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Month: February 2012

Teens and Trauma: How You Can Help the Healing Process

The last couple of years have been tough for many communities where Enlighten works, with natural disasters such as flooding in many parts of Australia and the devastating earthquake that claimed so many lives in Christchurch, New Zealand. There are many stories of tragedy and heartbreak — but if there’s one thing I’ve learned in working with young people, it’s that they have an incredible, deep capacity for resilience, compassion and love.

Enlighten’s New Zealand program manager, Rachel Hansen, who has worked with a number of Christchurch schools in the year since the earthquake, tells me she is in awe of the resilience of the students and the staff.

Many of them had endured great hardship – losing homes and loved ones. Some were also living with family members who had been severely injured or traumatised. One thing that really moved me was when the girls spoke about how important their friends had been in the months following the quake.

As many of their lives were in chaos they learned how to lean on and really support their friends even more. There was a real sense of sisterhood at having been through something so big together. 

Christchurch endured a particularly bitter winter last year, and some of the schools were teaching out of marquees and tents. In December I worked with 130 girls in a marquee (which was their ‘Chapel’ and Assembly Hall, as both had been destroyed). It was a particularly hot day and by the afternoon we were sweltering as if in a sauna. However I was struck by how accepting and cheerful the girls were about everything – it was as if it wouldn’t occur to them to complain. Their teacher told me that when it rained during assembly and the water swept through the marquee the girls would just lift their feet to keep them dry.

There is much we can do to support young people who have lived through natural disasters or other traumatic events, so I’m sharing this guest post by our wonderful Queensland presenter Storm Greenhill-Brown, who has been affected by the flooding in her own town, Ipswich, and has some great ideas for helping the healing process.


Guest Post by Enlighten Education’s Program Director for Queensland, Storm Greenhill-Brown

We have had a rather turbulent past year in Queensland. The floods of January 2011 and this year’s flooding in the western part of the state caused great distress for many and have had a significant impact on the Queensland psyche. Recovery efforts are ongoing and emotions are still raw for those who have suffered. Many homes damaged by the 2011 floods were only just rebuilt over Christmas — a full year later — while some families are in a seeming state of limbo waiting for insurance claims to be settled and builders to be found.

What has this turmoil meant for children, whether they were directly affected or not? How can we as parents and as a community help our young people to develop resilience in the face of such traumatic, life-altering events?

The Quest for Life Foundation provides an excellent online series and downloadable workbook for those helping young people through the recovery process. The foundation suggests that we must first assess the impact of a traumatic event on a teenager’s or younger child’s life. How much a child understands and is able to process will depend on their age.

The deep grief of losing one’s house, pets, possessions or family members often results in negativity and a sense of doom. Young people may experience feelings of great fear and a heightened belief that the natural world is wild and dangerous. Parents’ responses to such events are very important. As one flood-affected local mother said, “Our children are around adults who are emotionally unstable on a permanent basis.”

Children need to know what has happened and, importantly, what is being done about it. As adults, we must be able to discuss issues as they arise, but it is important that we don’t overwhelm children with images and information they do not need. An overload of images of earthquakes, tsunamis or flood devastation can potentially be destructive for young people. Teens especially may feel a loss of control or a sense of helplessness and futility.

It is important that children learn to feel compassion and empathy for others, and to focus on questions like “How can I help?” and “In what small way can I make a difference?” By offering practical help to other families, young people can gain a sense of purpose and hope. During the floods, two local boarding schools in my area, in Ipswich, were turned into emergency accommodation centres, and many of the girls and boys from those schools worked selflessly to help families in need. Instead of simply relaxing on their holidays, they worked in shifts gathering and sorting blankets, clothing and food. Many of them took immense satisfaction from being involved. It was a great example of how teens can benefit from looking beyond the boundaries of their own world, which during adolescence tends to narrow down to the self. “More than myself” can be a powerful mantra for young people who are questioning their place in the world.

In my town, a local mum whose entire neighbourhood was decimated by the flood decided to create a support network in her area. This amazing group of women banded together armed with buckets, mops and shovels and began the cleaning and rebuilding process. Because many families were not covered for flooding by their insurance policies, or damage assessment was taking a long time, they felt something had to be done. What inspiring role models these women were for their daughters and sons. Instead of focusing on what they had lost — which was a great deal in many cases — they chose to be grateful for what they managed to save and what they could do for each other. They acknowledged their loss but embraced the positive. To me this is resilience in action, and resilience is a lifelong skill that should be nurtured in our kids.

 

Erin Cook with her daughter Sarai, 12, and dog Bella. Erin is one of a group of women in Ipswich who banded together to help other families in need. Picture: Jodie Richter, for The Courier-Mail

Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics

The Sunday Telegraph’s “Agenda” section recently ran a cover story entitled “The Invincibles”, a startling exposé on this generation of young women who, we are told, show no fear about “the dangers of sex, booze, or even the sun”.

Whilst I am as pro-slip-slop-slap as the next person, it seemed odd to plant statistics about how many young women wear hats outdoors (18%, compared to 38% of young men, in case you’re curious) alongside statistics on binge drinking and sexually transmitted diseases.

Some of the statistics were presented in a way that painted a particularly bleak picture of girls: we were told 39% of females move out of home before turning 18, compared to 28% of males, as if this is evidence of girls’ risky behaviour. It might equally be evidence that girls are more willing to live independently — possibly even to study rather than party!

The clincher, though, was the revelation that 54% of young women don’t always use condoms. Hang on a minute . . . if this is the case, then surely there must be an equally alarming statistic on the number of young men who don’t always use condoms. And why does there seem to be an assumption that contraception and protection from sexually transmitted diseases are solely young women’s responsibility?

If we are to believe articles like this, she is probably too busy worrying about her tan or next Bacardi Breezer to bother being sexually responsible.

Shame on her.

Or rather, shame on the media. This article could have helpfully unpacked the very real issues that research shows us many young women (and men) do struggle with — binge drinking, relationships and body image being just some of them.

Instead, it became yet another diatribe against girls. And as such, it was sadly by no means unusual.

If the times we live in are toxic for girls in many ways — think of the huge pressures on them to be not only thin and hot but to be smart and successful; to be everything, all at once — then equally toxic is the way in which the media and our society choose to engage with young women.

I recently spoke to Herald Sun columnist Miranda Devine about my new book aimed at teen girls, The Girl with the Butterfly Tattoo (to be published March 1st by Random House). Ms Devine obviously is deeply concerned about the plight of girls, seeing them as “easy prey for a sick society”. I was pleased that despite her concerns Ms Devine recognises that there is a way forward:

In her latest book, The Girl with the Butterfly Tattoo: A girl’s guide to claiming her power, Miller dispenses commonsense advice to girls and their mothers about how to navigate the rocky road of adolescent hormones in an unforgiving era.

And, just as importantly, despite her obvious alarm, she acknowledges my optimism and pride in the way the majority of young girls are making sense of the world: “Miller also pays tribute to this generation of girls and teenagers, who she sees as remarkably resilient . . . We need to credit the girls who are making healthy choices and aren’t running off sexting and binge drinking.”

Stories about girls in crisis are valid and valuable for they alert us to the challenges we face — but make no mistake, for every anecdotal media report of a girl in crisis, there are stories aplenty in the real world of remarkable young women doing extraordinary things. Some sail off to explore the world, Jessica Watson style. But there are plenty more everyday girl heroes.

There are a few at my place right now.

My daughter, Teyah, 12. Teyah is a naturally shy girl and finds meeting new people challenging. But at the start of this school year she set herself a goal: to say hello and talk to at least two new girls every week. So far she has made four wonderful new friends (there is a sleepover with one planned for this weekend). Teyah also set herself some academic goals — to exceed the excellent results she achieved last year in English, history and science — and she has been working solidly at this since the first day back. She has also put in a truly sterling effort at arguing with me articulately about why she should be allowed to move her bedroom into the upstairs attic. (I am holding out. Just.)

My stepdaughter, Jazmine, 17. Last weekend she had her first surfing lesson. She got up on her surfboard on the second attempt. Jazzy also impresses me with the strong, positive, platonic friendships she has nurtured with four great young men who treat her with such kindness and respect. (Case in point, one popped in yesterday when she was sick, just to check she was okay.)

Jaz and her buddies at their Yr 10 school formal.

Jemma Ryan, 17. I met Jem when I presented at her school in 2009. After seeing me speak at a girls education conference in Melbourne, she had successfully lobbied to have Enlighten present at Clonard College, where she was school captain. Jemma and I have stayed in touch ever since, and she flew to Sydney last week to stay with me and my family to help me in the office before commencing her uni studies in journalism. “Anything you need I will do, no job too small!!” she emailed me beforehand. “My goodness, it’s an opportunity, a privilege I am so, so, so lucky to have!!” How is that for a go-get-’em attitude?

Jem and I. I love mentoring young women.

Jemma also writes for her local paper; she has been doing this since she was 14. When I asked Jemma how she had fitted in studying, her role as a student leader, her part-time job at Bakers Delight and writing, she explained patiently, “Well, I just have to be time conscious, I guess. My current boyfriend and I, for example — well, we decided just to be friends until I completed Year 12. There was no time for distractions.”

The choices made by girls like these don’t sell papers — but they do deserve our recognition.

Girls, the numbers are in.

You are 100% awesome.

Betraying Our Girlhood

I loved the post below by the talented Ms Clementine Ford so much that I asked her permission to share it with you all here. Clementine describes herself as a “freelance writer, broadcaster and troublemaker based in Melbourne”. She tells me she “enjoys cups of tea on stormy summer afternoons, men with beards and the collected works of Nancy Mitford.” You can read more of her work at http://www.clementineford.com.au or follow her on Twitter @clementine_ford.

This piece first appeared in Sunday Life for Fairfax Media on January 15, 2012.

What’s wrong with ponies and dolls? How did “girl” become an insult? It’s time to reclaim the power of pink.

When I was about 15, my family undertook the latest in a long line of relocations and wound up in the northern suburbs of Adelaide. My first week at school culminated in a non-uniform day, and I carefully selected an outfit that I felt would best display my casual demeanour and keen sartorial skills. This turned out to be a pair of Tencel jeans, a dusty-rose chenille cardigan and an incongruously matched choice of Adidas street shoes.

I know.

As I sat there in science class draped in layers of fug, year 10’s It girl turned to me and said admiringly, “Nice shoes! I’m guessing you’re into Triple J.”

“Yeah,” I replied, trying to sound nonchalant. “I’m pretty into it.” Inside, I basked in the glow of her compliment. I spent the rest of the day casually hoicking up the silky folds of my jeans so everyone else could spy my shoes, while desperately hoping they wouldn’t discover the truth – that I hadn’t ever listened to Triple J.

How quick we are to embrace the lure of social currency. I was reminded of this recently when feminist author Emily Maguire sent me a copy of her contribution to a Women of Letters literary salon, the theme of which was “A letter to the person I misjudged”. In achingly grand prose, Maguire (author of Your Skirt’s Too Short) travels through a series of apologies to the girls she met along the road to adulthood: her fellow kindergarteners, whose ironed bows and frilly socks drew her withering disdain; her middle-school friends, on whom she turned her back when presented with the first taste of male validation; and finally her high-school friends, and the limits they put on themselves by assuming that their adventurous forays into adulthood were the domain of men and thus all the more brazen.

Maguire’s letter solidified something that has bothered me for a long time: namely, the tendency of some women to enthusiastically distance themselves from what are seen as typically female attributes and interests in order to elevate their own worth. I’ve noticed an increase in women speaking of their childhood inclination for boys’ toys with an unconscious pride, as if a past dedication to Tonka trucks makes them more evolved than those who served tea to their My Little Ponies and made their Barbies have sex. But what’s so interesting about a truck?

This all comes down to the unquestionably limited way in which society has constructed girlhood. Consider the marketing of children’s toys. Girls are encouraged to bake pink cakes in pink ovens while realistic pink babies wee on their frilly pink dresses. Meanwhile, the boys are out preparing for their eventual roles as Masters of the Universe by roaming the countryside dressed as firemen and superheroes.

Is it any wonder that smart, savvy women with multidimensional personalities – that is, most of them – would seek to distance themselves from these tropes? We’ve all gone through a period where we’ve announced loudly that, of course, most of our friends are boys because we just seem to get on better with them. We wear it like a badge of honour. Boys build the world while girls are expected to decorate it. They have to be sexy without being too sexual, smart without being too smart and in need of protection without being too needy. The world does not respond well to women who look at these tiny boxes and ask for a little more wiggle room.

But it’s a double-edged sword. Despite wanting them to conform to those stereotypes, society doesn’t like girls very much. Girls are frivolous and sappy. They care too much about shoes and frills and vampires who sparkle in the sunlight. They’re manipulative and emotional, but they’re also weak, throwing, running and crying like girls. “Girl” is an accusation that’s used against boys to humiliate them. And the absolute proliferation of this in sitcoms, movies, books and pop culture has resulted in 50 per cent of the world internalising the idea that not only are they somehow less than their male counterparts, they also occupy a state that’s shameful and gross.

Maguire recalls when, in an attempt to ingratiate herself with her male peers in high school, she made a snide joke about one of her female friends, and was rewarded for it. “ ’You,’ they told me, ‘are just like a bloke.’ It was the most wonderful compliment I had ever received and [it was] reinforced every single day when I heard the things people said about girls … the simple, contemptuous way that almost everybody – kids, teachers, even members of my own family – used that word, ‘girl’, as the ultimate insult.”

Taking up arms against the demonisation of girlhood isn’t about reclaiming our right to love lipstick or dresses or have the occasional conversation about Ryan Gosling’s bottom – although those things are all perfectly fine. The fierce determination to distance ourselves from anything perceptibly “girlie” only furthers the stereotype that women who like “girlie” things are stupid and one-dimensional – and indeed that girlieness itself is stupid and one-dimensional. Some girls – like me – rejected boys’ toys entirely as children, loved pink and watched movies about high-school girls falling in love, yet they still grew up to be strident feminists. We’re all different.

I’m not ashamed of being a girl. Girls are, by turns, any number of the following: strong, infuriating, courageous, smart, weak, stupid, kind, cruel, ambitious, thoughtful, vapid, charismatic, delightful and any variation on any other adjective you could possibly think of. I choose to believe this because I know that girls are every bit as complex and nuanced as boys, and they deserve be treated as such regardless of which toys they played with as children, or if they think camping is a bit gross.

Besides, you can’t make your Tonka trucks have sex with each other. Where’s the fun in that?


If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy a post I co-wrote with Nina Funnell: Barbie’s not an issue if girls can think for themselves. 

The Girl with the Butterfly Tattoo: A girl’s guide to claiming her power

The countdown has begun!

Ever since my book on raising teen girls — The Butterfly Effect — came out, mothers and daughters have been telling me they wish there was a version for teens. So I am thrilled to say that The Girl with the Butterfly Tattoo: A girl’s guide to claiming her power is to be released on 1 March!

I loved every minute of writing this book. Teen girls were my inspiration from the very start, and I am bursting with excitement to share this book with them. My aim is to encourage girls to question the limiting messages advertisers, the media and our culture keep pushing: that a girl’s greatest worth is her looks, and beauty comes in only one size and shape. My hope is that The Girl with the Butterfly Tattoo empowers girls to find their strength and be true to their own hearts and minds.

Before the book went off to the printer, I sent it out to several girls for review, and I’m happy to say it received an overwhelmingly positive response. And I am honoured that two feminist thinkers I deeply respect have also put their support behind the book’s messages . . .

Finally a book for teenage girls that does not patronise or attempt to police them! The Girl with the Butterfly Tattoo empowers teen girls to make their own choices. — Nina Funnell, writer, women’s rights advocate and recipient of Australian Human Rights Commission Community (Individual) Award, 2010

Danni Miller is the big sister every teenage girl needs, offering the perfect mix of resolve-stiffening encouragement, soul-touching inspiration and real-world practical advice. — Emily Maguire, author of Your Skirt’s Too Short: Sex, power, choice

To be certain that your girls are among the first to get their hands on this book, you can pre-order (for $19.95 plus $5 postage and handling to anywhere in Australia). Each pre-ordered copy will be signed by me and will come with a beautiful bookmark and Enlighten Education wristband as free gifts. Click here to order now.

For a sneak peak at what The Girl with the Butterfly Tattoo has to offer, check out Chapter 1, “The Battle Within”, for free, by clicking here. I hope that you enjoy it, and share it today with all the wonderful teen girls in your life!

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