For girls, women and their allies who believe in gender equality, the presidency of Donald J. Trump marks a terrifying moment in modern American history.
With President Obama’s departure, the White House loses a man who wrote emphatically about being a feminist and focused on policies that provided equal opportunity to all girls and women.
Trump, on the other hand, insists he respects and champions women, but has made a sport out of rating their physical appearance and was recorded making comments that indicate he’s sexually assaulted women. He also gleefully threatened to imprison Hillary Clinton, the first woman to run for president on behalf of a major political party.
“I still think its a great time to be a girl or woman in our country, although it is a more complex time.”
Just as it seemed safe to believe that every young girl growing up in America had a much better shot at fulfilling her potential, no matter her identity or background, a seismic political and cultural shift has undermined that possibility. While despair may be an adult’s first impulse, experts say there are several ways to help girls develop lifelong confidence that will sustain them in the coming years.
“I still think its a great time to be a girl or woman in our country, although it is a more complex time,” says Jess Weiner, a self-esteem expert and brand strategist who worked with the White House Council on Women and Girls over the past six years.
To help navigate those complexities, here are seven strategies that anyone can use to help a girl thrive.
1. Talk about power.
While adults might think girls can’t fully grasp the implications of Trump’s campaign and presidency, Weiner says they do. In a workshop she conducted last October with Dove, she heard from girls who knew Trump had rated women’s bodies, and they were grappling with what that message meant for them.
The participants, most of whom were girls of color, also realized they were the “bull’s eye of the moment” by virtue of being an immigrant, Muslim, Mexican, or belonging to another group that Trump has targeted. Staying silent about such messages doesn’t protect a young girl from harm, but instead suggests that others approve of that behavior.
“Make no mistake, we cant shy away from this conversation, even if it feels uncomfortable and difficult,” Weiner says. “Dont gaslight our kids. Dont pretend it’s not happening.”
This doesn’t necessarily require discussing politics or Trump directly, but Weiner says adults should be talking to girls about power, like someone using a bully pulpit to shame others and the role of the media in holding the powerful accountable. Such conversations can give girls the confidence they need to express their fears and opinions.
2. Encourage them to share real feelings.
Girls are too often asked or expected to silence their authentic feelings to make others around them more comfortable.
Andrea Bastiani Archibald, chief girl and parent expert for the Girl Scouts, says it’s essential for adults to engage girls to help them speak openly about their emotions, whether that means disagreeing with your opinion, being mad or sad, or communicating anger over a perceived injustice.
President Obama has often shown acceptance with this kind of complexity when he talks about his teenage daughters Sasha and Malia. In his last press conference on Wednesday, he discussed their reaction to the presidential election, describing their disappointment, their potential for resilience and their commitment to making the country a better place.
Over the next few years, girls are likely to hear that they’re overreacting to cultural and political developments, which is why trusted adults should make it abundantly clear that their feelings matter.
3. Help girls identify their values.
In the wake of the election, anecdotal reports collected by the Southern Poverty Law Center revealed that boys and men used the slur from Trump’s 2005 hot mic comments to threaten women.
That’s one extreme example of the kind of gendered harassment girls may face, in addition to comments about their physical appearance or sexuality. Adults can prepare girls to deal with verbal abuse by helping them identify and focus on their values. If they cherish relationships with friends and family over a stranger’s opinion, for example, that contrast can help them find perspective when faced with harassment.
This approach, Weiner says, gives them a tool to address feelings of embarrassment, humiliation and anger, and helps them know which of the many voices in their lives to trust and respect. Similarly, if they can articulate their own self-worth and personal ethics, they’ll be better prepared to set physical boundaries, call out degrading language and behavior, and know when to involve a trusted adult.
4. Show them how to be respectful and inclusive.
Prior to the election, Bastiani Archibald says adults may have taken social progress for granted. Now is the time for them to not only act as role models in their own households, but to also ensure that girls they know and love are in inclusive and respectful environments.
That means checking in with school educators, sports teams and extracurricular clubs, to ask about how all young people are made to feel accepted before someone feels or is actively excluded.
Discussing the positive aspects of difference and diversity with girls is particularly important, Bastiani Archibald says, because bullying related to one’s background and identity can be subtle and relational, rather than blatant. If, for example, a girl who wears a hijab is routinely ostracized at lunch but no one will explain why, that’s a moment where girls need to demonstrate both empathy and a more sophisticated understanding of how discrimination can work.
Bastiani Archibald believes if school environments can become or remain supportive of all students, it will “buffer” young people from greater cultural and political shifts away from inclusivity.
5. Focus on solutions
One way for girls to develop their power and confidence in the next few years is to focus on being part of the solution, Weiner says. This can be very personal, such as a girl deciding that she doesn’t want to talk negatively about other girls online. She can also decide to get involved with neighborhood or community efforts to make a positive difference. Both types of solution-oriented behavior can lead to feelings of self-empowerment.
If a young girl wants to make personal changes or participate in activism, but doesn’t know where to start, talking about the values you’ve already helped her identify is a good first step. From there she can prioritize the issues she cares most about and find simple ways of contributing to the greater good.
6. Embrace role models.
From Harry Potter’s Hermione Granger and Frozen’s Elsa to Michelle Obama and Serena Williams, girls today have plenty of fictional and real-life role models to guide them through difficult times.
Still, Bastiani Archibald says adults should actively look for and talk about brave, courageous role models in history and pop culture. In particular, adults should focus on how those figures overcame adversity through determination and persistence.
And if a girl uses social media and feels overwhelmed by negativity, Weiner suggests talking to her about pruning and curating the accounts she follows. The idea, she says, is for social media to become more like a “vision board” that inspires and motivates. It can also be an effective way of connecting them to role models who offer positive messages.
7. Encourage girls to stand up for themselves and others.
“When we talk about building self-esteem, its done by doing estimable acts,” says Weiner.
It’s easy, however, for girls to feel powerless against the school bully or a president who targets vulnerable people in words and policy. What they need is a “scripted language” to help them stand up for their principles. If, for instance, they hear a classmate tell another classmate to “go back to their country,” the script can start with a single statement: “I heard that.”
“Im not telling girls they have to be super heroines,” Weiner says. “But the acknowledgment is power. Its making [harassment] real and seen and not normalizing it.”
“When we talk about building self-esteem, its done by doing estimable acts.”
Bastiani Archibald encourages adults to help girls practice a similar script in different scenarios. If they hear something objectionable, they can begin by asking, “What did you say? Why did you say that?” If they are feeling bolder, she says, girls can disagree or explain why they find certain language offensive.
This approach may not be the right solution in every instance, especially if safety is a concern, but it will empower girls to feel like they can take a stand for themselves and others.
Weiner believes it’s particularly important now for bystanders to assume some role in defending people who are marginalized or attacked for their identities.
“We have to be accomplices, not allies,” she says, quoting the activist and author Luvvie Ajayi. “Girls and women have powerful potential to do that.”
The early days of Trump’s election and presidency indicate they’ll live up to that potential, but girls who don’t see their values reflected by this administration will need every ounce of courage and confidence they can get.