Has your daughter ever called herself ugly? If so how did you react? Did you - like me - respond with a sharp intake of breath and a vehement "No you are not!"?
At the time of this shock announcement from my daughter I was in Paris. The call started innocently enough and then bam! Out of nowhere "Mum I'm so ugly. It's not fair. Being a teenager really sucks!"
Only six months ago she had challenged the perception of pretty described by her classmates, dismissing it as no more than the stuff of barbie doll dreams and flying the flag for being an individual not a type; championing the value of personality over beauty. Maybe as a result of this I had rested on my laurels too much, confident that she was well rounded and as such had missed some vital signs along the way.
My response was met with the retort "You are my mother, you have to say that!" As mothers we all want our children to be happy and that means shouldering their anxieties too when they come along. I had spent 14 years trying to bring up a confident young lady, who I hoped would embark on this final stage of her journey to adulthood feeling good about herself. Everyone praises her outward social confidence but if she felt like this inside had I failed? UCL's recent Millenium Cohort Study revealed that a quarter of 14-year old girls are depressed. Did this episode make my daughter one of them?
Beauty and appearance are thorny issues when raising girls. Our girls are vulnerable. All it takes is one throw away comment at the wrong time and their sense of self-worth can become quickly wrapped up in this body image nightmare, which even if they don't come to it until later, is still an issue to be confronted, not trivialised or ignored. The onus is on us to boost their self-esteem so they have the emotional scaffolding needed to handle these moments of self-doubt and criticism.
So what can we do as mothers of teenage girls?
Alison Bean, UniqueMinds Counselling, and a parent of teenagers herself had this advice when I spoke to her:
"As a mother the most important thing to remember is to communicate with our children. Encourage them to talk about how they feel, and why they feel ugly or dislike themselves. Don't dismiss their negative thoughts. This may be hard to hear at first, and all you want to do is cry out "you're beautiful to me inside and out" but their feelings are real to them and need to be acknowledged. As parents we need to make a conscious effort to balance our own compliments to them and try to direct our praise away from just their appearance and focus on the things they are good at; sports they play, art or creative work they excel in, musical instruments they play. Furthermore encourage them to spend more time with people they feel happy with, family members or close friends who don't constantly judge. This will help them to feel better about themselves, which in turn increases their self esteem and self worth."
In our family, we advocate a philosophy of sharing which I hope allows our teenagers to express their concerns, but more importantly gives us the opportunity to step in and provide support before an issue manifests itself into something bigger. Our teenagers need to know that we are on their side as parents and nothing is more valuable than unconditional love for those moments when their confidence takes a knock.