Girls’ Guide to Health & Happiness Resources to Support Physical, Mental & Sexual Health for Students

Meet the Expert

Jennifer Moss Co-Founder, The HERO Generation Read bio

Written by…

Shannon Lee Read bio

Something happens to girls on their journey to adulthood that deeply impacts their self-esteem. In fact, by high school, less than one third of girls feel confident and positive about themselves. This lack of self-esteem can have a direct impact on friendships, relationships and school performance. Fortunately, there is much parents and teachers can do to provide support. This guide includes resources and information on helping young women have the best emotional health possible to ensure success and happiness in school and beyond.

For Students: Feeling Good About Your Body, Your Friends & Your Life

Personal confidence has emotional, physical and social benefits. When a person has positive feelings about themselves, it often results in better academic work. On the flip-side, negative feelings can feed into negative results in school.

Numerous factors play into reduced self-esteem for girls, many of which begin early. “According to the American Positive Psychology Association (and research we’ve just initiated in the HERO Generation program) one of the most dramatic changes happens to students during the transition from elementary school to junior high,” says Jennifer Moss, author of Unlocking Happiness at Work and member of the UN Global Happiness Council.

“There are a variety of reasons, many of which are correlated to hormonal changes from puberty. Girls are becoming more self-conscious and self-critical. Their academic pursuits are sometimes deprioritized as mental bandwidth is now allocated to self-analysis. Also, students start to question their abilities and with less oversight. They require self-management for the first time.”

But that’s not all that plays into the issues of self-esteem and confidence. “They are also facing a more complicated social environment with more students, larger classes, less time with individual teachers. They are dealing with changes in the body that creates new differentiators and less homogeneity – this can make students feel like they are ‘standing out’ when they are unsure about whether they want to.”

Building Positive Self Esteem & Body Image

What is self-esteem?

Self-esteem refers to the way you view yourself. This view can include how you judge yourself, as well as your emotional state.

What is body image?

Body image is similar to self-esteem, except it focuses only on how you view your own body. This view is often completely unrelated to how others view you.

Signs of Healthy Self-Esteem

  • You have an overall feeling of hope about life.
  • You treat others with kindness and respect.
  • You’re thankful for what you have.
  • You exert a healthy level of independence.
  • You feel little need to compare yourself with others.
  • You’re comfortable with failure.
  • You’re not afraid to say no.
  • You’re willing to work hard.
  • You shy away from gossip.
  • You have confidence in your own abilities.
  • You take care of yourself, both physically and emotionally.
  • You have a desire to help others.
  • You know it’s okay to lose or not always finish in first place.
  • You seek out or are accepting of change.
  • You have a strong sense of personal responsibility.
  • You’re open-minded to other viewpoints and opinions.

Signs of Poor Self-Esteem

  • You’re quick to get jealous or envious.
  • You’re constantly negative about yourself and/or others.
  • Your feeling of self-worth is based on how you compare to other people.
  • You gloss over positive things in life and dwell on the negatives.
  • You feel compelled to achieve perfection.
  • You’re overly private or secretive.
  • You fish for compliments.
  • You constantly procrastinate or waste time with respect to the task at hand.
  • You have frequent feelings of self-doubt.
  • You’re quick to blame others for personal mistakes or problems.
  • You try to control others.
  • You’re overly positive, almost to the point of delusion.
  • You internalize general negativity in the world by using it as proof of low self-worth.

How to build yourself up

  • Make a conscious effort to ignore negative gossip.
  • Look for extracurricular activities where helping others is a priority, such as tutoring and community service.
  • Many people worry about their physical appearance, but they focus on things they can’t change. Instead, look for things that can be improved, and keep in mind the positive points of your natural appearance.
  • Try new activities. Nervous about trying something new? Use the buddy system and bring a friend to ease the transition.
  • Make a list of your good traits or qualities.
  • Take time to celebrate accomplishments, such as improving a class grade or setting a new personal best in gym class.
  • Look for ways to fix perceived problems. For instance, if math is a difficult subject, look for ways to get extra help in or outside class.
  • Make a point of countering every negative thought with a positive one. Make a game out of it!
  • Avoid comparisons to others, whether it’s about appearance, talents, accomplishments or anything else in life.
  • Remember that no one is perfect and those who appear to be are only doing a good job of hiding their flaws. This is especially true on social media profiles.
  • When trying to accomplish something, avoid frustration by planning realistic goals.
  • Accept that failure is okay and could actually be a good thing. For instance, getting a bad grade on a paper makes it easy to identify mistakes and avoid them in the future.
  • Never hang out with anyone who fosters or encourages negative thoughts.
  • Ignore what can’t be changed and focus on what can be. For example, don’t dwell on a bad grade – focus on doing better on future assignments.

Friendship FAQs

“When you analyze the value of friendships across all scientific happiness models, positive relationships consistently offer the most positive impact on our life satisfaction, performance, healthiness, longevity, etc,” says Moss. “Therefore, it makes sense (and myriad of scientific evidence substantiates) that positive and healthy friendships in school improves academic performance and the overall experience for both boys and girls.”

But sometimes, navigating the waters of friendship can be tough, especially in middle and high school. Here are common questions girls might have about friendships.

I’m having trouble making friends at school. How can I make connections with other students during the school day?

Friendships often grow organically, so begin by thinking about the things you enjoy doing and then look for others who share similar interests. Joining after-school clubs, organizations or organized activities can help you find those of like mind. You can also choose courses you’re interested in and perhaps meet someone in the classroom.

New friendships are exciting, but don’t forget the friendships you already have. “It may feel like middle school or junior high is a time to branch out (and it certainly is) but existing friendships shouldn’t be deprioritized as a sacrifice to making new friends,” says Moss.

“Maintaining those existing, healthy relationships are just as important – or perhaps even more important – while trying to navigate the stressful teen years.”

How do I handle cliques at school?

“This timeframe in your life is challenging,” says Moss. “I want people to know (young and old) that having just one, close, trustworthy, friend that offers psychological safety is far healthier than having a large group of superficial friendships.”

What should I do if I’m being bullied at school?

Don’t hesitate to tell someone you’re comfortable confiding in about the bullying. Being bullied is not a sign of weakness or that there is something wrong with you. Talk with a parent (yours or the parents of a friend, if that is easier), teacher or school administrator. They can help you navigate the situation. There may be also be special procedure in place to handle bullies. Read our full guide on Bullying Awareness and Prevention to learn more.

How do I know if those who claim to be my friends really are my friends?

It’s not always easy to know who your true friends are. However, the best of friends are those who will stand by you even when things get tough, want what is best for you, like you just the way you are and give you a strong feeling of trust.

How do I know it’s time to end a friendship?

There are a number of signs that your friendship may no longer be healthy. If your friend begins to do any of the following, it may be a sign that your friendships should end:

  • Acts mean to you.
  • Lies to you or breaks promises they make to you.
  • Blames you for their problems.
  • Puts you in dangerous situations.
  • Tries to control you.
  • Doesn’t respect you.

My best friend just moved far away. How can we remain best friends?

Distance can be tough on any relationship. Taking steps to stay in touch and spend as much time together as possible is a great way to keep the friendship alive. Social media and the internet are amazing ways to communicate with little effort. But don’t forget that phone calls, in-person meetings and handwritten letters never lose their charm or excitement.

Finally, it’s important to remember that humans are in a constant stage of change. What seems important today might not seem that way a year from now; what gets brushed aside today might have vast importance in ten years.

“Remember that your brain won’t be as future-facing right now as it will be when you get older,” Moss said. “With that, it’s easy to get stuck in states of stress and unhealthy self-reflection. However, if you can develop skills like gratitude fluency and increase cognitive hope, resiliency and grit earlier in life – you will consistently have higher quality relationships and more importantly, you will better react when those relationships feel like they are in flux. There are plenty of research papers, books and online resources that can teach you how to practice gratitude, grit, efficacy and hope.”

Starting Difficult Conversations

“Are you snapping more at your friends? Are you skipping school? Are you more tired than usual because your sleeping habits have changed?” asks Moss. “These are all signals to others that you’re dealing with something, so it may be easier than you think to bridge that conversation with someone you trust.”

But how do you get things started? “As a conversation starter, acknowledge that you’re trying to get to the bottom of an issue and have hit a roadblock,” Moss advises. “Don’t feel the need to have the entire problem understood before you can discuss it. Sometimes just asking a mentor to work it out with you is better because it involves you in the process of coming up with solutions.”

With that in mind, here are some questions that can start the discussion with parents, teachers or another trusted individual.

  • I really need to talk to you about something, but I’m afraid you’ll be angry with me if I bring it up. Can I ask you about something without judgment? I could use your help.
  • I want to ask you something but I’m nervous about it. Can we talk?
  • Have you ever smoked or tried drugs?
  • Do you have any current friends that you’ve had since you were a child?
  • Why do friendships end?
  • When is it okay (if ever) to lie to a friend?
  • Is it okay to experiment with drugs or alcohol, as long as you don’t become a regular user?
  • Where does the pressure to have a particular body image come from? Do the media create unrealistic body expectations or is the media just reflecting what people find attractive?

Resources for students

  • Center for Young Women’s Health

    Serves as an online resource for teen girls, parents and educators to help understand female health issues and concerns.

  • Girlshealth.gov

    Run by the Office on Women’s Health, this site provides information and advice on issues teen girls commonly face in their personal and academic life.

  • Go Ask Alice!

    Run by Columbia University health professionals to help teens and young adults get answers about their most pressing health issues and concerns.

  • Healthychildren.org – Healthy Living

    Offers comprehensive information about all aspects of keeping children, teens and young adults healthy, both physically and emotionally.

  • JED

    The Jed Foundation recognizes the emotional difficulty of teens growing into young adults and serves as a resource to make the transition as easy and healthy as possible.

  • Teen Health and Wellness

    Designed for middle and high school students, this website gives detailed information on major health issues as well as self-help support for all teens.

  • TeensHealth

    Features quizzes, tips, articles and expert pieces that address teen issues, such as sexual health, drugs and alcohol, emotional wellbeing and nutrition.

  • Teenmentalhealth.org

    Provides background information about mental health issues, dealing with stress and getting help.

Want to Know More?

For Parents: Supporting Your Child’s Well-Being

Though it might be tough to believe, teenagers really do respect their parents. When things get especially difficult, teens will often turn to their parents for help and support. Therefore, parents play an important role in maintaining and improving their child’s well-being and overall health.

Building up your child’s self-esteem & positive body image

Parents play an extremely important role in both establishing a child’s self-esteem at a young age and maintaining it through adolescence. Here are some important facts for parents of teenagers.

Why is self-esteem important?

Self-esteem directly influences how an individual views themselves. Without self-esteem, a child will be too afraid or otherwise unable to achieve their potential. And for practically all individuals, overall mental health is directly tied to self-esteem.

What lowers students’ self-esteem?

There are many things, people or events that can lower a student’s self-esteem, including:

  • Disapproving authority figures, such as parents and teachers.
  • Bullying.
  • Not enough attention from parents or other caregivers.
  • Facing academic challenges without proper support and assistance.
  • Trauma.
  • Feelings of unimportance.
  • Unhealthy body image.
  • Negative classmates or friends.
  • Unrealistic expectations or goals.

How does your child’s self-esteem impact their school performance?

Self-esteem plays an important role in academic performance. Without self-esteem, a student may feel there’s no point in putting forth the effort to get the best grades possible. But if self-esteem is too high, it could potential lead to worsening academic performance thanks to arrogance, overconfidence and narcissism.

How can you help improve your child’s self-esteem?

Here’s how you can help:
  • Genuinely listen to your child’s thoughts and concerns.
  • Establish situations that are not likely to result in failure.
  • Explain that it’s okay to make mistakes.
  • Provide encouragement.
  • Establish expectations that are realistic, but still push your child.
  • Remind your child that no matter what, they are always loved.
  • Stress the importance of having a healthy amount of self-esteem.
  • Provide enough room for your child to make independent choices.

How to Talk About Difficult Subjects

Looking for conversation starters? These can help open the door to discussion.

  • Make any new friends lately?
  • Did anything interesting happen today?
  • Have any funny stories involving your friends?
  • Any of your friends currently dating?
  • What’s the scoop on the latest school drama?
  • Is there anyone you’re interested in?
  • Tell me what you like about [insert person’s name].
  • If you have $1,000 to buy gifts for your friends, what would you buy and who would get what gift?
  • How do you feel about all the photoshopping that’s done for the models on magazine covers?
  • Do you think sex can be completely safe?

For Teachers: Making the Classroom a Positive Space

Teachers hold incredible influence over students. For some students, the classroom may be the only place where they feel accepted and safe. As a result, teachers have a responsibility to support their students as much as possible.

Self-esteem in the classroom

Confidence and self-esteem make it more likely an individual will persevere until success is obtained. This is a very important trait for achieving academic success. Below are some things teachers can do to boost their students’ self-esteem.

  • Create lesson plans where students will learn what self-esteem means and how it’s important to success in school and life in general.
  • Encourage students to help others. This can be as simple as helping a classmate with homework or helping a family member complete a chore.
  • Explain the importance in attitude in shaping self-esteem. For example, what others say and think does not actually affect self-esteem; it’s what the person thinks of themselves that matters.
  • Create support groups in class where students have an opportunity to spend a few minutes talking to another student about positive things.
  • Explain how negative self-talk can produce low self-esteem and create a self-fulfilling prophecy.
  • Ask students to make a list of people and places they can go to when they need help with something that might bring down their self-esteem.
  • Help students list their biggest goals, then break them down into actionable steps.
  • Teach students to think positively. One good way to do this is to help students identify one or two things they do particularly well. These talents reinforce that the student is special and unique, even if they don’t realize it.
  • Always be positive! Teachers must practice what they preach for maximum effectiveness.
  • Explain that failure is a part of life and one of the best ways to learn. Every big success story had a few failures along the way.

How teachers can talk about difficult subjects

“Teachers need to develop empathetic listening,” says Moss. “It isn’t an easy cognitive skill to cultivate and requires effort, intention and repetition in practice to turn empathy into a behavior. But, if you have empathetic listening as a skill (one of the traits of the highest performing leaders at the most influential companies in the world) it can be the key that unlocks profound growth – both in you personally and the students you’re helping.

“Empathetic leadership requires you to meet a student where they’re at emotionally. That means first, you need to understand why they are coming to you and most importantly, how they are feeling right now in the moment as they enter your room and face you.”

Here are some tips for teachers who want to start a meaningful conversation with their students:

  • Keep all discussions respectful. Establish ground rules, such as making it clear it’s okay to disagree.
  • Try to be as open as possible. But remember to keep some boundaries, such as staying within school policies.
  • If attempting to provoke questions for class discussion, establish a system where students can ask their questions anonymously. Perhaps every student wants to learn more about contraception, but no one wants to be the student who asks the question in front of everybody else.
  • Avoid using inflammatory, offensive or charged terms when discussing sensitive topics.
  • Students often believe they already understand everything there is to know about sex, relationships or puberty, but teachers can start with a hypothetical question to make them realize they don’t know as much as they think.
  • When discussing a topic such as body image, don’t focus on weight or BMI as being a representation of how healthy someone is.
  • Adopt an open-door policy where students understand they can come to you for help, and you will find the right resources for them.
  • For certain topics, students should have the option to not answer a question.
  • Never make assumptions. It’s impossible to truly know what is happening in a student’s life until they tell you – and even then, they might not tell you everything.

Resources for teachers

  • Adios, Barbie

    Aims to enlighten girls (and society as a whole) about body image issues.

  • Discovery Education

    Offers free lesson plans for teachers on a variety of topics, including puberty.

  • The Body Positive

    Helps individuals recognize their unique beauty and eliminate negative body image. Resources include professional training and public workshops.

  • Dove Self-Esteem Project

    Offers teaching materials and training videos for teachers to help improve their students’ self-esteem and body image.

  • KidsHealth in the Classroom

    Provides a vast array of teacher guides based on grade level to help teachers promote healthy living.

  • A Mighty Girl

    A collection of books, toys, music and other items that promote confidence in girls.

  • NAAFA

    This nonprofit organization has the sole mission of ending discrimination based on body size, with resources for a variety of groups, including teachers.

  • The Puberty Project

    Intended for tackling common questions boys and girls entering puberty are likely to have.

  • UbyKotex

    Offers a variety of teaching resources on puberty and menstruation issues for parents, educators and adolescent girls.

Sex & Teen Pregnancy

Teen pregnancy rates in the United States began a downward trend in 2007 and continue to fall. In just one year, from 2014 to 2015, there was an 8 percent drop in teen pregnancy among teens aged 15 to 19 in the United States. For teachers and school administrators, this shows that teen pregnancy prevention efforts are paying off, but there’s still more we can do.

  • 25 percent of girls will get pregnant before the age of 20.

  • 30 percent of girls who drop out of high school do so for pregnancy or parenthood.

  • Only 38 percent of girls who have a child by the age of 18 will obtain a high school diploma by 22.

Sources: CDC, National Education Association

  • Don’t be afraid to use and talk about birth control. If you aren’t ready to talk about what type of birth control to use or ask your partner to use a condom, then you’re not ready to have sex.
  • If you aren’t comfortable talking about it with your parents, your primary care physician is an excellent source of information and advice.
  • Don’t be in a rush to have sex. There’s nothing wrong with waiting until you feel emotionally and physically ready.
  • If you’re going to have sex, make sure you have access to sexual health providers, such as your primary care doctor or a local women’s health clinic, such as Planned Parenthood. This will be important in case you get pregnant, have an STD/STI or want to try other methods of birth control.
  • Resist the pressure to have sex. Don’t allow yourself to be pushed into something you don’t want to do that could drastically alter your life.
  • Make sure your partner also understands they play a part in safe sex and preventing pregnancy.
  • Be open to your child asking questions about sex, pregnancy and birth control. If you’re not open to talking about sex or avoiding teen pregnancy, there’s a good chance your child will not seek your advice if they choose to have sex (or hide their sexual activity from you).
  • Talk to you teen about the importance of having a healthy relationship. Many girls are pressured into having sex when they’re not ready because they’re in a controlling or possibly abusive relationship.
  • Stay aware of your teen’s activities. Be aware of situations where sexual activity is likely. If necessary, a conversation about having safe sex or avoiding an unplanned pregnancy may be in order.
  • Get educated about birth control and safe sex practices. If you child does ask you for advice, make sure it’s accurate.
  • Establish an environment where students can feel free to ask questions about sex and seek advice about birth control without judgment.
  • Have information on hand to provide to students about safe sex and birth control.
  • Offer sex education that does not focus solely on abstinence. While abstinence is the safest way to avoid an STD/STI or an unplanned pregnancy, it’s not realistic to expect all teens to abstain from sex. Schools should teach about other forms of birth control, including how to use it and where to obtain it.
  • Provide after-school activities. These can help teens avoid situations where they don’t have the security of parents or school officials around.

Resources for Teachers & Schools