Written by Fiona Ghiglione, PhD
Take a walk through the world of any pre-teen or teen girl and you’ll discover social comparison is actually the norm, not the exception.
For any parent entering into the preteen phase, however, the onset can come as quite a shock. One moment our girls are doing dance shows in the living room, wearing dress-ups to the mall and enthusiastically raising their hand in class. And the next they are coming out with a seemingly endless list of comparisons and wallowing in self-consciousness. As a mother of two preteen girls I know this shift well.
We begin to hear …
“What will everyone think if I put on this top?” “What will my friends be wearing today? I don’t want to be different”
“Oh, I’m not going to go for class captain. I’m not as funny or popular as the other girls”
“Why was she invited to the party and I wasn’t? What’s wrong with me?”
Hearing our daughters’ sudden concern with the opinion of others can make us wonder: What on earth has brought on this self-confidence crisis?! Where has my confident girl gone?
What is happening?
Underneath what we see, our girls’ brains and bodies are going through a huge metamorphosis and these are contributing to this increased tendency to compare.
Here are some things we need to know:
First, their Medial Prefrontal Cortex – a part of their brain responsible for sensitivity to social cues (and many other important cognitive skills) is rapidly expanding and making more neurons. This region almost doubles in size in the preteens (although it doesn’t become fully developed until adulthood).
When our girls are confronted with potential evaluation from others, this region lights up the most and interestingly, preteens and teens have higher activity in this region than adults! In one study, for example, researchers gave an activity to pre-adolescents, adolescents and adults and told the participants that they would be observed while doing it. The level of activation in the MPC brain region was highest for preadolescents and was significantly smaller for adults – showing that preadolescents were more sensitive to the opinion of others.
A second interesting shift around the preteens (8-12) is the experience of a psychological state, coined by psychologist Erik Erickson as the “imaginary audience”. By definition, “imaginary audience” refers to the belief that others are intensely interested in or scrutinising you. Research shows that almost all teens experience this for periods of time, with girls experiencing it more than boys.
Third, let’s remember that our girls’ brains are still under construction and that development is not always linear. The prefrontal cortex is the last part of the brain to fully develop which means sometimes her thinking and behaviour may seem quite mature while other times it may seem impulsive, illogical and overly emotional.
At times, the part of her brain she needs to analyse a situation isn’t fully developed so her amygdala steps in to lend a hand. These two brain regions have very different functions. The PFC is more logical and the amygdala more emotional. So how does this play out in real life?
Let’s say she isn’t invited to a party and her friend is. If her PFC had more control it may have helped her think through it logically. But her amygdala – the side buddy – is here as a proxy and its style is to interpret the situation as a threat, making her more likely to feel upset, jealous and angry.
Are there any upsides to Social Comparison?
Social comparison can be helpful to shape a sense of identity; which we know is an important milestone on the road to becoming healthy adults. By comparing and contrasting their own beliefs, capacities, attitudes and preferences our preteens can learn deeply about themselves in the world.
We also know that belonging is huge for preteens and teens. They want to find their tribe and begin looking outside of the family for a space where they can belong. By drawing comparisons like – “What have I got in common with these people? What is different about me?” our girls can begin to find a social space where they feel comfortable and supported.
What are the downsides to Social Comparison
Naturally, social comparison can lead to our kids feeling like they need to do better or impress this real or imagined audience to receive praise, reassurance and acceptance. Once our girls have social media the scope of this audience becomes even wider, placing a significant stress on our girls. Comparing yourself to the girl in your class is a whole different ball game than spending hours comparing yourself to influencers, celebrities and “friends”. Doing this can send her brain into comparison overdrive.
When we engage in upward comparison (with a role model or an influencer) but are not motivated to improve our ability or feel like we are too inferior it increases the risk that our girls will feel depressed*.
When the person we are comparing with is likely to judge us (e.g. the sports captain who is prone to gossip) it can also negatively influence our thoughts, feelings and actions.
And of course, body comparison against a body ideal or norm can be toxic for anyone – principally because the standards are exceptionally unrealistic and unattainable.
Statistics for social media and depression rates in teens suggest that perhaps our girls don’t have the necessary skills to combat so much social comparison and need help – early and often.
So how can we help our girls?
Let’s remember that some comparison is normal in her development. But in some cases it can lead to increased risk for depression for girls who are particularly reactive to social evaluation, and/or experience high levels of peer rejection and low levels of peer acceptance.
Here are some ways we can protect her mental health when it comes to comparison:
Step 1: Help her notice
When I work with preteens teaching mindfulness I describe our minds like “a factory”, with a non-stop production line of thoughts being produced all the time – happy thoughts, sad thoughts, memories, judgment, imaginary thoughts.
The trick is not to stop the comparisons from happening (because let’s face it we can’t stop the thoughts our minds send our way) but we can response more skilfully to the thoughts when the arrive in our awareness.
A first point of call is simply noticing the comparisons come up like we would any other thought. As if we were watching a train passing on the track. So she can say to herself, “I am comparing myself right now” or “I am having the thought that I am not as good as her”.
Doing this is an important step even if it seems like a no-brainer. Why? Well, we know from research that when we try to stop or suppress thoughts and emotions we are likely to induce more anxiety and distress. In a meta-analysis on strategies that people use, Yale psychologists Ameli Aldao and Susan Nolen-Hoeksema found that suppression strategies for thoughts and emotions are associated with greater anxiety and depression, whereas other strategies (such as cognitive restructuring, problem-solving and acceptance) are associated with less anxiety.
So next time you see her compare herself in real life or online, inquire with something like, “I can see you really admire Sophie and think she is talented. When you compare yourself to her, how does that make you feel?” The idea here is to simply get HER to recognise the thought and any impact that thought is having on her feelings and body. No judgment!
Step 2: Do some Cognitive Restructuring
Sometimes – if our girls are open to it – it can be helpful to adjust the ‘story’ we are telling ourselves to be more realistic (and helpful).
A little while back I worked with an 11 year old who had dropped out of gymnastics when she was 9. She loved it and missed it but having not been in it for two years she couldn’t bring herself to try again. Her mental dialogue sounded like, “I’m way behind, I’ll never catch up again – the girls are way better than me now – I will never go back again”.
With some use of cognitive restructuring we challenged those thoughts – how realistic were they? If she went back to classes it is likely that yes, her friends would (for a time anyhow) know more than her. But would she “never catch up” if she trained hard? Unlikely. So she worked on rephrasing those thoughts to sound like, “If I worked hard I could achieve the next level in gymnastics.” Not surprisingly, with this mindset tweak a few months later she went back and started classes again.
Step 3: Do an online audit (with her)
Imagine getting a message in the mail box. Wrapped up in an envelope. You open it and read it. Now imagine getting a thousand of those letters every day. Your mailbox overflowing. Online our girls get thousand such messages every day. What kind of message do we want them to be reading?
You’re not enough.
You need to be skinnier, richer, better to be worthy.
You are enough as you are.
You are amazing.
What she is seeing online, who she is interacting with and how she interpreting it all, is fundamental in her mental health.
Our recommendation at Mothering Girls is delay, delay, delay with social media. However if she already uses youtube or social media like Instagram, we recommend doing a social media audit with her. Sit down with her and get her to share the people online who she loves. Scroll with her. Ask her, “what do you think about that?” “How does your feed make you feel?” Share with her different, diverse and empowering accounts. If she doesn’t yet use social media you can show her early on your own social media and get her thinking. Have conversations!
Research by Disrupt your Feed shows that on average girls’ feeds are usually very narrow – largely focussing on what girls look like. In their groundbreaking research they found that by offering a wider scope of accounts to girls to follow – including more accounts of things girls do and adding in body/colour diversity has a significantly positive impact on teen mental health. Part of their program includes a pledge that girls’ sign to disrupt their feeds.
Step 4: Enrich her community
Increasingly our girls are hearing the message that we “need to compete with each other to get ahead”. Whether it is competing for grades, attention, likes … this constant competition can erode her confidence and give her a sense of threat in the world. Never before has kindness, compassion and a sense of community been more needed.
Let’s step in and help her find a common goal with others. The things she has in common – a common humanity. The value of difference and diversity.
Ask her, “What do you have in common with her?” “What are things everyone has in common? i.e. we all want to be happy, have feelings, feel stressed sometimes”.
Let’s enrich the way she sees the world.
Step 5: Breathe!
Finally, it is so easy to fall into fear and despair mama but let’s breathe and know that wonderful changes are happening right now and that she will be okay – we will be okay – evolving together!
*If you feel as though your daughter is feeling depressed or anxious consistently – with heightened social comparison – it may be time to reach out and get her some extra professional help from a mental health practitioner. Hang in there mama.
Do you want more help preparing her for her first phone? We only get one chance to really set her up with skills and support before she gets it. Check out my Phone Savvy Workshop Series – a unique, online 3 week mum-daughter program designed to set up your family and your preteen to have a healthy experience with phones. Inquire here.