How to help our pre-teen girls be authentically kind.

Written by Fiona Ghiglione, PhD

A few months ago my daughters and I were heading home after a day out together. I arrived at the gate before the girls and was waiting for them to catch up. After a moment I walked back a little and saw my 10-year old helping an elderly lady carry her shopping. It’s an understatement to say I was a proud-mama when I saw MY DAUGHTER in this spontaneous and generous act of kindness!

Kindness is something we all want for our girls, especially in this age of cyber-bullying and mean girl behaviour. Often however, despite our best intentions as parents and educators, teaching manners and occasionally modelling kind behaviour, simply isn’t enough. Why? Because driven by expectation alone our girls don’t FEEL the benevolence necessary to drive authentically kind and prosocial behaviour.

To develop TRULY kind girls we need to start within. And that means focusing on her learning and cultivating three fundamental qualities: (1) Emotional Awareness, (2) Empathy & (3) Compassion.

1. Emotional Awareness

When you think of emotional awareness what do you think? Labelling emotions, right? If you did then – yes – you are 100% right! But before we can effectively label our emotions we need to be able to SENSE them in our body. Here’s an experiment. Close your eyes. Now try sensing your ear. Feeling it, not just thinking about it. Hard right? This may seem on face value absolutely ridiculous. Why is feeling my ear even relevant? Well sensing – or interoception1. as it’s called in psychology – is critical in being able to recognise a feeling. Feeling angry (racing heart beat, clenched fists, sweating, tight face) feels different than feeling sad (a heaviness in your chest, exhaustion, sore tummy). Emotions first show up in our bodies as – yep you guessed it – sensations!

As our girls develop emotional awareness they are also become better equipped to develop the next two qualities!

2. Empathy

Emotional-Awareness and empathy are intimately connected. When we become more aware of ourselves we also become more aware of others – of their emotions, their similarities and their differences. This is illustrated in an interesting study published in the journal Emotion2. Students in the study had to watch a video of other students in a stressful situation — preparing and then delivering a five-minute speech on why they should be hired for their dream job — and then they had to identify what the students in the videos were feeling before and after the speech. The findings showed that the more self-aware students scored significantly higher on empathy than those with lower levels of self-awareness. If we want our girls to see another’s suffering they need to be able to empathise with that person and see their perspective and recognise how they are feeling.

3. Compassion

There are two kinds of compassion depending on whom it is being directed to: self-compassion and compassion for others. Self-compassion happens when we realise our own suffering and we want to alleviate it. We are self-compassionate when we wish good things – health, happiness, safety etc – for ourselves. We are compassionate towards others when we see their suffering and want to alleviate it too. When we wish good things for them.

So how can developing these qualities build AUTHENTIC kindness?

It’s simple. We want our girls to WANT to be kind! For it to be something she chooses to do – EVEN when we aren’t there! And we want her to experience the pride that comes from having acted when someone needed help!

More than People Pleasing

When we build these three qualities, acts of kindness are not simply driven by pleasing others (which has a negative impact on our daughter’s self-esteem) but are an extension of self-compassion. We are saying, “I want good things for myself. And I want them for you too”. Research shows that acts of kindness that come from self-compassion have an important and longer-lasting impact on psychological well-being and mental health.

To Inspire Others

Have you ever received an act of kindness but felt the person is doing it more out of a sense of obligation, because it was the “right thing to do”? It doesn’t feel that good to receive a gift in this spirit. In contrast, when we feel another person really wants to help and feels our distress or pain, we feel a sense of gratitude that inspires us to do good things too. We know that kindness of this sort inspires prosocial behaviour in others, which means in the case of our pre-teens one girl’s kindness can have a positive effect on those around her.

An internal guide

As our girls begin to explore their independence in the teen years, we wont always be around to give the gentle reminder in their ear to “be kind”. The more our girls have internalised the skills of empathy, compassion and self-awareness the greater chance there is that she will spontaneously engage in acts of kindness when the opportunity arises. This becomes even more pertinent in the online space, where bullying is prevalent, cruelty is sometimes encouraged and where teens are tempted to use the anonymity of the cyber-world to “explore new identities and behaviours”.

Steps to building empathy, self-awareness and compassion today:

1. Learn mindfulness.

To build these skills we need to spend time consciously paying attention to ourselves! Mindfulness is such an amazing vehicle to help our girls really understand themselves without judgment. A short 5-10 minute meditation before bed can be a great way to start getting her into the practice. (Check out my Mother-Daughter Night-time Compassion Meditation!). Other ways to practice mindfulness is to help her practice using her senses more. Go on a mindful walk – noticing the smells, sights, sounds around you – or head into the kitchen to cook together.

2. Write a letter to herself

Next time she is feeling upset suggest writing a letter to herself. Get her to describe the situation that caused her pain (e.g. a mean friend, a bad grade, an event she couldn’t control). Ask her to describe the situation to herself without blaming anyone. Acknowledging her feelings. Not only does this require self-reflection but later she will be able to look back over it and consider it further – extending the learning!

3. Practice these skills at home!

The more practice she has in noticing her feelings, tapping into her body, empathising with others and feeling self-compassion – the more her brain will fire and wire – strengthening the neural connections supporting these skills. This is particularly important now in the pre-teen years when our girls are going through a brain growth-spurt, with billions of new neurons available to learn new skills. In the early teen years her brain will, however, begin to go through a period called “pruning” where unused synapses are eliminated. The ones that stay are the ones that are used – so make sure she gets to use these!

If you would like to learn more ways to set up healthy habits for your daughter in the pre-teen years you can register your interest here for my upcoming 8-week Mother-Daughter Online Workshop where three whole weeks are dedicated to building these skills in both you and your daughter!

Photo: Unsplash/Ben White


1. Price, C. J., & Hooven, C. (2018). Interoceptive Awareness Skills for Emotion Regulation: Theory and Approach of Mindful Awareness in Body-Oriented Therapy (MABT). Frontiers in psychology9, 798.

2. Eckland, N. S., Leyro, T. M., Mendes, W. B., & Thompson, R. J. (2018). A multi-method investigation of the association between emotional clarity and empathy. Emotion, 18(5), 638–645.

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