Take Five with Dr. Laura Choate, Professor of Counselor Education in the School of Human Sciences and Education

Editor’s Note: Take Five is a Q&A column featuring a faculty or staff member and their thoughts, ideas and contributions on all things related to LSU. In this month’s Take Five we sit down with Dr. Laura Choate, the Jo Ellen Levy Yates Professor in Counselor Education. Choate has 15 years of experience as a counselor educator at Louisiana State University and 16 years as a Licensed Professional Counselor. 

She is the author of four books: Girls and Women’s Wellness: Contemporary Counseling Issues and Interventions; Eating Disorders and Obesity: A Counselor’s Guide to Prevention and Treatment; Adolescent Girls in Distress: A Guide to Mental Health Treatment and Prevention; and Swimming Upstream: Parenting Girls for Resilience in a Toxic Culture in addition to numerous publications in journals and books.

Tell us a little bit about your background and how you came to LSU?

I had recently graduated from William and Mary College in Virginia with my Ed.D. in Counselor Education and was on the job market.  I worked as a college counselor for about a year and then interviewed at LSU and later accepted an offer in 1999.  Soon after I moved to Baton Rouge, I met my husband (who just happens to be a graduate of the Flores MBA program) and we married two years later.  The rest is history.

What inspired you to pursue your current area of research?

I started out in the area of college counseling, working with young college women in particular.   I began to notice a disproportionally large percentage of women struggling with eating disorders, relationship violence, negative body image and depression.  However, it was not until after I had my own daughter that I realized how toxic our culture has become for girls and that these chronic problems were appearing at younger and younger ages.   It was around the same time that I began to shift my research focus to adolescents and pre-teens.  Today, my research focuses on what girls need in order to stay resilient beginning in the early elementary years.

What do you think is the root cause of this “toxic” environment?

Young women face all kinds of social pressures today, but there are three in particular which have profound impact. I call them the three A’s.  The first is appearance.   Young women often define their worth by how they look and if others perceive them to be attractive.  Beauty is big business and marketers have no preference for age, which makes parenting in this environment even more complicated.  

The second A is attention. Young women want to get as much attention as possible online and in real life.  Take for example social media.  Girls will literally measure their self worth based on social media likes and followers.  The last A is accomplishments. Girls are pressured today to excel in grades and sports, and look perfect, all at the same time. 

But, getting back to your original question. Two decades ago, girls were dealing with these pressures in high school. Today, toddlers and preschoolers are being pressured to look and act older (for example the Bratz dolls and Monster High dolls). When Barbie was first introduced in the 1950’s it target market was 12 year olds.  Today, the company markets this same doll to three year olds.  Also, girls are reaching puberty at an earlier age.  Because of changes to their bodies, they look older than they actually are.  This makes for added pressure simply on how they look physically, when they are not cognitively prepared to handle these pressures. 

Could you share with us three tips for successfully parenting girls?

1) It imperative that parents promote positive body image in their daughters. Research shows that this actually starts with the mom’s own body image because girls look to their moms for guidance.   My advice to all moms out there is to spend extra time developing your own positive body image for your daughter to emulate.

2) Love and validate your daughter for who she is. Girls needs unconditional acceptance from her parents that is not based on their performance, popularity, or appearance.  If your daughter has validation from her parents, she will not so desperately seek it from outside influences.

3) Intentionally take breaks from social media and technology to share in face-to-face communication.   Research indicates that today’s adolescents who spend a majority of their time online tend to express lower levels of empathy and poorer social skills.  Take the time to spend unplugged time as a family. I know we’ve all heard it, but children of families that dine together, often have better outcomes in adulthood.

What are some of the warning signs that something may be going astray with your pre teen daughter?

It’s normal, as your daughter reaches her preteen years that she begins to push for autonomy. If you find that she is pushing you away that’s actually normal and something to not to take personally. But it’s not normal for her to push away others to the point of isolation.  I would recommend that you check in periodically to make sure that is maintaining healthy friendships and connections with her peers and others.

Always monitor her online activities. If you see that she is mostly engaging with older kids or posting pictures that you don’t approve of or understand, these may be early warning signs that something is off. This type of behavior online can  promulgates into other high-risk activities.  This is especially true for girls who go through puberty early. They are at an especially high risk for eating disorders, depression, substance abuse, early sexual activity. 

Another thing to be watchful for is your daughter making negative comments about her body weight, comparing herself to other people or asking to go on a diet. These comments can start at any age, with most girls beginning to question their appearance around the time of puberty.   While its not uncommon for young girls to ask about weight gain as they develop, it’s important that they don’t begin restricting food, dieting, or binge eating.  These habits can quickly turn into an eating disorder. 

If you’d like to learn more about parenting adolescent girls, please check out Dr. Choate’s book, Swimming Upstream on Amazon.com. She also writes a blog for Psychology Today that examines the health of girls and women, from dating to eating disorders called Girls, Women and Wellness.