By Leslie Lindsay
Girls these days have a lot to live up to. Not only does society harbor the impression that girls ought to be bright, thin, beautiful, thin, hot, sexy, and strong yet soft and feminine. They need to be divas, yet liked by peers and adults. They should exude kindness, but still “get ahead.” The world gives our girls a lot of contradictory images to uphold and it’s no wonder we falter in supporting them. Laura Choate, therapist and mother to a daughter (and son), has taken it upon herself to present a balanced approach to parenting a daughter in this so-called “toxic culture,” this concept of SWIMMING UPSTREAM.
As a former child/adolescent psychiatric R.N. with a strong interest in supporting adolescent girls in self-esteem and coping skills, and a mother to two pre-teen daughters, I get it. It’s not easy raising a daughter. Yet, as parents we have such an important job to convey our messages of love and support, and being there with the tough gets going.
Today, I am honored to have Dr. Laura Choate pop over to chat with us about SWIMMING UPSTREAM: Parenting Girls for Resilience in a Toxic Culture.
Leslie Lindsay: Laura, it’s wonderful for to you swing by! You’re a counselor, professor, and mom. What ultimately inspired you to write SWIMMING UPSTREAM? Was there an ‘ah-ha’ moment?
Laura Choate: In 2013 I had just finished a book, Adolescent Girls in Distress: a Guide to Mental Health Prevention and Treatment (Springer Press), and it was geared to counselors so that they could better understand cultural influences directed towards girls, girls’ development and mental health, and how to treat common mental health problems in girls. After it was published I had a “light bulb” moment when I realized that while counselors need these types of resources, it is parents who are in need of information about today’s culture, how it can affect their daughters, and about what they can do to help their daughters stay resilient in the face of cultural influences. As a parent of a 10 year old daughter, I also recognized how toxic the culture is for today’s girls and how much support parents really need. So I decided to write a new book specifically geared towards parents, and that’s how this book came to be.
L.L.: Because of these seemingly unattainable standards, many girls experience stress, anxiety, eating disorders, self-doubt, depression, and even suicidal ideation. Can you speak to that, please?
Laura Choate: I agree, and it is a real concern that these problems are on the rise in adolescent girls, and that they disproportionately affect girls and women more so than boys and men. For example, boys and girls experience similar rates of depression until around age 12, but after 12 girls are twice as likely as boys to be diagnosed with depression. We also know that rates of depression triple in girls between the ages of 12-15 – from 5% at age 12 to 15% by age 15. It is clear that the transition to puberty and early adolescence is a high-risk period for girls. They really need our support during this time.
L.L.: I really love the fabulous text boxes sprinkled throughout the book. They contain activities readers can try (and discuss) with their daughter(s), as well as self-reflection activities for parents. It makes the narrative so much more accessible for busy families. What are some of your favorite activities mentioned within the book? And have you tried them with your own daughter?
Laura Choate: I am glad you like them! I tried to make the book as practical as possible so that parents would have some actual tools for applying the concepts described in the book. One thing that is always important and fun to do with my own daughter is co-viewing media and asking her questions about what we are watching (e.g., “Why is the female hero in Jurassic World wearing a tight white tank top, skirt, and heels while running through the jungle, while the male hero is wearing hiking boots? or “Why do you think they are using these images to sell this product?” or even “What do you like about this show?” ) I don’t overdo it because it can become annoying when she is just trying to enjoy a show, but I think it is important to instill critical thinking skills in our daughters at a young age. It is also great to ask questions with print ads as well: “What is the product they are trying to sell? Why did they choose these particular models? What image are they trying to convey? Will using this product bring about the lifestyle being promoted in the ad?” These are great conversations to have and they work well to promote media literacy in our daughters.
I also like to use exercises to help girls evaluate their friendships. To see if their friendships are healthy, they can ask themselves some of the questions I describe in the book: (1) List 5 qualities you are looking for in a friend (2) Do your current friends have these qualities? If not, what draws you to these friendships? (3) Do you have these same qualities? What can you do to work on these qualities in yourself? And finally, (4) Does spending time around your friends cause you to feel better or worse about yourself? Do they support you and build you up, or are they a source of stress in your life?
L.L.: One piece of advice I came across in SWIMMING UPSTREAM is the importance of face time, family rituals, parent self-care, and family meals. Can you share more?
Laura Choate: A big theme in the book is Love and Acceptance. A girl needs to feel accepted as she is, not according to who the culture tells her she should be. If she looks to the culture for acceptance, she will feel that she never measures up—not pretty enough, thin enough, accomplished enough, popular enough. But if she feels loves and accepted just as she is by her parents and support system, this builds resilience and keeps her from desperately looking to others to validate her or pay attention to her. So accept your daughter just as she is, not who you wish she could be…not if she loses a few pounds or makes better grades or wins first place. Let her know that you love her and that you like spending time with her. Help her know that she is wonderful just as she is!
L.L.: But sometimes there are issues and concerns that go beyond family dinner and listening. How do we know when our girls need a little more assistance than we can provide at home (i.e. therapy, in-patient hospitalization, medication)? What threshold should we be looking at?
Laura Choate: I agree, and that is why I included a chapter in the book about signs and symptoms of common mental health problems in girls: depression, anxiety, eating disorders, substance abuse, and sexual trauma. Parents should be familiar with these symptoms and pay attention to any changes in their daughter’s attitudes and behaviors that might be of concern. It is hard to state all of the warning signs here, but I would say that if you notice changes that concern you, seek professional help earlier than later. Prevention and early intervention is always more effective than waiting until her problems have become deeply entrenched.
L.L.: You mention this wonderful coping skill set that I wanted to reiterate. It goes something like this: 1) Find something fun to do 2) Find an activity to release energy/stay healthy, 3) engage in a soothing/relaxing activity, 4) increase social support, and 5) find a way to change the way you think about a situation. Wow! That’s an amazingly simple and effective recipe. Can you talk more about that?
Laura Choate: Yes, these are suggestions for developing a coping skills repertoire—the idea is that you need to have some coping strategies in place to help you manage multiple types of stressors. For example, sometimes you need something to release energy in order to feel better, while other times you just need to relax. It’s important to realize what you need and to have a go-to strategy when you need it! These strategies are drawn from the ACTION treatment program, a research-based program designed for the treatment of childhood depression, but I find that they are helpful for everyone.
L.L.: What advice would you give to parents of t(w)een girls in four words?
Laura Choate: Love her, Accept her, Validate her, Like her!
L.L: What other books or resources might you recommend for raising girls?
Laura Choate: I have a recommended reading list in my book, but some resources I used heavily in the book are: Ginsberg (2011) Building resilience in children and teens; Homayoun, A. (2012) Myth of the perfect girl; Helping our daughters find authentic success and happiness in school and life; Deak., J (2003). Girls will be girls: Raising confident and courageous daughters; Hemmen L. (2012) Parenting a teen girl; Crash course on conflict, communication, and connection with your teenage daughter; Levin, D. & Kilbourne, J. (2008). So sexy so soon: The new sexualized childhood and what parents can do to protect their kids; Steiner-Adair, C. (2013). The big disconnect: Protecting childhood and family relationships in the digital age, and finally Levine, M. (2012). Teach your children well.
And I write as a parenting expert blogger on Psychology Today.com and address these issues regularly, so that is another place you can go for additional reading!
L.L.: Oh, I feel like I could go on and go…alas we both have other things to attend to! Is there anything I should have asked, but forgot?
Laura Choate: Just a final note that parenting is hard, and parenting tween girls is both a blessing and a challenge! I think it is important that parents become aware that the current culture is toxic for our daughters, and so we need to take action to decide how we are going to respond. I encourage parents not to throw up their hands and accept that “this is just the way things are…”; instead we can make decisions as to what we want for our families and what kind of adults we want our daughters to grow up to be, and then parent from those values. We don’t have to do what everyone else is doing. As I say in the book, we can choose to swim upstream.
L.L.: Thanks, Laura for being with us and sharing your wonderful book, SWIMMING UPSTREAM: Parenting Girls For Resilience in a Toxic Culture.
Laura Choate: Thank you so much for your careful reading of the book and for giving me an opportunity to share some of the highlights!
Laura H. Choate, EdD, LPC, is a Jo Ellen Levy Yates Endowed Professor in Counselor Education at Louisiana State University. Dr. Choate is the author of three books: Girls and Women’s Wellness: Contemporary Counseling Issues and Interventions (2008), Eating Disorders and Obesity: A Counselor’s Guide to Prevention and Treatment (edited; 2013), and Adolescent Girls in Distress: A Guide to Mental Health Treatment and Prevention (2013) with her fourth book, Swimming Upstream: Parenting Girls for Resilience in a Toxic Culture, published in November by Oxford University Press. She lives in Baton Rouge with her husband and preteen son and daughter.