Square Peg Dilemmas: Undervalued Girls

Teen girls feel most successful when their accomplishments are reflected in the eyes of the people who matter most to them: their parents, teachers, and peers. Those who feel fundamentally different from their families or classmates, however, may find it hard to get that affirmation. While more resilient girls might rejoice in their individuality, vulnerable girls can think of themselves as square pegs in round holes—teens who don’t match up to traditional standards of success, whose particular talents and interests are neither respected nor valued. They are stressed by thinking they will never become the best, much less what others expect them to be. Square pegs perceive themselves as worlds apart from the people around them—in other words, as perpetual misfits.
For example, some live to act, dance, or sing, but aren’t interested in school. Others love to create poetry, sculpture, or cartoons, but shy away from reading books and writing research papers. Undervalued girls are created when tone-deaf teens have musical siblings, when klutzes attend schools that revere athletes, and when artsy girls come from scholarly families or attend academically rigorous schools.
With the cultural frenzy about academic achievement, parents get anxious when our kids don’t look conventional. It is frightening to think their nonconformity will prevent their success later on. It is also harder to support girls who have unfamiliar interests or follow unpredictable adolescent paths. So when parents see daughters struggling, it is easy to pressure them to conform, to do better, or to make more friends. In the process, parents can too easily miss the underlying issue: a daughter who feels terribly misunderstood because her talents lie elsewhere.
To reduce girls’ pressure to measure up, parents: (1) must be mindful of their powerful influence, and (2) must be willing to examine, and possibly to modify, their interactions with their daughters about achievement. In addition, try these strategies:
1. Reduce Pressure
The most potent antidote to your daughter’s stress may be the alleviation of your own. Use whatever strategy usually works for you. Realizing that there are many paths to success may help you to come to terms with your daughter’s struggles. You may also remain calmer if you to attend to what is going on in the moment rather than making anxious projections about her future or harping on her past failures. Then you are in a better position to do everything possible to relieve the pressure she is experiencing.
2. Avoid Comparisons
No matter how tempting, refrain from comparing your daughter unfavorably to siblings, friends, or classmates who look more successful. Not only won’t this help your daughter, but also your judgments may turn out to be wrong. You have no idea if these kids’ talents or achievements will actually pay off later or what struggles they may be hiding beneath their outward accomplishments.
3. Monitor Your Behavior
Be aware of the messages you convey through your behavior. Teens are adept at differentiating between parental efforts that are truly designed to help them and those that are based on other, less beneficial motives.
4. Discover Their Passions
Develop an open mind about the shape of success. When parents are not intent upon seeing specific benchmarks or outcomes, they give daughters an extraordinary gift: freedom from having to choose whether to please others or to follow their own dreams. Know when your daughter wants to be the social director rather than the captain of the ship, the nurse instead of the neurosurgeon, or the ballerina rather than the dance teacher. Then help her pursue those passions in every way possible, whether that means voice lessons, acting classes, art camp, or writing workshops.
5. Relinquish Inappropriate Control
It is difficult for parents to resist the urge to make a B student into an A student, an average athlete into a superstar, or a reserved girl into a popular leader. It is all too easy to think, “If only…” and to offer whatever remedies you see fit. Yet to encourage any daughter’s burgeoning individuality, especially one who feels undervalued, it is necessary to stop trying to control her life. Remind yourself that all kids have a right to focus on their own talents and decide their own futures.
Square pegs are most resilient to stress when their mothers and fathers let go of their own expectations and don’t try to transform them into round pegs. These parents accept that their daughters’ futures are not opportunities to rewrite their own histories or to experience vicarious glory. Being put in charge of their own lives liberates girls like nothing else.
6. Consider Other Options
Square pegs often feel stuck. They certainly can’t change their families, and they often can’t change their schools. But for teens who do have options, parents might consider whether their daughters would be better off in a different environment—whether it is school or camp or jazz class—with which they are better matched.
Whenever parents can reduce stress, maintain broad ideas about success, and give up inappropriate control over the details in their daughters’ lives, girls are best able to cope with being different from their families or classmates. They are less likely to interpret their uniqueness negatively and to feel like misfits. When their parents and teachers honor their individuality, these girls gain the confidence, self-reliance, and genuineness that arise from pursuing their real passions—in their own ways, and in their own time.

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