“Honey, I’m working on an article about influence. Could you help me?” I ask.
“Sure,” my daughter replies.
I pitch the question I’ve been struggling all day to answer, “So, as a 13-year-old girl, when are the moments you need to use influence in your life?”
“Well, I think it would be really important to use influencing skills if you got a request from a boy to send him a nude picture.”
(cue sound of phonograph needle scraping across album!)
My heart stopped. My daughter just cast a much wider net than I was expecting.
If you ask most girls on the street if they are powerful, they’ll say “No! I just want to be nice and care about others.” Girls equate power with controlling or bossy. Their mind sees someone in it for themselves, not the nurturing, empathic and connected person girls strive to be. Even the word “influencer” smacks of ego.
If instead, you asked those same girls if they saw themselves as victims or vulnerable to being taken advantage of, they would respond, “Hell no!” just as forcefully the other way.
These girls would be shocked to learn research proves the same social problem-solving skills that make you an influencer (AKA powerful) are the same social problem-solving skills that make you resistant to victimization and becoming a controller.
Research published by the American Psychology Association by Dr. Clayton Cook shows that children and adolescents who lack social problem-solving skills are more at risk of becoming bullies, victims or both. They are likely to be “aggressive, lack social skills, think negative thoughts, experience difficulties in solving social problems…and be noticeably rejected and isolated by peers,” said Cook.
When we think of influencing or being powerful, we go straight to classic leadership definitions. Rarely do we consider how important influencing skills are at helping avoid a situation that might ruin your daughter’s childhood. “While equal numbers of boys and girls may sext voluntarily, girls are twice as likely to be among those who were pressured, coerced, blackmailed, or threatened into it. …That’s particularly disturbing since coercion into sexting appears to cause more long-term anxiety, depression, and trauma than coercion into real-life sex. Among the girls I met, the badgering to send nude photos could be incessant, beginning in middle school,” writes Peggy Orenstein.
Strong leadership in girls isn’t just about closing the STEM Gap, or the Negotiation Gap, or the C-Suite Gap, or even the Congress Gap. It’s foremost about closing the Leading-Yourself Gap. That gives you power.
If you can’t lead yourself, you can’t lead others. If you can’t lead yourself, someone else may try to take advantage of you.
So how do we find out if our girls have these social problem-solving skills?
TEN QUESTIONS TO ASK YOUR DAUGHTER TO DISCOVER HOW POWERFUL SHE ALREADY IS
1. Can You Look Confident (Even When You Feel Insecure?)
Confidence is a bully's biggest enemy because bullying requires a power imbalance. It’s also the biggest asset for an influencer. To build it, you must work on two types of confidence, inner and outer. For inner confidence, does your daughter take small risks consistently? Is she willing to try new things or experiences? If not, work with her to find out what she finds risky and make a plan to dabble outside her comfort zone. For outer confidence, does your daughter stand straight, make eye contact, and appear happy to be where she is? Does she walk to class with a purpose or hunch over, looking at the ground? Though developing true confidence takes time, research shows your body language can actually change your body chemistry and help you feel more confident.
2. Do You Have A Strong Friendship or Two?
Do you have a group of friends, or even just a solid friend or two? Having solid friendships boosts your confidence and gives you a support system in times of need. You can't build these types of friendships by kowtowing to the popular crowd. Instead, by nurturing solid relationships built on mutual respect and camaraderie, you will go through difficult situations more confidently together. Even better, you'll discover what you need in friendships.
3. Do You Know How To Stand Up For Yourself?
Are you willing to have difficult conversations, as painful as they are, if they solve disagreements or make your thoughts and feelings known? As much as girls are social creatures and pride themselves on their social prowess, they are often lousy at having difficult conversations. This is because she fears being perceived as “not nice.” Help her with the strategies found here to plan, practice, and carry out difficult conversations that preserve friendships, her nice girl image, and lets everyone see she isn’t a doormat.
4. What Are You Afraid Of?
Are you worried about failing tests? Making mistakes? Embarrassing yourself in front of others? Sticking out? Not being popular? It is exhausting spending your waking life afraid of everything that can happen. You will have no energy left for yourself and will give off the vibe you aren’t confident. Forget about influencing, you’ll make yourself a target. Help your daughter identify her fear triggers and discuss what is within and outside of her control. Often, this is where perfectionism gets in girls’ ways.
5. Do You Know What You’re Good At?
If she struggles in this area, here is a research-backed affirmation technique that that will help her. If you believe strongly in your strengths (any strengths) you will have more success in life. Knowing you are an interesting and capable person does not make you cocky or a know-it-all. Instead, putting your personal goals and needs first, will make you more charismatic and less preyed upon.
6. Are You Hanging With The Haters?
Let’s be real, every one of us has gossiped, or excluded, or judged someone… maybe even this week. But for some people, this kind of behavior is their M.O. Do you hang out with friends who preserve their own status by constantly diminishing others? If so, you are probably feeling insecure, and anxious wondering if you are “good enough” for them. If you feel like you are “surviving” in a fragile, high status group, rather than feeling comfortable being yourself, it is probably time to put distance between yourself and these relationships. This doesn’t mean that old friends need to be banished as “enemies,” but you can slowly and respectfully move the relationship more toward “acquaintance” or “class-mate.” You can start by reducing one-on-one time, and sharing less personal thoughts, feelings, or stories.
7. Do You Have Your Emotions, Or Do Your Emotions Have You?
Do you know your emotions and feelings? Can you manage them well? Can you express them with skill? “Expressing feelings with skill communicates our most important personal truths to others and allows us to meet the world with honesty and clarity. Emotional intelligence increases girls’ agency, or the belief that one has the capacity to create change in the world.” — Girls Leadership. If your daughter frequently “feels the feels,” try the High/Low game. At the dinner table, have everyone share their daily high and low. Use “I Statements” as often as possible. This exercise models what a healthy relationship to our emotions looks like. It also shows her she isn’t alone in having these feelings.
8. Can You Distinguish Between Hateful and Constructive Criticism?
Have you decided whose opinion matters? Whose feedback do you let in? Can you separate feedback from teachers, parents and close friends from acquaintances or bullies? Most criticism will be constructive and specific. This kind of feedback, can make you better at sports, academics, being a decent person or all of the above. However, some criticism is so preposterous it’s removed from reality. If your daughter gets leveled by criticism or if it keeps her from putting herself out there, you may need to help her walk through these strategies to determine between hateful and constructive criticism.
9. Is That Voice In Your Head Your Friend?
We all fall victim to that little negative voice that whispers to us daily. Many have success by giving the voice a name. My mother used to call hers “evil Jessica.” This taught me early in life to separate the critic from myself, put those thoughts in a box, analyze them, and move on. I credit this technique with giving me a more optimistic mindset. An optimistic mindset means you understand you can’t control everything but you can control how you react to these life events and not take them too personally.
10. What Makes It Hard To Ask For Help?
Are you afraid of looking dumb? Weak? Inadequate? If you view the above list, you see themes like confidence, strength, and independence. So wouldn’t asking for help make you appear weak? Absolutely not! Asking for support and graciously receiving it can make you better at the task and a stronger leader. We need not know everything. Instead, surround yourself with people who have the pieces and can get you there. Research proves when we work together we are faster problem solvers, more innovative, and more effective.
Before you started this conversation, did your daughter view power and influence negatively? Did you? Hopefully, she’ll now see influence isn’t a dirty word…it’s empowering. In fact, I suspect your daughter is already more of an influencer than she realized.
Instead of putting off worrying about leadership, influence, and power until your daughter has to put it on a college application, negotiate a good salary, or live the life she dreams about, we should worry about what is happening at the lunch table…
If we don’t start now, and instead wait until a boy sends her a disgusting text, it’s too late.