Even as campaigns to promote strong young women get national headlines, and toys designed to get girls interested in science and math receive popular acclaim, an alarming trend happens to many girls when they hit adolescence.
It’s a phenomenon called "losing their voice," where even the most audacious girls are likely to become more cautious about speaking out and less likely to assert themselves.
Deborah Cihonski, a Chicago-based psychologist, said she was shocked at how much effort it took the girls in her study to decide when to speak up when they felt they had something important to say. They weighed everything from potential embarrassment to backlash before deciding to open their mouths. Often, they chose not to. What’s even more troubling is some of these young women continue to struggle with speaking up and asserting themselves later in life.
"Rather than speaking being their default, not speaking becomes the default and to speak up when it’s important is something that’s effortful for them," Cihonski says.
Girls lose their voice for a variety of reasons—it's mostly because of their self-esteem and is culture-based, says Martha Mendez-Baldwin, a psychologist who specializes in child and adolescent behavior, and an assistant professor of psychology at Manhattan College. Navigating the world between being children and women leave them unsure of how to act. When that uncertainty is met, combined with the pressure to fit in with peers and high expectations of parents, girls are often reluctant to assert themselves, she says.
In addition, girls receive tremendous pressure from society and media to adhere to a feminine role, says Linda Hoke-Sinex, a senior lecturer in the department of psychology and brain sciences at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. The message is to be passive and nice—that it’s preferable to keep the peace than to speak up with an opinion that might be unpopular.
Hoke-Sinex cites work by researchers Carol Gilligan and Lyn Mikel Brown who followed girls from roughly age 9 through age 16. At a certain point, the girls in the study stopped expressing their opinions, shutting down communication.
"When they’re maybe in grade school they’re just outspoken and they might even be a tomboy, we have that term for girls, but as soon as they hit puberty or as soon as they get a little bit older and they’re trying to fit into that feminine role they really do lose their voices," Hoke-Sinex says.
Helping girls keep their voices—or, at least, reclaim them sooner—is a daunting task. Cihonski says societal and peer pressures can be overwhelming, making it difficult for parents, teachers, mentors and other role models to prevent this onset of timidity.
Adults in young women’s lives can do the following to make them more confident:
When girls have natural strengths or talents—whether it’s dance, mathematics, soccer, chess, or other areas—encourage those pursuits, Hoke-Sinex says. When she has an area in which she feels confident, it can act as a touchstone to build confidence in other areas of her life, she says.
Talking about unrealistic media images and the pressure on women to look and act in certain ways may seem obvious, but it’s a powerful reminder that the messaging is untrue, Cihonski says.
Mendez-Baldwin says that social media adds a new layer to this challenge. Girls may be subject to brutal criticism or bullying on social media because of how they look or act. Unless parents or guardians are monitoring interactions on social media and other digital formats, they might miss communication that is contributing to loss of voice.
When the people around girls and young women talk about themselves, their looks, their weight, or other issues negatively, girls can internalize those messages, Mendez-Baldwin says.
"Sometimes, women inadvertently send messages to their daughters by focusing on their weight and their appearance. [They say] ‘Oh I need to lose weight’ or ‘I don’t look good’ or ‘I need to get Botox to remove these wrinkles,’ and then that sends a message to the girls that they need to focus on their appearance and that their self-worth is connected to their appearance," Mendez-Baldwin says.
Hoke-Sinex says it’s important for young women to have people around them who allow them to speak out so they may feel comfortable doing so. Adolescent girls have opinions and insights—ask about them and avoid reacting negatively, even when those opinions and insights might not reflect your own, she says.
When the subjects of Cihonski’s research read some of her findings, or became more familiar with the phenomenon because of her work, they began to recognize the loss of voice in themselves. Sometimes, talking about it and helping young women see that this happens at their age—but it doesn’t have to—can be a strong antidote, she says.