How to Raise Young Girls with Grit – Mentally, Emotionally Strong

After age 9, a girl's feelings of self-worth and confidence crash. Help your daughter realize her full potential, become her best – and mature with moxy – by building these five qualities.

Pamela Davis-Kean recalls getting frustrated as a 10th grader because she wasn’t excelling in her Algebra II class. She’d done well on standardized tests when it came to reading, but struggled in math. Still, she didn’t expect her parents to let her teacher in on her difficulties during parent-teacher conferences. The teenaged Davis-Kean was horrified when, in class the day after the conference, her teacher, Mrs. Crickenberger took her aside and explained, “You’re just as good as everyone else.” The teacher then offered to help her after school.

Davis-Kean didn’t like being singled out. “I thought, ‘She thinks I’m good at something I’m not good at.'” So Davis-Kean began working harder on her homework. “I literally just started doing my homework all the time,” she explains. “Before, when I couldn’t figure something out, I’d just give up.”


But after the talk with her teacher, she pushed through and worked on math problems until she understood them. And she did. “I learned persistence.” It’s a quality she says has helped her to become the person she is today: an associate professor of psychology at the University of Michigan with a Ph.D. Oh, and she also happens to teach advanced statistics, which is akin to math on steroids.

For decades, studies have shown that feelings like those Davis-Kean experienced – thoughts of self-doubt – are common among girls, especially beginning in pre-adolescence. One of the most significant studies in girls and self-esteem, conducted in 1991 by the American Association of University Women, found that at age 9, a majority of girls were confident, assertive and felt positive about themselves.

However, by the time they hit high school, fewer than a third of girls still felt that way. More than 20 years later, and studies still come to the same conclusion: Girls’ self-esteem “takes a nosedive” after age 9, according to a 2007 report from the American Psychological Association.

It’s worth noting that historically, boys’ self-esteem has also taken a hit by the time they entered high school, but not nearly as much as girls. Why? According to a study from the New York University Child Study Center, one of the main contributors is that at around age 10, girls’ focus starts to shift from their accomplishments and abilities to their appearance – and they never measure up to the models they see on TV, movies and ads.

The APA study also cited the sexualization of girls as a key contributor, causing girls to see their self-worth as synonymous with their sexual appeal. The result is that they can become passive, self-conscious, appearance-obsessed and, ultimately, unhappy with themselves.

So, what can parents do to build up a girl’s sense of self, while curbing feelings of self-doubt, no matter what her age? Help her develop the qualities of a strong, independent young woman. Raise her to be a Rosie the Riveter of the modern age – a girl who believes in herself and in her abilities, who takes pride in her fortitude and tenacity, doesn’t shy away from challenges and takes on new tasks. Here are some key qualities for raising a girl with grit.


Confident girls develop an attitude of “I can do this,” says Rachel Simmons, the author of several books, including The Curse of the Good Girl: Raising Authentic Girls with Courage and Confidence. As girls learn to rely on their own ability to make decisions, they grow more confident.

Parents can help build up this quality, explains Simmons, by offering them opportunities to show they’re capable. For example, for a young daughter it might be tying her shoe; for a teen, perhaps it’s making the call to order takeout. Simmons cautions that parents sometimes avoid letting kids do these tasks because it’s easier, faster and maybe better when they do.

“A lot of girls feel enormous pressure to please others and be perfect in everything,” says Simmons. “They become risk-averse because they worry that they’ll make a mistake.” By providing girls with the chance to show that they’re capable and then following up with praising both her efforts and abilities, parents can raise capable daughters.

Emotional intelligence

These aren’t just physical muscles, but also emotional ones. “I don’t think we do a very good job with teens teaching them how to communicate,” says Simmons. “Just like you need to practice an instrument or a sport to get better, good communication is a skill.”

You can help your daughter develop her communication muscles through building up her emotional vocabulary. When a girl is able to identify the emotions she’s experiencing, she’s better able to understand – and deal – with them.

Parents can model this by making an effort to name their own feelings. Are you feeling anxious about an upcoming presentation at work? Or maybe excited about a vacation? Let your daughter in on your emotions, so she’ll begin to decipher her own.

Another lesson from Simmons: When your daughter says she’s “fine” or “good,” follow up with questions about what she means. That’s not to say that you interrogate your daughter about her day. Make it a casual conversation that has the benefit of giving her a chance to express her thoughts. And through listening to what she has to say, you’re instilling in her a sense that her feelings matter.


“From the time girls are little, we tend to focus as a culture on her looks,” says Carole Lapidos, the mother of two daughters – one in college, the other in graduate school. “The comments are ‘She’s so cute’ or ‘She’s so pretty.’ It makes it so girls begin to define themselves according to what other people think, and that’s usually based on their physical appearance.”

Lapidos became concerned about her own daughters’ emotional development when they were just in elementary school. Together with another local Ann Arbor mom, Sally Wisotzkey, they formed a grassroots effort to support young girls. The organization, Raising Strong and Confident Daughters, provided a support group for parents that evolved into training sessions Lapidos and Wisotzkey still offer throughout Michigan, usually in schools.

To foster resiliency in girls – a quality that’s not about looks but character – Lapidos says parents need to resist some of their own parental urges. In particular, she notes that parents often want to rush in and help their daughters when they feel hurt. These hurt feelings can come from a variety of sources, from friendships that sour to a poor grade in school to any number of experiences.

“Our mama bear instinct is to protect our daughters from the hurt.” But girls need to learn to deal with these hurts on their own. She gives the analogy of a bounce toy that, when it’s knocked down, is able to spring back up.

Parents can instill this same ability to “bounce back” by prompting girls to come up with solutions on their own. For example, if your daughter is having a disagreement with a friend, instead of giving her advice about what do to, ask her, “What do you think you should do?” Simmons says girls will often say, “I don’t know.” Ask her to come up with two or three solutions to the problem. Talk her through the potential consequences with each scenario. Then let her decide – even if you don’t agree with her solution.


Why is curiosity important for a girl with grit? She needs to ask questions about the world around her – and about herself.

Guiding girls toward developing their sense of curiosity isn’t difficult, explains Lapidos. It’s simply a matter of encouraging girls to ask questions, which can in turn help them to develop new skills. Take a walk outside with your preschooler. When she asks “Why is the sky blue?” or “What kind of bug is that?” research the answer online or in the library together. As she gets older, step back and let her research the answer on her own and then teach you what she’s learned.

Figuring out her interests and abilities are also a part of curiosity. Lapidos advises parents to look beyond the easily named interests like sports and music performance. While developing skills in these areas can help a girl develop her sense of self, what about abilities that are more difficult to pinpoint, but that are part of your daughter’s makeup? Maybe she’s good at finding out how things work. Or perhaps she has an innate ability to tell when someone is feeling sad.


No, your daughters shouldn’t be looking at the world through rose-colored glasses. But they also shouldn’t get in the habit of constantly putting themselves down. And this is where a girl’s age comes in to play.

Davis-Kean notes that researchers believe “there’s a developmental shift at 8 years of age related to the adolescent brain.” Prior to that age, children don’t seem to be concerned with what other people think; they don’t tend to compare themselves with peers. But with the developmental shift, “kids pay more attention to their environment and start placing themselves in a hierarchy across their environment.”

That can mean that they compare themselves based on their achievements, their looks, their friends. Davis-Kean says this development in research circles is often called a “loss of innocence” as children start dropping out of various activities because they don’t think they’re good at them. The shift doesn’t seem to be gender specific, explains Davis-Kean, “but there is some evidence that girls seem to be shifting earlier than boys.”

Comparing yourself to others isn’t all bad. In fact, honestly evaluating your abilities and talents is an important quality. Yet it’s the honest evaluation where some girls can go wrong. They can either be too hard on themselves and “be overtaken with shame” at their lack of abilities, says Simmons. Or, they can “have a false sense of superiority.” Parents can guide girls to understand their own flaws and learn from them and to do regular “self checks.”

These informal self-checks can take place during regular conversations you have with your daughter – at dinner or during a car ride. After a test, a big assignment or a performance, ask her to evaluate what she did. “Keep the conversation light,” says Simmons. You might ask what she thought she did well, what she might have done better, how she might do things differently the next time.

By teaching girls to evaluate themselves realistically on a regular basis, when those times do come when they have big mistakes – and they will – they won’t be devastating. Instead, she’ll understand that mistakes are a part of life, and how she deals with them is what really matters.

Illustration by Himanshu Sharma

This post was originally published in 2012 and is updated regularly.


  • I have read your article and I really enjoyed it. I have a hundred questions about what I need to teach my daughter to help her survive. It is a difficult world for girls and I need all the advise I can get. Thank you so much from a mom in Missouri!!!

    • Stacey W.

      Thank you so much for your post and for reading this article!

  • Hi, I am 17 years old and I am seeking advise. Nobody sat down with me, entering my teen years and explained emotional changes that would take place. Honestly, I haven’t hit the “guy stage” persay. I don’t know if this is normal or a response to lack of filled holes in childhood. but some of my deepest longings are just to be cherished, not for what I can do like pretty much every relationship in my life is about, but for me. I used to just tell myself to toughen up and push through. That I’m here to meet other’s needs, but I can’t live like that anymore. I don’t have any real friends currently and feel like I’m going through life alone. I am frightened to enter any kind of a friendship. I faced too much rejection, betrayal, and conditional relationships. I’m scared to get hurt again. I just want to be cherished, treasured, loved, and held by someone safe. I’m not talking about a romantic relationship, just a safe one. What do I do with these longings? How do I live with them? Thanks.

    • Hello. I appreciate that you wrote this some time ago and was wondering if things have improved for you now. I know how painful loneliness can be.

  • First and foremost you have a relationship with God. He loves you and provided all people with everything they need. The problem is that we humans have a hard time figuring out how to unlock the gifts that God has already given each and everyone of us. I would first start by releasing these hurts and literally crying them out and telling them to leave you and go to God. He will take all negative emotions and heal them. See we often look outside of our selves to find comfort, peace, security, etc. but it is already in you. You just have to unlock it. And before you can unlock it you have to get the key which is letting all of your hurt, pain, and guck go. Now I’m not going to say it will be easy to release all those emotions because you actually will have to feel them and send them on their way when you do. But you will start to see a clearing amoung the trees once you do and you will be able to feel at peace and happy again. Then you must keep rebuking negativity when you experience it and love your neighbors because they also have a past that has hurts. Eventually you will have the ability to trust and have faith and will find others to have companionship with. But the truth is you don’t need anyone other than your relationship with God and what he has already put inside you to have your emotionally needs met. Hope this helps! You can do it.

  • I have a 3 1/2 year old who is being rejected by her “friends” in the neighborhood. The one friend in particular is around 7years old and has recently starting telling my daughter that she can’t play right now (while she is playing with a similar aged neighbor) My daughter cherishes her friendship and doesn’t understand the new cold shoulder. It kills me to watch her being exposed to the cruelity of the world so young. There aren’t really any other kids to play with in the neighborhood so I can’t start a friendship with someone else for her. I’m at a loss as how to explain the situation to her. Ive still been letting her try and play with the girl hoping things will change or she’ll start understanding on her own that the neighbor kid is a bad friend. Any help would be appreciated. Also, I loved your article as it has given me some insight to raising a health and store girl. I just hope I’m raising her right and being the best dad I can be for her.

  • I believe that you would be interested in the book we just published:
    Finding Grit: The No-Nonsense Guide for Raising Your Daughter to be Successful in Athletics, School and Life by Dr. Don and Dr. Magy Martin. It is now available on Amazon. We would appreciate your thoughts. Have a great day.

  • I have 3 daughter and 2 of them are twins they are now 14 and trying to grow a little to fast for me help please i dont want to be to hard on them. I also have a step daughter that is now 12 and wants to grow even faster as she wants follow them and she also relies on me because her mom seems lost herself. My little one is only 2 so shes hasnt got there.

  • I have an 8 year old daughter who is starting a downward spiral when it comes to self-esteem. She had a “frenemy” last year who I am now learning did more damage than I realized at the time. As we start a new school year, she is very down on herself. However, her’s is not about appearance but academics. She is not at the top of her class and is an average kiddo. This “friend” has made her feel less than competent and now my daughter is all but giving up on school work because she feels like a failure. Any advice on what to do or great books to read? I am so worried that if I don’t turn this ship around, we are in for some real trouble, both academically and with her self-esteem. I have a tutor for her but can’t seem to motivate her at all. Many thanks!


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