends and romantic partners, and navigating high-pressure academic environments. Based on cutting-edge research, this book contains the strategies that parents need to prepare their daughters with the life skills they need to resist destructive cultural influences.
Though the journey through modern girlhood may be complicated – and even treacherous – this guide offers a user-friendly way for parents to help their daughters thrive in the midst of the negative pressures of modern culture. Practical and engaging, Swimming Upstream is a must-read for parents of girls of all ages.
SWIMMING UPSTREAM: Parenting Girls for Resilience in a Toxic Culture by Laura H. Choate with permission from Oxford University Press, Inc. Copyright © 2016 by Oxford University Press.