Healthy and Happy Daughters

The old saying for parents is “the days are long but the years fly by.” As you settle into parenting babies and toddlers, it can seem like their all-consuming needs coupled with their incredible hold on your heart will forever be the center of your existence. And it probably will!

Your sometimes Herculean efforts to nurture, feed and bathe these tiny creatures, as well as introduce them to their new world and all its amazing features like trees, food, music, books, friends and even Legos is exhilarating, yet tedious and exhausting. They are literally connected to you and dependent upon you, physically and emotionally, every minute of every day.

But as they become more and more independent into their school-age years, you gradually step back and watch them grow into their own little, and then big person.

As the teenage years approach, this independence is pronounced and at times even fierce. I experienced it with my sons, who went through profound physical changes (growing 4 inches in a summer, voice lowering an octave, baby-face to mustache face overnight) at the same time they became pleasantly more independent about everything from school work to personal hygiene.

With puberty came strong opinions, girlfriends, driving and navigating decisions about school, friends, spirituality and their futures. Sure their bodies changed but it didn’t seem a great hurdle or barrier for them. The changes boys go through may be hard for them because their hormones surge and they feel different, some more than others, and no doubt numerous insecurities surface from pimples to sexuality.

But they generally also feel bolder and stronger and ready to conquer the world and are encouraged to do so. Admittedly, I am a woman, so I understand less about the boyhood to manhood journey.

I expect with my daughter the process will be different. She’s 10 years old and my only girl. While I pride myself in gender equality, the reality is she is growing up in a world that treats her very differently than boys, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. I also suspect I’m more aware of my daughter’s transformation from girl to grownup because I am a woman myself and vividly recall the insecurities of my body and growth and adolescence.

When I see her struggle with a friendship or notice some puberty changes in her body, it is raw and real for me, and I feel again those preteen emotions.

She is still a little girl, but each day I watch the transformation occur and my tough, sometimes tomboy, sometimes princess, is morphing into a pre-adolescent. It’s hard to watch my always eager, always confident, always brave girl start to question herself and navigate the tricky world of girl relationships and insecurities.

Fortunately up to now she is active and healthy, and loves playing sports, caring less about how she looks than how strong or fast she is. But I do worry that she will fall into the real statistics that show girls decrease their physical activity dramatically during the preteen years, exercising and playing sports less than their male counterparts.

I’m not talking about girl professional athletes, or even super competitive sports, but generally they become less active, alarmingly so, during these years. This decrease has huge implications for their future health and well-being, their confidence and even increases their likelihood of engaging in risky behaviors like drugs, alcohol and risky sex when they are teens.

Research suggests that helping girls develop active lifestyles as adolescents helps them continue that active lifestyle into adulthood. Inactive adolescents are very likely to become inactive adults (Gordon-Larsen, Adair, Nelson, & Popkin, 2004; Pate, Heath, Doda, & Trost, 1996).

In particular, lack of physical activity is associated with becoming overweight or obese. This health problem carries with it many consequences for physical and mental health. In childhood, it leads to high cholesterol, high blood pressure, bone and joint problems, diabetes, sleep apnea, low self-esteem, and social stigmatization (Daniels et al., 2005; Dietz, 2004; Fagot-Campagna et al., 2000; Janssen, Craig, Boyce, & Pickett, 2004; Strauss, 2000). In addition, overweight children are likely to be overweight as adults (Field, Cook, & Gillman, 2005), meaning that overweight children are also at higher risk for developing heart disease, stroke, osteoarthritis, and cancer later in life (Office of the Surgeon General, 2010).

That all sounds super scary! But like most parents, while I care about my daughter’s future health, I’m more concerned with the right now. Is she thriving? Is she happy? Is she healthy? I want her to grow and become independent, but retain and remember the strong, playful, confident, healthy girl she is as she navigates her way through adolescence. While some insecurities are normal, I want her to focus on becoming a bold and strong person who cares about the world, not someone only focused on how she (or her body) looks to others.

So when I research what scientific evidence says about how to inspire this healthy lifestyle in my daughter, it points me right back to myself! Here are recommendations for parents (adapted from an article by the Society of Women Psychologists—Raising Strong Girls podcast series):

Model being active. Girls who are more active tend to have parents who are active and who initiate physical activity with their daughters (Robertson-Wilson et al., 2003; Whitehead & Biddle, 2008). Plan family bike rides, hikes and outings. Invite your daughter to run with you or try a yoga class together.

Make time for exercise. Many girls report not being physically active because they don’t think they have time (Kimm et al., 2006). If parents don’t make time to be active, girls won’t either. Girls may need help recognizing time to exercise, and deciding to exercise instead of other activities like watching TV.

Be creative. Girls who are overweight often report that feeling “embarrassed” about their bodies or their athletic ability prevents them from being active, especially in activities that require more body exposure (like swimming) or changing in the locker room with others. But there are lots of ways to be active. Brainstorm with your daughter activities that appeal to her like walking or jogging with the dog around the neighborhood listening to music or an audiobook.

Focus on the present. Although as a parent you may be concerned about the long-term health of your daughter, adolescents tend to be focused on the here and now. Developmentally, they tend to be less motivated by consequences far in the future.

Focus on fitness. Be wary of using appearance to motivate her, like losing weight. Although physical activity is usually associated with a host of psychological benefits, it is actually associated with worse psychological wellbeing when it is done for externally motivated reasons (like losing weight), as opposed to internally motivated reasons (like feeling good or enjoyment).

Focus on friendships. Emphasize how sports boost energy, mood and the friendships formed as part of a team. Girls report that the fun of sports is the social bonding of a team (Voorhees et al., 2005). Help your daughter find a sport that makes her smile and laugh and make friends.

Promoting the physical activity of our girls will not only help their health, but it may help parents get healthy as well. We need to support our daughters and sons on their ride through adolescence and encourage them to develop healthy lifetime habits by modeling them ourselves, because Tu Salud ¡Si Cuenta! (Your Health Matters!)