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Month: October 2009

Raising Teenage Girls

The article below originally appeared in Notebook Magazine, November 2009. It has has been reproduced here with their permission. Visit Notebook magazine – www.notebookmagazine.com

A PDF version of this feature article is also available to download / share here: dani

In the minds of many parents, a daughter’s teenage years loom like a trial by fire. Cracking the code to adolescent girlhood might seem unachievable, but as Donna Reeves discovers, it all starts with facing up to who you are.

No-one has ever said raising children is easy. While there is a general understanding the early years are tough – sleepless nights, tears, the dreariness of endless laundry – there is a certain terror that fills the hearts of many parents when they come to the realisation their beautiful baby daughters will one day develop into those slightly alien and scary creatures: teenage girls.

All legs and arms and attitude, there is something about teenage girls that induces fear into the most confident of parents. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Behind the prickly, and pimply, surface of adolescent girls lies a genuine psychological and emotional need to remain connected to their parents as they face the challenges of becoming young women. Being afraid of stepping on teenage toes, or believing that adolescence is akin to the lost years, isn’t doing your kids any favours. Instead of setting yourself up to fail, parents, particularly mothers, can grow with their daughters because when it comes down to it, both are facing similar issues.

“There has been this idea that teenage girls are somehow unruly and bitches and divas and difficult; that it’s this awful tumultuous time and the best we can do is bunker down and try and get through it,” says Dannielle Miller, a former high school teacher who has worked with thousands of teenage girls in both Australia and New Zealand. “This is such a ridiculous notion because it sets up this defeatist attitude towards connecting with your daughter and it also sets up conflict because you start to see the conflict as inevitable. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“The greatest gift a mum can give to her daughter is to grow with her and to be honest about that journey of growth. If we pretend we all just emerge as this completely whole woman, we’re doing them a disservice by not helping them understand that making mistakes is just part of that journey.”

Dannielle’s book The Butterfly Effect – A Positive New Approach to Raising Happy, Confident Teen Girls (Random House, $34.95) has just been published. It is well researched and documents with clarity and gritty honesty the issues facing today’s teenage girls, such as drinking, body issues, friendship and sex.

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“Sometimes I think other parenting books make the world in which teenage girls live seem so foreign to our world that as an adult, you feel a little bit out of your element in knowing how to step in and help,” Dannielle says. “Yet, the issues really are the same. They might be drinking Breezers while we’re drinking chardies, and they might be watching ‘Gossip Girl’ while we’re watching ‘Desperate Housewives’, but the messages and the reasons why we’re engaging in those things are very similar. If you can start to see the similarities, rather than just the differences, I think it’s a great opportunity to connect with your daughter rather than disconnect from her.”

The Butterfly Effect offers practical advice to parents – in particular mothers – on how to stay connected, or rebuild relationships with their daughters during adolescence. Unlike some other parenting books, where the emphasis is on the child, this book forces parents to examine their own lives and behaviours. It’s an approach Dannielle says she has been using successfully for many years.

“Parents honestly think they’re going to come along to one of my seminars and I am going to sort out their daughter for them, as if she’s the one who needs fixing,” Dannielle says. “Then, within about five minutes of me speaking, I’ll see these little tears rolling down their faces as they realise they need to have a look at what they’re doing in their life. Maybe they’re always on a diet, or lamenting the ageing process, or caught up in a destructive relationship and drinking themselves into a stupor every night. Their daughters see this and that’s the truth of it. Many mothers find it quite confronting, and it is.”

Dannielle says what initially struck her when talking to mothers about their daughters was that they were both facing similar issues. “I was quite surprised that in many ways, despite all the rhetoric about there being this huge generation gap, so many issues that impact on our daughters’ lives really impact on us as women too, and we are really more alike than we are different.

“I noticed in the mothers’ faces that I was really speaking to them as well: they were caught up in the same vortex when it came to things like body image, beauty and drinking. Even when I would talk about things such as managing healthy friendships, the mothers would say, ‘It sounds like you’re describing my friendships with my girlfriends now.’”

One of Dannielle’s key messages in her book and seminars is that mothers have to set a good example and be a positive role model for their daughters. “Girls can’t be what they can’t see,” she says. “If we’re serious about saying to our daughters, ‘I want you to be really sure of yourself, to be really strong, to know how to set boundaries with people, to make healthy choices around alcohol,’ then we have to make those choices and decisions ourselves.”

If there’s one area in recent years that teenage girls have been drastically misunderstood, and perhaps as a result, let down, it’s in the assumption they are more mature than adolescent boys and therefore more independent. Dannielle says that while it is true teen girls do have more maturity than adolescent boys of the same age, they are still emotionally needy.

“The latest research is showing that adolescent girls have the emotional needs for affection and for love as they had when they were seven,” she says. “The first time I heard this, my daughter was seven and I thought about the number of times she might be touched, cuddled, told she’s beautiful. Sadly, by the time girls hit adolescence, and because they’re gangly and look a little bit grown up, we almost leave them to fend for themselves. That’s why they hunt in packs and why their peer groups are so important to them. It’s often the only place where they get that love and affection. It explains why you will always see teenage girls touching each others’ hair, tickling each other, laying all over each other. It’s because they yearn to be touched and to be loved.”

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At my official Book Launch with mentor and valued colleague Clinical Professor David Bennett AO FRACP FSAM

Wanting to be loved doesn’t necessarily mean wanting to be best friends. It’s important to set realistic expectations around your relationships. As Dannielle says, you have to understand that for teen girls, pulling away and coming back and then pulling away again is a really important part of them growing into individuals and becoming independent. This seesawing behaviour can’t be taken personally, or else every mother would spend a lot of her teenage daughters’ years feeling offended or hurt.

“In an effort to connect with your daughter, I don’t think it works for mums to say ‘Alright, we’re going to have these big outings every month,’” says Dannielle. “You can’t force it. Sometimes, the best moments can be when you gently brush past each other in the house, or when you write your daughter a note for her lunch box which she doesn’t even bother acknowledging.

“We need to realise these moments we have with them, even if we think they’re not important, can be hugely important. Often we make the mistake of thinking it has to be a big gesture. It is very true that teenage girls don’t want to hang with Mum all the time, but they do really want a connection.”

One of the simplest pieces of advice Dannielle gives in her book – and interestingly, one of the most powerful – is for mothers to let themselves fall in love with their daughters again. Sure, motherhood isn’t easy, but neither is growing up. Think back to how you were as a teenager and the grief you caused your mother.

“As mothers, if we can get back to the core values of ‘I do love this girl’ and realise our daughters have remarkable qualities and focus on those, rather than try to control them, then that can be a good way of finding mutual ground,” says Dannielle.

“If you can get the parenting bits right and focus on being a good role model, there’s nothing more fun than having a teenage girl around. It is their flaws and their little idiosyncrasies, and the fact they are so brutally honest that makes them incredibly endearing. They’re like big labrador puppies – they’re delightful.”

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I will be presenting a public seminar for parents on raising girls at Monte Sant’ Angelo Mercy College – November 11th 2009: this is being hosted by the organisation Young Love. All enquiries should be made directly to them.

Flyer with details may be downloaded here.

Fat Talk and the Fashionista Generation

This is the Fashionista Generation. Chalk it up to Gossip Girl or Next Top Model or all those banks who handed out credit cards like they were candy — whatever the reasons, designer labels have become a part of our culture. We use them to fit in, to stand out, to create a glow of status and power.

Girls use brands to look more mature and hip; their mothers, to look more youthful and hip. This makes the marketers very, very happy. And it leads to some really creepy crossovers. Christian Louboutin — the French cobbler who only the fashion elite had heard of until Sex and the City but whose red-soled shoes all suburbia now lusts after — recently designed Barbie shoes for women. And women’s shoes for Barbie. The Barbie fantasy (or nightmare, depending on your point of view) is now reality: you and your teen daughters can walk in Barbie’s hot-pink stilettos, and she can walk in yours. At last, the circle is complete! The plastic woman and the living, breathing one are united. Childhood and adulthood have merged.

It’s rather pitiful, really, that in order for poor Barbie to be perfect enough for Monsieur Louboutin, she had to get cosmetic surgery on her “cankles” (a word in my top ten list of loathsome fat-talk terms it’s time we pledge to never use again). Barbie was already dangerously thin, people! If a real woman had her figure she would be classified anorexic and she would be unable to menstruate or have children. I thought we all knew that by now. Apparently the fashion world didn’t, because her grossly cankulous lower limbs needed to be made even more slender to be deserving of the designer’s shoes. On one level, it’s tempting to shrug this off as utterly ridiculous, just some designer who’s totally out of touch with reality behaving silly, but the fact that Mattel — a manufacturer of toys for children — indulged his whims actually makes me furious. Deep down, this is the message it sends to girls and women:

You’ll never be good enough. In fact, it turns out that the unrealistic ideal woman isn’t even good enough.

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How often has a day of clothes shopping turned toxic for you or your teen daughter? It can be daunting to see the racks filled with sizes that seem suited only, in fact, to a Barbie doll. What do you tell yourself in the changing room mirror? You wouldn’t be alone if you have fallen prey to some pretty self-hating thoughts under the fluorescent department store glare. There are women and girls who buy clothes a size too small for them so they will feel compelled to lose weight. Women and girls who unthinkingly repeat the old chorus “Does my bum look big in this?” as they twist to look at themselves in the mirror. Women and girls who feel ashamed because they aren’t the “right shape” for the latest designer label offering, as though there ever has been, or ever should be, such a thing as the “right” shape.

The tragedy is that too many women and girls diet to fit themselves into “must have” fashions, or they work themselves into an epic neurosis because they can’t achieve the look they see in fashion magazines and on billboards. That ideal look is achievable for only a tiny number of people (models are thinner than 98% of the population), or it is unachievable at all because it isn’t even real. Ralph Lauren recently Photoshopped model Filippa Hamilton to such an extreme degree that they made her look more like an insect than a woman.

Photoshop gone mad

It’s not a good example when you see this picture; every young woman is going to look at it and think that it is normal to look like that. It’s not . . . It’s not healthy, and it’s not right.

— model Filippa Hamilton

This was one of the final jobs she did for the company. She says that after 8 years of modelling for Ralph Lauren, they decided she was too fat for their clothes and cancelled her contract. Reality check: Filippa Hamilton, too fat for Ralph Lauren, is 178 cm and 54.5 kg, or 5′ 10″ and 120 pounds.  I’m sorry, Filippa, but  even before this deranged level of Photoshopping, your weight was not normal and healthy; you were already well into the underweight category of the healthy weight range.

Too many women and girls are berating and belittling themselves for being unable to fit into or look good in clothes modelled by skeletal models. I like nice clothes and shoes. I like to feel good when I walk out the door in the morning. And I don’t have a problem with people wanting to be fashionable. What I do have a problem with is clothing companies that make girls and women feel badly about themselves and talk badly about themselves. I have a problem with the fact that in many cases, women’s fashion is designed by male designers who probably know as much about building a rocket ship and flying to the moon as they do about the real lives of real women and girls.

What if we all make a pact not to buy fashion labels that make us feel less than beautiful? What if we say no to marketers who try to make us feel that we will never be good enough? They will  have no choice but to change their products and the way they market them.

During Fat Talk Free Week let’s transform the negative self-talk in the changing room into something far more constructive. Instead of punishing ourselves for not fitting into fashion designers’ narrow ideal let’s demand that fashion designers cater to our needs. And let’s choose to celebrate our differences and our unique qualities — rather than trying to squeeze them all into those designer jeans.

Friends Don’t Let Friends Fat Talk!

Does my bum look big in this?

I HATE MY THIGHS.

You look great–did you lose weight?

Fat talk. Many of us do it every day as we play the “compare and despair” game, trying to live up to an impossible stick-thin ideal of what we should look like and what it means to be feminine. But words have power. Even a casual remark about our own or another’s appearance can hold us back, reinforce our worst body image fears and stop us from being all we can be.

We should be celebrating our bodies and all our other amazing qualities and achievements!

So on Fat Talk Free Week, 19-23 October, please join me in trying to end the madness. Fat Talk Free Week grew out of a successful eating disorders program for young women on university campuses in the United States. It has snowballed into an international week to raise public awareness of how fat talk damages women and girls.

To get revved up, take a look at the video that was released last year for Fat Talk Free Week.

 

Some of the info shocked me, such as this statistic from the United States:

67% of women aged 15-64 withdraw from life-engaging activities such as giving their opinion, going to school or visiting the doctor because they feel bad about the way they look.

And the situation here is equally as alarming. A quarter of teenage girls surveyed in Australia say they would get plastic surgery if they could. Among 15-year-old girls, almost seven in ten are on a diet, and of these, 8 per cent are severely dieting. Six in ten girls say they have been teased about their appearance.

Let’s start freeing ourselves from all these negative and unrealistic body image beliefs–for our girls’ and our own futures. The Fat Talk Free Week website has great practical ideas for raising awareness in schools, such as:

  • making and displaying positive body image banners
  • writing down negative body image beliefs, screwing them up and cermonially throwing them out
  • writing down positive body image beliefs and displaying them in the school
  • making lists of friends’ best qualities, with one important exception: their physical appearance
  • groups making a pact to put a coin in a jar every time a girl fat talks during the week, then donating the money to an eating disorders organisation
  • discussion starters on defining fat talk and why it’s bad.

And I also love these great ideas that any woman or girl can try anywhere–at school, at work or at home:

The Top 5 Things You Can Do Now to Promote Positive Body Image

  1. Choose one friend or family member and discuss one thing you like about yourselves.
  2. Keep a journal of all the good things your body allows you to do (e.g., sleep well and wake up rested, play tennis, etc.).
  3. Pick one friend to make a pact with to avoid negative body talk. When you catch your friend talking negatively about their body, remind them of the pact.
  4. Make a pledge to end complaints about your body, such as “I’m so flat-chested” or “I hate my legs.” When you catch yourself doing this, make a correction by saying something positive about that body part, such as, “I’m so glad my legs got me through soccer practice today.”
  5. The next time someone gives you a compliment, rather than objecting (“No, I’m so fat”), practise taking a deep breath and saying “Thank you.”

Now is your chance to get prepared to try out some of these ideas on October 19-23. I’ll be sharing my experiences of ridding my life of fat talk, and I’d love to hear yours, too. Watch this space.

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