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Year 12: Welcome to the Hunger Games

This post was originally published by The Daily Telegraph 16/7/16 and online at RendezView.

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Since when have the final years of school transformed into a blood sport, apropos The Hunger Games?

School days used to be traditionally lauded as the best days of our lives — but those in Year 12 preparing for their final examinations feel more like they’re in a relentless competition that only the strongest can survive.

I’ve worked in education all my career and my daughter is doing her HSC this year. When I talk to teens about how they feel about their final years of schooling, I can’t help but think something, somewhere, has gone terribly wrong.This is what some of them told me:

“I am taking antidepressants, going to counselling and drinking alcohol heavily… I’ve also recently been diagnosed with chronic fatigue.”

“The whole system has made me lose my love of learning… I used to be a chilled person but now I have anxiety and am on prescription medication for a tremor I have developed as a result.”

“I recently dropped out due to extreme stress. It got to the point where I was even trying meth to take my mind off the HSC.”

“At my school (a private boys school) because we have been exposed to alcohol for some years already, my friends have decided to medicate with drugs; weed, cocaine, caps (a form of MDMA) and during examination period, Ritalin, and other ‘smart drugs’. My friends aren’t exactly the smartest, nor do they have the same pressures as me (my brother was a high achiever and I’m a school leader). They… use it because they feel if they do, they can compete with the rest of the year, and ultimately try to increase their ranks, in an attempt to get the best possible ATAR.”

And it’s not just the stories of drinking and drugs that are deeply concerning.

There are teens who tell me they often think about dropping out — not only of school, but of life. Others who tell me they ask to be excused in class so they can lock themselves in the school toilets and cry. There are those who were made to give up sports and hobbies they loved (one girl was made to sell her beloved horse) so they’d have more time to spend on studying.

“It feels like all I am now is a brain my school and parents want to cram facts in to so I can spit them back again later. But I used to have a heart too.”

These insights might shock those who don’t know any Year 12 students. But they won’t shock educators or those who work in mental health. A 2015 UNSW study found that 42 per cent of the Year 12 students surveyed from a representative sample of Sydney schools had anxiety levels high enough to be of clinical concern.

Many of my teaching colleagues lament both the tears and panic attacks they witness, and the fact that due to the amount of content they must get through to ensure students are ready for exams, there isn’t more time allocated to stress management.

Dr Prue Salter, who works in schools teaching study skills and techniques to help students cope with the academic demands placed on them, despairs of the current system.

“All the research shows there is immense pressure placed on students in the final years and for what? It is an outdated system, measuring outdated skills such as their ability to memorise,” Salter says. “We need to reassess what we teach, and how we assess that. It’s criminal what we do to these kids.”

For now, I’ll hug my daughter often. Try to be patient when she procrastinates for days watching Gilmore Girls. And I’ll help her realise she can never be defined by a mark.

Sleazy pick up lines now available in a size 000


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“Hide your daughters.”

“I’m only here for the ladies.”

“Stud Muffin.”

You might expect to see these kind of slogans brandished across a T-shirt worn by Benny Hill or Hugh Hefner; by a bloke who hasn’t yet got the memo that being viewed as a player is no longer fashionable.

But thanks to Best & Less, these very slogans are being offered up for babies in its latest catalogue. Heteronormative stereotyping and sexism sold from a tiny size 000.

It would be tempting to dismiss these baby rompers as nothing more than a bit of harmless fun. But why must we impose limiting gender stereotypes on little boys and encourage others to view them as having one-track minds, or more bizarrely still, as the type we need to protect our daughters from?

Messages like these sow the seeds for stereotypes that harm both men and women.

And while much has rightly been made on how viewing girls and women as mere prey harms them, there has not been as much discussion on how these type of attitudes harm boys too.

Dr Andrew Smiler, author of Challenging Casanova: Beyond the Stereotype of the Promiscuous Young Male, argues that stereotypes that view boys and young men as being barely able to control their sex drive risk becoming a destructive self-fulfilling prophecy. These beliefs may lead to destructive hyper-sexuality, unwanted pregnancy, and less fulfilling relationships.

He argues too that despite the cultural assumption that boys only ever want one thing, the reality is that many young men yearn for far more than a mere conquest when they are dating. They want companionship, connection and emotional support.

In the course of my work with young men in schools through the Goodfellas program, I have found that when we first introduce the topic of male sexuality there is initially much chuckling and bravado in the room. But once my male presenters start to unpack the stereotypes, they see shoulders drop in relief and there is always a respectful, genuine interest in having a different conversation.

The boys we talk to report feeling cultural pressure to date and to be promiscuous. Those who don’t conform to the message that all boys just want one thing start to question whether in fact they are normal.

This from 15-year-old James: “I have lots of girls as friends but that doesn’t mean I only like them as I want to do something to them. To be honest, they (girls) are sometimes easier to talk to than my mates. It’s insulting to me, and to them, to imply otherwise.”

Indeed it is. And it’s vital we give all our young people the skills they need to critically assess culture in this way.

As an educator and mother to a daughter, I have given her the skills she needs to question and talk back to marketing messages and media portrayals of women that would limit her.

And I’ve given the same gift to my son too.

Because messages that would reduce baby boys to their penises? They’re for dummies.

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This post was originally published in the Daily Telegraph and posted online at RendezView 2/6/16

The secret to raising successful kids? Mistakes

Want to help your children succeed? Then focus on their mistakes.

As adults, the single biggest mistake we make is our carefully staged, micromanaged, Instagram-filtered focus on perfection. We’ve created a generation of kids and parents who are paralysed by the fear of failure.

I’ve heard educators tell teens that one cyber-misstep will mean their life is ruined. Watched young people so crushed by a school grade that was lower than they had hoped for that they opt out of school entirely and simply stop trying. Cringed as I have heard parents advise their daughters (and it is so often the girls that hear this message) that should they make a choice in a relationship that later proves unwise? That their reputations will be forever sullied.

What nonsense. And what a waste of potential learning opportunities.

The truth is we are not defined only by our successes, but rather by how we manage our falls.

Catastrophising, or using the dark-edged shame as a device to elicit change, not only doesn’t work, but may have devastating consequences for someone who thinks there is no way forward and feels hopeless rather than hopeful.

It is much more valuable to help our children view their disappointments in the same way that an ever-resourceful friend of mine does hers: as a #disastertunity.

How might you handle people asking you about why you did this? What could you do that would help you improve from here? Who do you need to connect with to support you to move on? What might you learn about yourself, and others, from this moment?

As adults we should be brave too about sharing our own failings for these give our children the sense that they also can move on after a stumble. Kids don’t need or want perfection from their parents, what they yearn for is authenticity.

In fact, the reality is that despite the cautionary tales we often feed our children, we are all instinctively far more drawn to those who have lost and learned. Even the Ancient Greeks knew that heroes who displayed bravery, resilience, resourcefulness and determination were far more likely to win hearts and minds than those who only ever sailed cautiously through life.

And if we really want to set our kids up for future career success, rather than just drilling them for NAPLAN, we should be teaching them to adopt Richard Branson’s philosophy and embrace failure “with open arms.”

Branson, who has had at least 14 of his own businesses fail, believes that as failure and rejection are an inevitable part of business, what will really set someone up for longevity is their ability to deal with these events.

We could all do with reframing our thinking on failure. And we could all do with celebrating more stories of those who not only tripped, but got up, dusted themselves off, and chose to simply put one foot in front of the other and move forwards again.

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This post was first published by the Daily Telegraph newspaper, 14/5/16 and online at RendezView

So what are you reading?

The talented author Rebecca Sparrow ( featured previously here and here) posted a video over the weekend profiling her favourite authors for teens. I was beyond thrilled to have scored a mention! Check out Bec’s recommendations here:

Time for solutions not more talk

Regular readers will know I have spent the past six months as a volunteer Board Director for a new women’s shelter that is opening in Sydney’s northwest, The Sanctuary. Like most Australians, I’ve become increasingly alarmed by the headlines about women dying at the hands of their partners. In my work with teen girls, I hear more and more stories about young girls who are already trapped in relationships that are dangerous. My team of presenters at Goodfellas report the young men they work with also express concern about the men in their lives who make home a frightening place. 

Part of the solution lies in educating youth and broadening awareness through my writing and work in the media. My more hands-on work at The Sanctuary is another more practical part of the way forward.

I’m  happy to do everything from running our social media, to writing media releases, to helping with fundraising. But I am particuarly proud of two of the initiatives I’ve instigated for this refuge. One is The Sanctuary’s partnership with local boys’ college Oakhill. The other is connecting our work to the broader community through the establishment of an Ambassador program. Here our Ambassador Sarrah Le Marquand explains why this connection matters to her.  This guest post was first published in The Daily Telegraph 5/4 and posted online at RendezView.  

Ambassadors Maggie Dent (far left) and Sarrah Le Marquand ( far right) with Sanctuary Chair Yvonne Keane and myself.
Ambassadors Maggie Dent (far left) and Sarrah Le Marquand ( far right) with Sanctuary Chair Yvonne Keane and myself. Photo by Hills Shire Times.

It might sound a bit rich coming from someone who writes and speaks for a living, but talk alone is cheap. Heightened awareness of certain issues is vital, but unless that awareness eventually translates into action then words are just words.

Which is why, at a time when certain aspects of the national discussion regarding domestic violence threaten to descend into a he said/she said slanging match, it is on-the-ground measures and community solutions that are making a real impact.

Late last week I had the privilege of touring The Sanctuary, a new shelter for women and children fleeing domestic violence that will open in Sydney’s northwest suburb of Castle Hill this week.

A state of the art facility equipped to provide three months of crisis accommodation for six women and their young families, The Sanctuary is a collaboration between the local community and Women’s Community Shelters that has become a reality despite no government funding.

To see first-hand the generosity of volunteers, including welcome packs for each family put together by male students from a nearby high school, is to see first-hand the triumph of action over talk.

There’s no navel-gazing lectures and petty point scoring on domestic violence here. Just good men and women making a real difference in the lives of victims.

Sarrah Le Marquand also spoke about her visit on Radio 2UE. You may listen here: 

Not being friends with everyone isn’t bullying. It’s life

It’s the deceptively unhelpful piece of advice that every well-intentioned adult has at one point issued to a child: “You should be friends with everybody!”

Admit it — who among us, parent or not, has not acted as unofficial cheerleader when discussing playground friendships with a young child? Fearful that they might fall into the trap of becoming a bully, we urge them to make friends with everyone. As in, EVERYONE, whether they like them or not.

Amid all the positive messages that were shared yesterday as part of the National Day of Action against Bullying and Violence, the edict “You should be friends with everybody!” was the one sentence I dreaded hearing.

Although well intentioned, it ignores the complex dynamics of human relationships.

The truth is, we are not going to like everybody, all the time. And it’s not only OK to acknowledge that — it’s healthy.

It seems we’ve become so hyper-vigilant against bullies that every playground disagreement, or failure to be invited to a party, is now catalogued as evidence of bullying.

To help stem the rising tide of kids who are too quick to cry “Bully!” some schools have taken to posting sign that try to help explain the nuances of our more complicated social interactions: “When someone says or does something unintentionally hurtful and they do it once, that’s rude. When someone says or does something intentionally hurtful and they do it once, that’s mean. When someone says or does something intentionally hurtful and they keep doing it,- even when you tell then to stop or show them that you’re upset, that’s bullying.”

And it’s not just the kids who need educating. Parents are becoming increasingly quick to call schools to express concern that their child has been bullied when in reality, their child has experienced one of the many garden variety friendship fall outs that we all face at some point.

“There are kids who find school hell as they are subjected to ongoing campaigns of intolerance,” a colleague told me. “I’d much rather see resources poured into resolving this rot than in dealing with the tide of parents who call before their child has even had an opportunity to flex their own conflict resolution muscles.”

It’s problematic too that the friendship police often target girls. Any reluctance to have another student sit with them is viewed as evidence of mean girl machinations. Any whispered discussion about their classmates sees them labelled as gossip girls.

Given young women are expected to be paragons of acceptance and inclusivity is it any wonder that some grow up to unable to recognise unhealthy relationships and struggle to set boundaries with those who would hurt them?

The reality is that there are intricate sets of rules that govern the relationships between all young people (boys and girls) and much of the behaviour we are so quick to demonise is how they solidify friendships and practice social manoeuvring.

After all, don’t we as adults have particular mates that we prefer to spend our free time with? Don’t we also find it cathartic to vent to our inner circle when someone annoys us?

It’s far more empowering and realistic to let our kids know they don’t have to be friends with everyone — but they should be friendly.

It’s OK to not invite someone to your party, but don’t boast about the event in front of them. It’s understandable that you may not want to sit with a student you don’t have much in common with, but you could still smile at them when you see them in the playground. It’s natural that you might want to discuss someone who has hurt you with your mates, but be discreet.

When we give permission to our young people to behave authentically, within a framework of mutual respect for others, we are showing them that we don’t just value the feelings of others, but we value their feelings too.

And when they don’t feel forced into faux friendships, well it’s then our young people might just surprise us (and themselves) by realising that kid they initially didn’t like is actually kinda cool.

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This post was first published by the Daily Telegraph newspaper, 19/3/16 and online at RendezView  

Domestic violence in teenagers — why aren’t we talking about it?

In the United States, the entire month of February is devoted to Teen Domestic Violence Awareness. Here? The dating violence young people experience remains a silent epidemic. But the uncomfortable truth is that teens are one of our most vulnerable groups and very few of those experiencing abuse feel equipped to seek help.

The statistics are the stuff of nightmares for many parents who may well be clueless to the fact their child is even dating, nevertheless in a toxic partnership. While 72 per cent of teens having embarked on a boyfriend and girlfriend relationship by age 14, or younger, 20 per cent of those in a tween relationship (11-14 year olds) admit that it is conducted with secrecy so that their parents don’t know.

Even more worryingly, surveys show that 33 per cent of teenagers report knowing a friend or peer who has been hit, punched, kicked, slapped, choked or physically hurt by their partner.

Alarmingly, Australian research also indicates that young women aged 14-19 may be up to four times more likely to experience physical or sexual violence than older women.

For teens experiencing dating abuse, reporting this to a trusted adult is often particularly problematic. Many remain silent as they fear they will get in trouble from their parents for dating in the first place.

Others keep quiet knowing they will have to face the perpetrator everyday at school, or for fear they will be asked to change schools to avoid their ex.

Some fear being alienated by their peer group if they speak up while others don’t yet have the language to even identify the behaviour as domestic violence and simply don’t know how to describe what is happening to them.

Roxanne McMurray, manager at Leichardt Women’s Community Health Centre, works with young women from the age of 13 and says she hears from many girls that age who are in extremely abusive relationships.

“They often don’t realise what is happening to them isn’t OK or that it is domestic violence,” McMurray says. “They will start to talk about a boyfriend who monitors all their social media interactions, tells them who they can and can’t talk to, what they can and can’t wear … On the surface this looks to a young girl who has bought into the knight-in-shinning amour romance rhetoric that their partner is just being protective. Even when he hits them, they make excuses: ‘It’s because he loves me so much and gets so jealous.’”

With all the work that’s been done on raising awareness about domestic violence in the last 12 months, why are our young people not hearing these messages and spearheading change?

While adults need to debunk their misplaced, and dangerous, belief that young people aren’t already dealing with these adult and complex issues, McMurray argues we need a more targeted approach to raise awareness in teens.

“There’s a misplaced belief that teens are soaking the education campaigns aimed at adults in too,” she says. “They’re not.”

This post was first published by the Daily Telegraph and shared online by RendezView, 6/2/16

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Why students are packing Prozac in their lunch boxes

This post was first published by RendezView, 31/1/16

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Laptop? Check. Lunch box? Check. Prozac? Check.

For more and more young people, the preparation for back to school this year will include making sure they have their anti-depressants close at hand.

Australia has one of the highest rates of use of these medications in the world and a recent University of Sydney study found that there has been a particularly marked increase in the use of these drugs in children and adolescents.

In fact, over the four-year period from 2009-2012, researchers found that the largest increase in use was amongst children aged between 10-14 years.

Dr Emily Karanges, now a research fellow in the Medicines Policy Unit at the University of NSW and lead author of the paper based on the study’s findings, suspects the rates of usage would be even higher amongst those who are school-aged today: “There is no reason to think this trend would have reversed. Given the steep upward trajectory in the rate of antidepressant use at the time of our research, especially among young people, I’d expect the figures now would be significantly higher again.”

Yet the therapeutic guidelines from the US, UK and Australia recommend that psychological therapies rather than medication be used to manage depression and anxiety of a mild or moderate severity, and that anti-depressants should only be used for severe disorders or when all other treatments have first proved ineffective. This is because these drugs are often less effective in depressed children and adolescents than in adults, and come with increased risk of self-harm and suicidal thinking.

Karanges also advocates for caution as: “The brain is still developing up to the age of 25 and antidepressants are a pretty blunt instrument. We know very little about how they might be changing the development of the brain and whether they might have long-term effects into adulthood.”

So what is driving this eagerness to medicate kids who need support?

Although counsellors and psychologists can’t prescribe medication, many are quick to suggest young people visit a GP to access these (it is not uncommon for this to be suggested as a solution even during an introductory counselling session). Concerned parents may then go to their GP specifically requesting drugs.

And many time-poor GPs report feeling ill equipped to treat mental health issues; according to the Black Dog Institute, in Australia GPs don’t have to have any specific training in mental health to practice.

Karanges points out that these types of medications are also heavily marketed to the medical community: “It is perhaps no coincidence that the anti-depressants that were most rapidly increasing in use were also the newest ones and the ones most likely to be advertised to doctors.”

GP’s may also have the misguided view these types of medications are relatively safe. A Danish study published in The British Medical Journey this week found that the harms reported in antidepressant trials were often seriously misrepresented and underreported, this included suicide attempts and suicidal idealation being coded in reports by pharmaceutical companies as “emotional lability” or “worsening depression”.

Reports issued by drug companies were, the authors said, “even more unreliable than we previously suspected”. The study concluded by recommending “minimal use of antidepressants in children, adolescents, and young adults, as the serious harms seem to be greater, and as their effect seems to be below what is clinically relevant”.

Instead, treatments such as psychotherapy and exercise were suggested.

It may also be that culturally, we are not always comfortable with the full spectrum of human emotions and are too eager to seek a quick fix.

Psychologist Jacqui Manning says she would be reluctant to suggest medication, particularly with a young person, until a range of other strategies had been tried first.

“I may see teens during highly stressful life events like the HSC exams or a breakdown or death in the family,” she said.

“Sometimes parents will say, ‘my child isn’t coping — do you think they need meds?’ I’ll respond that there are many things we can try first and that their son or daughter’s feelings are a normal human response to an extremely stressful situation.”

Whilst it is important not to stigmatise or alienate those young people who do genuinely need medication, Iain McGregor, Professor of Psychopharmacology at the University of Sydney, has called for time out on making medication our default response when supporting children and teens in crisis.

“We need to have a national debate about what is driving this phenomenon,” he said.

“Why are we so reliant on pills for the mental wellbeing of our young people?”

And what is happening that is making our kids feel so desperately sad in the first place?

Want narcissistic children? Shower them with praise

This post was first published in the Daily Telegraph and shared online at RendezView 4/1/16.

Thanks to the “every child gets a medal” approach to raising children, many researchers argue we are now dealing with a generation of entitled, fragile “teacup” kids.

It seems the self-esteem movement of the late 1960s, which encouraged parents to boost their child’s self-confidence regardless of any real merit, has had some undesirable and unexpected outcomes.

Professor Helen McGrath cautions that “a lot of the people who gloated about how to develop self-esteem are now writing about how this is actually a dangerous thing to do because what we are really doing is producing kids who are narcissistic… we focus too much on telling them how good they are, how wonderful they are, how everything they do is fantastic”.American Ethan Couch may well serve as the poster boy to warn of the dangers in overindulging our offspring. At 16 years old, he killed four pedestrians while drink driving then claimed in court that he suffered from “affluenza” — that he no longer knew right from wrong as his parents had never held him accountable.

When the judge seemed to accept this defence and sentenced him to 10 years probation rather than prison, his mother then helped him flee (after first holding a going away party for him).

Both mother and son were arrested by authorities in Mexico last week.

It’s clear that Mr Couch and his mother need to be given some long overdue time out — in a jail cell.

But what’s less clear is where the line between supporting your child, and enabling your child, is drawn.

I’ve noticed that on social media, parents are now so loathe to appear to be boosting their child’s sense of self-worth that they begin posts with disclaimers such as “Warning: Proud Parent Brag”.

It strikes me as sad that we now feel worried about sharing our children’s triumphs for fear of being labelled as either pushy or posturing.

Because the real problem isn’t so much high self-esteem in kids, it is false self-esteem.

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Real self-esteem is about appreciating the skills and abilities you do have, learning how to upskill, and also respecting the gifts others have (in order to value yourself, you must first value the person next to you). It is about competence and connectedness.

And praise is the food that helps children thrive — if it is evidence based and spooned out judiciously.

This year I’d love to see more parents proudly sharing not just their frustrations — after all, there’s a longstanding tradition that allows for eye rolling at our kids — but their triumphs too.

Your child blitzed their exams? Three cheers! They coped well with a loss at soccer and helped rally their teammates? Do tell. They’ve just started their own car washing business to earn extra pocket money? I’m sharing the news.

When achievements are truly noteworthy, I’m all ears.

And when praise is genuine, children are all ears too. Kids have a finely-tuned radar for falsities and can see that the ribbon they scored just for participating is really fairly worthless.

Hollywood finally realises women have stories to tell too

The following post was first published in the Daily Telegraph newspaper, and online at RendezView, 26/12/15.

Is it any wonder that after overeating, overspending and feeling over the in-laws, so many of us escape between Christmas and New Year to the movies?

The December holiday period is in fact one of the most lucrative for cinemas, as evidenced by the unstoppable box-office performance of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which set a new record for worldwide ticket sales on its release.

But as much as I love tales of underdogs defeating dark forces, this Boxing Day I’ll be lining up to see a different set of fighters bravely putting their lives on the line and challenging existing power structures.

Bring on the suffragettes.

Opening in Australia today is this historical period drama Suffragette, which tells the story of the “Mothers, Daughters, Rebels” who risked everything in their battle for the vote.

It won’t necessarily be comfortable viewing. I suspect many cinemagoers may be shocked at both the plight of women in 1912 (when the film opens) and the brutality of the British government’s response to their campaign.

But how vital it is that we learn more about women’s stories; particularly considering much of what we learn at school in history is often so very male-centric.

Back when I was a high school history teacher I was frustrated at just how difficult it was to access quality resource material on the role women played in various historical periods. During wartime for example, most textbooks reduce the role of women to either waving off their sons to war, or to nursing; to narratives of motherhood and sacrifice.

In reality, female contributions were far more diverse, from women taking on traditional “men’s work” outside the home, to serving as special agents in World War 2 (Australian educated Nancy Wake became the Gestapo’s most wanted person for the work she did with the French Resistance and remains this country’s most decorated servicewoman). Why have there not been more films telling their tales?

In a recent New York Times Magazine article on sexism in cinema a top entertainment executive, who insisted on anonymity, offered an insight into why so few women’s stories, historical or otherwise, reach an audience, “ It’s a hundred-year-old business, founded by a bunch of old Jewish European men who did not hire anybody of color (sic), no women agents or executives. We’re still slow at anything but white guys’’.

Slow indeed. According to Screen Australia, here women account for only 32 per cent of the producers, 16 per cent of the directors and 23 per cent of the writers.

Suffragette is, therefore, a rare cinematic gem as it not only sheds light on a crucial period in the history of the fight for gender equality, but has two women at the helm with both a female director and screenwriter.

So today I will grab my popcorn and head to the movies, not only to honour the memory of my suffragette sisters, but also to support the work of women in film.

Yes, we have come a long way. But it’s clear the fight continues.

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