Pay Attention to Me! Gaining Access to the Mind of Your Daughter
By Nikki P. Woods, MSW, LCSW
The female mind is complex; beautiful and wondrous, but complex. As parents, the more we understand and appreciate the intricacies of the female mind, the more equipped we will be in providing support and guidance to our daughters, and also be more in tune to our own thoughts and feelings.
Throughout a female’s life, a common theme tends to present itself – the need to seek external validation from others; that recognition and affirmation helps solidify the female sense of identity and self-worth. Beginning in the earliest stages of her life, a female relies on the reactions of others to help her assess whether or not what she is experiencing is valid.
Whether it’s a young girl looking back at her parents every time she successfully kicks the ball at her soccer games, an adolescent who rants and raves at the kitchen table about a friend who betrayed her, or a teenager who constantly asks if she looks pretty every time she is about to leave the house, these moments are where she is seeks validation and support. To the unaware eye, this type of behavior can be perceived as needy and insecure. Most parents would tend to ignore or minimize these exchanges in hopes that with time, she would learn to stop seeking that type of attention. However, the reality is that this request for validation is not just a neediness that should be dismissed; it is part of who she is and how she learns to better understand herself and her place in this world.
Unlike the male brain, the female brain is wired to focus primarily on social interaction and the dynamic that occurs between people as they engage one another. It is an essential part of her brain’s development, and drastic growth occurs throughout her lifetime in understanding and interpreting social interaction, as well as both verbal and nonverbal expression of emotion. Because of this development, a female is naturally more interested in the presence of others. She notices, analyzes and interprets other people’s reactions towards her and is very aware of how her presence is perceived by those around her.
As a female child grows and develops, she begins to obtain a greater understanding of herself and her overall worth through others’ responses. That with each new step, experience or skill she masters, she will look to others to help validate for her the importance of such an achievement. It is an integral element in helping her form a healthy sense of identity.
Females inherently struggle with processing blank and detached expressions. Their minds are constructed in such a manner that they are too aware of the subtlest changes in facial movements and tones of voice to simply ignore such a lack of expression. Due to this, a young girl will continue to work at what she is doing until she receives some type of acknowledgement and approval. If she is unable to do so, she will internalize this and assume that she was not worthy of a reaction – that her behavior was inappropriate and undeserving of attention. This could ultimately lead her to assume that she is not so well regarded by those around her.
Think about it, even as grown women, there are times that we get off of a phone call with a friend and question whether or not she is upset with us because she seemed a bit disconnected and cold. We worry about what we did to upset her and replay the conversation over in our minds to ensure that we didn’t step out of line or jeopardize the friendship in any way. We may even call that friend back and ask if she is upset with us for any reason. Men don’t behave in this manner. They are not biologically constructed to even notice those subtleties, and because of this, struggle to understand why we “over analyze” situations in our heads.
As parents, this knowledge may be helpful as it will fall on us to provide adequate validation and support throughout a female’s childhood. Without this knowledge, the repercussions could be immense. Because a female is wired to need validation, if she does not authentically receive it from her parents, she will ultimately look for it elsewhere. The risk lies in what kind of person this attention may come from, what that person’s intentions are and how ultimately, their words and behaviors will impact that young girl’s sense of worth and value.
Ultimately this validation will fall on her parents/guardians to provide this for her – through both your words and actions. To be aware of situations where she may be seeking validation, whether it’s an acknowledgement of her efforts, praising her accomplishments, reinforcing that she looks beautiful, empathizing with her emotions when she seems rattled, or simply a warm embrace; take the time to be there for her. Let her see and hear that you believe in her and that she is a person of great worth and substance.
It isn’t about the grand gestures, it is merely about being aware of her needs, connecting to her emotions, and validating her experiences. Take the time, look her in her eyes and speak from the heart. The end result will be that she will acquire a deep appreciation and respect for herself and her capabilities. With time, she will not require the approval of others anymore because she will have learned how to provide that for herself.
Nikki P. Woods, MSW, LCSW, is a psychotherapist who specializes in working with adolescent and teenage females and their families. She owns Navesink Wellness Center in Rumson, a space dedicated to helping women of all ages heal their mind, body and soul