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Encouraging your daughter's athletic performance when social pressures are working against her

QUESTION: My seventh grade daughter is having difficulties socially since she became the star of her school's basketball team. She feels her teammates are jealous of her. How can I help her feel good about herself and still play her best?

ANSWER: You are right to be concerned about the possibility that your daughter may undermine her athletic performance due to social pressure at this age. It is not unusual for girls to hold back on competition out of fear that her achievements may alienate others for two reasons.

First, girls are socially conditioned towards cooperation and caring for others. Unlike the social conditioning boys receive, which encourages "winning" above all else, girls are taught to be sensitive and to caretake others from an early age. While attunement to others and nurturing are indeed positive qualities, your daughter will need your support to promote, rather than squelch her own development.

Secondly, as girls reach adolescence they become increasingly vulnerable to social pressure. The desire to belong is strong and female identity is important. Being feminine, however, has traditionally gone against the competitive, aggressive expression necessary to become a star athlete!

But rest assured that there is good news, too. Research into the effects of involvement in sports for girls shows clear increases in self-esteem, a better body-image, tendencies towards higher college attendance and less likelihood of becoming involved in drugs. Being involved in sports will by far outweigh the temporary social adjustments she is currently facing.

What you can do to help

This is an opportunity to spend time with your daughter as she navigates the transition towards adulthood. She needs your input to sort through what kind of person she is and the kind of person she wants to become. Your parent-child relationship is the backbone for her developing character. With your help she can forge her true identity from the grist of her conflict. This is, after all, the psychological task of puberty.

Support your daughter to always do her best. Let her know that this is not the first time nor the last, that she will have to deal with people who may be jealous of her abilities or achievements in life. Be a good listener. Accept your daughter's sadness and hurt as natural feelings, but not an indication of anything she should act upon. After all, this is a period where she must come to terms with who a true friend is and who it is not. Assure her that if she remains true to herself, either her friends will come to accept her talents or she will gravitate towards people who can support and enjoy who she is, rather than ask her to be less than herself. But do not stop there!

Encourage your daughter to remain warm and congratulatory to her teammates rather than rejecting. She may find that taking the lead to be supportive to the girls who are acting coolly towards her may revive warmth. While responding in kind, will ensure further alienation. Use this as an opportunity to challenge your daughter to take the initiative, instead of being reactive to her teammates attitudes. Promoting others on her team is critical to developing her own leadership skills. As is the ability to think and act independent of the jealousies of others.

Let your daughter know that being feminine includes healthy aggression and competition, too! Foster her self-expression by attending her games, and taking her to women's professional sports whenever possible. By identifying the qualities she is afraid to embrace, you will help her cope with temporary social upset without sacrificing her own goals.

Exposing her to female athlete role models can help her build an identity that is both feminine and strong. Celebrate her successes and tell her in no uncertain terms that she does not have to apologize for living life to its fullest. Nor does she have to abandon her nurturing side to be a good athlete.

Give your daughter the message that being feminine today embraces strength and power as much as it does nurturing and softness!

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Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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