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A Man's Guide to Protecting His Daughter's Self-Esteem

What you can do to help her body image in a media-saturated world

Father and daughter embrace
Getty Images

For many dads, watching their daughters become teenagers can feel like watching Jekyll turn into Hyde. One minute they have a sweet, carefree little girl. And the next, they’re living with a raw nerve ending on two legs, prone to bursting into tears over almost anything. What gives?

It’s not just hormones. It’s self-esteem.

Up until age 12, boys and girls have roughly the same level of confidence, but by 14, the average girl’s self-esteem is 27 percent lower than the average boy’s, according to a 2018 study. And research shows that the gap has only grown as social media becomes more prominent. 

Girls have been exposed to unrealistic body expectations for generations, but today’s teens don’t get a break when they close their bedroom doors. Many teen girls are walking around with tiny computers (i.e., their phones) that remind them, 24/7, that they’re not good enough.

“She’s already seen millions of messages about body image, and they’re devastating messages for developing girls,” says psychotherapist Molly Barrow.

As a dad, you probably feel helpless to do anything about it, especially now that your daughter seems to want nothing to do with you anymore. Ignore those eye rolls. You’re still her main point of male reference, and your approval means everything. Here’s how you can be her true north.

Be Switzerland

You do not have an opinion, one way or another, about how she looks. Period. Dads need to remember not to criticize, even in jest, anything about her appearance, says Barrow. 

A seemingly harmless observation about budding breasts, a breakout on her forehead or even that she’s gotten taller can be interpreted as a critique. “Dad needs to keep a neutral positive position,” Barrow says.

Don’t try to fix anything

Body image isn’t the only external pressure she’s faced with. She may have friends who are already doing drugs, having sex and even getting pregnant. She absolutely does not have the coping skills to handle any of these things. 

This can cause your fatherly instincts to kick in, but as Barrow reminds us, “You didn’t cause it, and you cannot fix it. You merely have to keep steady as she’s spinning around in circles.”

Barrow recommends looking for passive opportunities to spend time with your daughter, such as helping her with homework or driving her back or forth from school.

Around 54 percent of kids are more likely to have an emotionally honest conversation during a car trip, likely because of the lack of eye contact (and a parent’s judgmental stare), according to a 2017 British study.

“This is when she’ll talk to you,” says Barrow. “Now is not the time for a dad to lecture. Just shut up and listen.”

Remember: What’s Fonzie like?

“If a dad says, ‘You can trust me,’ and then loses his cool, gets angry or punishes her when she tells the truth, that’s it,” says Barrow. “You’re not gonna hear another thing from her until she’s out of college.” So be cool, at all costs.

Your daughter might have been as sweet and affectionate as a puppy when she was younger, but as a teenager she’s more “like a skittish cat,” says Barrow. If you come on too strong, don’t be surprised if she retreats just as quickly as she emerged. 

“It’s like fishing,” she says. “Maybe she will tell you something, maybe she won’t. But the second you jump in, she will go away.”

[This month, AARP is launching an initiative that focuses on the challenges of teens in 2022, with a special report in AARP Bulletin, stories throughout aarp.org, and a virtual summit with experts and teens on September 20th, hosted by Arrow editor-in-chief Stephen Perrine. For more stories, advice, and insights, and to join us for this important and informative round table, please register today.]