Q. My heart is breaking for our 12-year-old daughter. Lately, she's been coming home saying that she's "so ugly" compared with her friends. She's going through a gawky phase, like most teenagers, but it's horrible to hear her talk this way. Her dad and I try to tell her that she's beautiful, but she doesn't believe us. How can we restore her self-confidence?
Kara: There is no hell quite like prepubescence. Oh, the woes are as old as time: acne, braces, unfortunate fashion choices, misbehaving hair. Sure, these superficial things will one day make hilarious memories or excellent stand-up routines, but try telling that to the seventh-grader whose life is ruined by a pulsating zit.
Today's kids have it even worse, I think. Back in the dark ages, we "only" measured ourselves against our friends or by pictures in magazines. Social media has made it easier to compare, and there's no Instagram filter for self-confidence.
Which is where you come in. I know you think you're helping by telling your daughter that she's beautiful, but here's the thing: She doesn't believe you. You're her parents. Of course you think she's beautiful!
Instead, try validating her feelings, advises Dr. Lynn Chosiad, a psychologist who specializes in eating disorders at Cambridge's Thriveworks therapy center.
"Explain that lots of teenagers go through a phase where they don't like the way they look, but that they're constantly growing and changing. Teens find it hard to have a sense of perspective. Reinforce that they won't look like this in two years or even two months," she says.
It's an easy trap for teenagers to fall into. The problem, says Chosiad, is that everyone who compares has a tendency to cherry-pick: "They construct in their mind this composite person that doesn't even exist, this magical nonhuman with this one's hair and that one's lips. Meanwhile the girl with the lips hates her nose!" There are no perfect humans, and with time, she'll most likely realize this.
Of course, while a bit of prepubescent angst is natural, be on the lookout for danger signs that might point to more serious issues, like an eating disorder.
"If she suddenly becomes very picky when she wasn't before, suddenly doesn't want to eat foods she used to like, seems to be concerned about fat or calories, or if you see her eating much more than she used to eat and then spending time in the bathroom, those are warning signs," says Chosiad. Websites like
eatingdisorders.org and www.medainc.org offer help and resources.
David: While you want to validate feelings and be on the lookout for real trouble, you also need to be careful to not reinforce the negative impressions. My wife tells a story about her middle-school years, in which she came home crying about being awkward-looking. Her mother (who is wonderful) suggested a haircut that would work better with her ears. "What's wrong with my ears?!?" my now-wife hollered. She had a complex about her ears for years, even though the suggestion came from a good place. Think through your words carefully, and use few of them.
Kara: Ah, yes. I'll never forget when my poor mom tried to help me fit in by buying me a Benetton rugby shirt, all the rage circa 1990. Problem: She bought green. All the other girls had blue. Disaster ensued!
Often, it's really best for well-meaning parents to steer the focus in another direction entirely. Make sure she's doing things that have nothing to do with looks, particularly extracurricular activities where she feels skilled, whether it's sports, music, or academics. Focusing on areas where your daughter is a fully realized human will give her an outlet and a source of self-esteem that has nothing to do with appearance — now and in the long run.
David: Let's keep this anecdote train rolling: One of my best friends in high school had a severe allergy to athletics. Those who knew her used her as the benchmark for measuring punk: She was punk like golden retriever puppies are adorable. She was the anti-athlete. She also projected a level of confidence such that I didn't realize she had any body image issues at all.
Years later, in her 30s, having become a dedicated distance runner, she wrote to me that she wished she'd gotten into running or hiking or martial arts back then, to "appreciate and value my body in an entirely different way — for what it can do, not what it looks like. As a female, I cannot overstate what a revelation this has been. . . . When I think sometimes about all the time I wasted when I was younger fighting my body with diets, calorie counting . . . I'm incredulous."
I think the trick is to not always hitch these positives to her concerns. Her strengths shouldn't just be a counterargument to where she thinks she's got a problem. Be sure that you're active in supporting her and encouraging her around her areas of confidence all the time, not just when she's down. Propose activities and ideas to bolster her interests and passions. Aside from being good for her, you'll be spending better time with her. That's good for both of you.
David Mogolov is a dad, a comedian, and a playwright. His parenting comedy "Parenting Your Human" is at the Riot Theater in Jamaica Plain Aug. 21. Kara Baskin is a mom, a journalist, and author of "Size Matters: The Hard Facts About Male Sexuality That Every Woman Should Know."