How to Explain Good Attention and Bad Attention to a Teenage Girl

Fathers of daughters might struggle as teen girls enter puberty and start attracting the attention of men and boys. Here's how to help them understand the male gaze.

As teen girls sexually mature, the confusing changes to their body also make them more visible to boys (and sometimes men) whose attention isn’t always benign. An inability to understand that attention, when mixed with anxiety and issues around body image and self-esteem can make life difficult for teen daughters. So parents need to prepare their daughters for the transition into, sometimes sudden, visibility. But how is a parent supposed to broach the topic with their daughters? And when should they start?

“One of the problems is we think we should start talking to girls as teens,” says Deborah Roffman, an educator who focuses on teaching kids about sex and love and author of Talk to Me First. Everything You Need to Know to Become Your Kids’ ‘Go To’ Person About Sex. “The time we should start talking about gender roles, advertising, respect, and what that really looks like is when boys and girls are in elementary school.”

Roffman says that if we wait until kids are teens, we’re already too late. Even as children, kids receive constant messaging about how they are valued through product advertising, movies, books and more. Making sure that you critically engage with these things as young as possible will help kids keep a sense of self esteem and understand that they should receive attention for their whole person, including their interests and intelligence, and not looks alone.

“We see so much around us that portrays girls and women as objects for other people’s pleasure or desire. It’s almost inevitable that girls will receive the message, at least to a degree, that what makes them an attractive person is their body and their face and how they are groomed,” says Roffman. “That is hugely problematic. The first part of us that we want people to notice is our face. Not for what we look like, but for who we are. We really set kids up in that way to misunderstand what’s most important.”

It’s better, then, for parents to talk to kids about who they are as a whole person. Talking about a child’s thoughtfulness, persistence and how good they are at math or sports is just as important as complimenting their eyes and hair. It helps kids see that their appearance is just one thing about them. Their mental acuity, empathy and attitude is far more important than anything else.

“One of our jobs as parents is to hold a mirror up to our children and reflect back to them what we see,” says Roffman. “That’s really important, especially when they’re young, because they can’t step out of themselves to see themselves clearly. Parents… should support boys and girls self-esteem and be a voice that contradicts these thousands and thousands of messages.”

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Parents need to understand that children often take cultural messaging about their bodies at face value. Having frequent conversations about what Roffman refers to as “cultural passive smoke” is deeply important. “We just breathe it in without knowing it’s there, and it’s my job to sort of help kids choke on it. I want them to see it and get angry,” Roffman says.

Of course, parents shouldn’t discourage their teen girls from experiencing romance and dating. They’re essential steps in kids figuring out who they are and what they might want from a person when they get older. So parents need to be open and non-judgmental when they listen, even when they might be uncomfortable, otherwise their kids won’t want to talk to them, says Roffman.

It’s unfortunate but true that as teen girls mature sexually, there will be adults out there who will cross lines with them. Parents need to be prepared for that, and they need to prepare their kid for that, too, because if they don’t, kids can get very confused about who they are and how they are seen in the world.

“Kids don’t often have enough experience to know that other people see them differently than they may see themselves. It’s important to remind young people that in our culture other people are encouraged to look at teenage girls, and sometimes even middle school girls, as being available to them sexually. That’s never okay. The adult is supposed to know where the line is and that they are not permitted to cross it. To cross it is an abuse of their power as adults,” Roffman says.

Parents need to have proactive conversations. They also need to be clear that should anything happen, they understand it’s not the child’s fault. But there may still be times when parents need to draw a line — teenagers, no matter how smart or educated, are risk-takers.

“We forget that we really do have the power in our family,” explains Roffman. “And if we perceive that our kids are putting themselves in harms way, we have a responsibility to step in and set limits around their degrees of freedom.”