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A recent study for the book The Confidence Code for Girls surveyed 1,300 girls ages 8-18, in an effort to measure their shifting self-confidence during the rocky puberty years. What they found at first was no big surprise (at least not to girls and women everywhere): During those pivotal tween to teen years, a girls’ confidence and self-esteem take a major nosedive. But here’s where things got interesting: It all seems to happen around age 12.
The book is authored by Katty Kay, Claire Shipman, and JillEllyn Riley, who recently penned an article about their findings for The Atlantic. In it, they detail how each girl was asked to rate her confidence on a scale of 0-10. During the ages of 8-14, the girls’ responses fell (on average) from approximately 8.5 to 6 — a drop-off of 30 percent.
When they looked a little closer, they found that girls under 12 displayed far more natural self-confidence, citing that they “made friends easily” and didn’t care very much about what other people thought of them. But once they hit 12, the change was dramatic — and a little heartbreaking.
“I feel like everybody is so smart and pretty and I’m just this ugly girl without friends,” shared one girl.
“I feel that if I acted like my true self no one would like me,” said another.
Sound familiar? Psychologists call this rumination — the practice of negative self-talk and focusing on upsetting experiences and feelings — which is far more common in girls.
And how’s this for eye-opening: The study also found that girls are rewarded more by parents and teachers for “people-pleasing behavior.” Which means we’re taught from a young age that being quiet, following directions, and not speaking up are good things. This in turn causes us to set “impossibly high” standards for ourselves, the authors say, and … well, we all know where that leads.
Adding to this whole decline in self-confidence is the influx of social media that happens during the tween years, and the fact kids today never quite get a respite from their peers, their school, or their outside social life.
And there you have it: a fool-proof recipe for low self-esteem.
As the mother of a newly-minted 13-year-old, this study couldn’t ring more true to me. Already I see a huge change in the way she carries herself. It’s rare that she wants to show her face in a picture anymore, and she no longer wants to talk to me when things are bothering her. Instead, she turns inward and keeps her feelings to herself. She used to have a lot more confidence while playing sports too, and went out there to have fun, seemingly unaware of the people watching her.
But this past year, I’ve seen her self-esteem take a nosedive, and it reminds me of how I started struggling at that age, too. I became hyper-aware of my surroundings, my body, and what others thought of me. And while I never used to care about speaking publicly, or being in a play, after I hit puberty I was so self-conscious that I couldn’t bring myself to do many of the things I used to love.
Of course, girls aren’t the only ones going through some changes. In case you’re wondering how boys of this age compare, a dip in self-confidence does occur for them, too. But according to the research, it’s not nearly as dramatic as it is for girls. While girls may be outperforming boys academically, there’s a lot more going on beneath the surface — and many people often mistake their academic success for confidence.
The truth is, these years have always been hard, and they probably always will be. But it’s important we show our girls that they are allowed to fail, they are allowed to be heard, and that they don’t have to self-sabotage if they screw up.
We need to reward them for speaking up and voicing their opinions; not for making the lives of others easier by people-pleasing. If we want our girls to grow up to be bold, confident women, we need to build bold, confident girls — and that starts now.