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Month: June 2012

Girls in crisis: self-harm, and what you can do to help

Increasingly I am being asked by concerned parents and girls about the issue of self-harm, so this week I’m bringing you an abridged version of the section in my book The Butterfly Effect that looks at what drives some girls to hurt themselves, the warning signs to look out for, and what we can do to help girls in crisis.

Trigger warning: The following post contains references to self-harm that may be a trigger for some people.

What is self-harm?

Self-harm is when a girl purposely injures herself, usually in secret. There are many different ways that a girl might do this, including cutting, burning, biting or branding her skin; hitting herself or banging her head; pulling her hair out; picking and pulling at her skin; or picking at old sores to open them up again.

Self-harm warning signs

  • Cuts – especially small shallow parallel cuts on the arms or legs – for which there is no adequate explanation
  • Other frequent and unexplained injuries, such as burns or bruises
  • Starting to wear long sleeves or pants all the time, even in warm weather
  • Sudden aversion to going swimming or getting changed in front of other girls
  • Hair missing, where it has been deliberately pulled out
  • Mood changes, depression, anxiety
  • Spending a lot of time alone
  • Notable difficulty dealing with stressful or emotional situations
  • A drop in school performance

Why do girls self-harm?

While each girl’s situation at home, school, with friends and in the community influences her life in a unique way, there are underlying factors in our culture that are putting more teenage girls at risk than ever before. Being part of society means meeting certain expectations; around adolescence girls begin to be more fully aware of the pressure to fulfil these expectations, which were mapped out before they were even born. Girls can hardly miss the messages about what it takes to be an ideal girl or the ideal woman. Unable to match the ideal no matter how they try, many girls begin to loathe themselves for falling short.

To try to meet the expectations of who they should be, teenage girls may have to tame themselves, blunt themselves. They learn that if they express anger, they will turn people off, because feminine, good girls are agreeable, not cranky. Even though on the surface a girl may appear sad, happy or indifferent, she may really be bottling up rage. Where does girls’ suppressed anger go? For some, it may become depression, drug or alcohol abuse, or self-aggression such as anorexia, bulimia, self-harm or suicide.

In some cases, self-harm is a form of risk-tasking and rebelling, or even of being accepted into a peer group. In others, it is a sign of deep psychological distress, a way of coping with painful, overwhelming feelings. If a girl finds it hard to express emotions such as anger, sadness or grief, marking her body in this way may be her desperate attempt at self-expression. A girl numbed by depression or trauma may self-harm in order to feel something again. It can also be a cry for help. A girl who doesn’t know who to ask for help, or how, may be using her injured body to send a message. And as with eating disorders, there are girls who self-harm because they feel that they are not in control of aspects of their life; for them, self-harm is a way of asserting control.

During the act of hurting herself, a girl may feel as though she is releasing pent-up steam, as if opening the valve on a pressure cooker; the act brings a temporary sense of relief. But self-harm also brings with it guilt, depression, self-loathing, anger, fear, and isolation from friends and family.

Self-harm doesn’t necessarily mean that a girl is suicidal, but all cases of self-harm need to be taken seriously. Self-harm can be related to mental health issues including depression, psychosis, bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder; to a trauma such as physical or sexual abuse; or to some other source of deep psychological pain. Self-harm may also do lasting physical damage. While girls rarely need hospitalisation because of self-harm, they may give themselves lifelong scarring as well as nerve damage.

What can be done to help?

In the short term, if a girl self-harms she needs to learn ways to cope when the urge strikes. Her therapist is likely to suggest ideas such as counting to ten or waiting 15 minutes, to give the feeling a chance to pass; saying ‘No!’ or ‘Stop!’; relaxation techniques such as yoga; or going for a run or doing some other kind of hard physical exercise. Another accepted short-term solution is to choose an alternative to self-harm, such as squeezing ice cubes between her fingers until they go numb, eating a chilli, standing under a cold shower, having her legs waxed or drawing in red on her body instead of cutting. Crucially, the underlying reasons why she self-harms need to be uncovered and worked through with a professional, who will also help her to develop healthier ways of identifying, coping with and expressing painful emotions.

There is much we can do to help prevent girls finding themselves at crisis point; and no matter how troubled a girl is, she can turn her life around. The key is communication. By strengthening a girl’s connections – to her parents, the rest of her family, her friends, community and school – we can give her the best chance.

Girls regularly tell me that what they want more of is their parents’ time. They want their parents to listen. Sometimes when we ask our daughters what’s wrong, we get a blank gaze or a huff or a slammed door, and we give up. Don’t give up too quickly. Your girl may be sending out all the signals to push you away while actually she needs you to keep asking, giving her attention, showing her you care. Therapist Martha B. Straus urges: ‘When she’s at a loss for words, guess and guess again.’ Many teen girls have a limited vocabulary for expressing their feelings, but we can help them. It can take something as simple as ‘I feel really angry about this – do you?’ to open the floodgates.

One of the most helpful things you can do is allow her to express all her emotions, rather than choking on her darker feelings until they turn into despair. ‘When girls can be angry,’ Straus writes, ‘they can also be reassured they are worth such powerful feelings – there is someone in there worth being mad about.’

Action Plan

  • Seek professional help. A good starting point is your GP, for a referral to a relevant specialist, local adolescent mental health team, counsellor or community health centre.
  • Be consistent. Set consistent boundaries, but also be consistent in your loving. Even if she takes a drastic backslide in her recovery, she needs to know that you still love her.
  • Banish secrecy. Maintaining a shroud of secrecy around a crisis is not helpful to girls.
  • Build networks of support. A girl’s networks may include doctors, therapists, adult mentors, relatives, school counsellors and friends.
  • Celebrate. When a girl is on the path to recovery there may be frustrating and disappointing setbacks, but there will be victories, too. Take heart in them. And celebrate.


Sexism dovetails with hypocrisy

Nina Funnell and I wrote the following Opinion piece, which was also featured in The Age newspaper today. 

The Age on-line 21/6/12

Accusing Lynx of peddling sexist advertisements is like informing Kyle Sandilands that his material is considered controversial. Well, duh.

Lynx’s latest campaign featuring Sophie Monk offering to clean various men’s balls has attracted valid criticism and complaints relating to female objectification and sexploitation.

But the problem with protesting is that it is precisely this outrage that Lynx aims to provoke.

Each time Lynx campaigns are launched, advertising standards bodies are inundated with letters of complaint. Last year alone, for example, six Lynx commercials were banned in the UK. And each time this happens, Lynx issues a statement that basically says “Oopsie, we didn’t mean to be rude,” and then churns out the next lot. No doubt they are factoring in the free publicity their controversial ads will attract when calculating losses due to the short shelf life of their campaigns.

Forget the “sex sells” mantra. These days, it’s sexism that really pulls in the cash.

But if finger pointing is only feeding the beast (by providing more free publicity), should the critics remain silent?

Perhaps educating our young people about disingenuous corporate agendas would prove more effective. And they don’t come much more disingenuous than Lynx’s parent company, Unilever.

Remember that Dove campaign featuring women of all different shapes, colours and sizes standing around in their knickers supposedly taking on beauty stereotypes? Dove is owned by Unilever. Yep. The exact same company that is funding self-esteem workshops and body-love courses for girls in our schools (under the Dove brand) is also producing the very types of ads that those courses caution against.

And the hypocrisy doesn’t stop there. Dove reminds girls to accept their bodies and to love the skin they’re born in. But aside from selling the dieting product SlimFast globally, Unilever also sells a skin-bleaching product in places such as India and the Middle East called “Fair and Lovely”. This product is aimed at darker-skinned women, with the promise that it will whiten their skin so that they too might one day resemble the Aryan ideal so celebrated in all the Lynx advertisements. According to Unilever’s website, “skin lightening creams are the preferred mode of skin care in almost all Asian countries, just as anti ageing creams are in Europe and the USA”. What a fair and lovely message.

What really irks us, and the teen girls we speak to, is not so much the boringly predictable sexism of Lynx but the completely hypocritical ethos of Unilever as a company.

Teen girls get particularly irate when they discover that Impulse body mist sprays (which feature names like “Instantly Innocent” and “True Love”) are owned by the same company which produces Lynx products. Forget the images of dating, romance and hearts they feed the girls; when it comes to sniggering with the boys, Unilever pushes the idea that one simple spray is all that it takes to score.

For a brand hoping to position itself as “edgy” the messages are incredibly tired: Girls date. Men mate.  As one girl recently told us, “That’s so two faced!”

It makes you wonder what the Unilever office must look like. In one cubicle you’ve got the Lynx team drooling over headless bikini babes to see which one should feature in their “Wash me, I’m a  dirty girl” campaign, whilst at the next desk Team Dove are polishing up their latest  self-esteem slogan for women.

And while teen boys may respond well to scantily clad women, they respond equally well to clever Chaser-style takedowns of hypocritical corporate giants.

Activists who use witty satire can be highly effective in getting companies to rethink their long-term strategies. Satirical attacks work because the brand no longer looks cheeky or naughty. It just looks stupid.

Anti-Lynx activists have recently clocked up hundreds of thousands of YouTube hits on videos poking fun at Unilever. One particularly clever clip parodies Dove’s “Onslaught” campaign. The original Dove campaign, which was used to launch their self-esteem program, features a young girl being bombarded with images of the unobtainable standards of beauty presented to girls by the media. The film ends with the line “Talk to your daughter before the beauty industry does.”

In a witty twist, anti-Lynx activists replaced all the problematic images the little girl sees in the original clip with others taken directly from advertising campaigns run by Unilever itself. This ad ends with the line “Talk to your daughter before Unilever does.”

Amen to that.

 

Towards safer schools: How teachers and families can work together

In light of figures showing that there were almost 70 serious incidents in state schools in the NSW Hunter Central Coast region in the last half of 2011 – some of them violent, such as students fighting and fashioning their own weapons – a lot of parents are asking what schools can do to create safer environments. The Newcastle Herald asked me to submit an Opinion piece on this topic; I thought I’d share my thoughts with you here too.

I visit hundreds of schools every year, and I have seen some highly successful strategies. Strong peer-support programs, where older children buddy up with younger ones and look out for them, are effective. Schools can celebrate difference by hosting multicultural days, gender-awareness programs and anti-homophobia initiatives. Police youth liaison officers are happy to come to schools to discuss bullying and violence, and this can be empowering and healing.

There is a disturbing trend of children just watching, or videoing, serious incidents in the school ground – yet when bystanders speak out, bullies often back down. So schools need to do everything they can to support bystanders and encourage them to say enough is enough.

Most important of all, children need a whole-school culture that makes it clear that violence, discrimination and bullying will not be tolerated. Ever. A student is more likely to hurt someone at school if he or she feels that racists and bullies are not disciplined, according to the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research.

The buck does not stop at the principal’s desk, though. The same research also showed that families are just as important as teachers in preventing violence at school. Children who are in the midst of family troubles or aren’t getting enough supervision at home may be more prone to violence. The type of supervision is also crucial, for children whose parents discipline them with harsh punishments are more likely to attack someone at school.

Children cannot be what they cannot see. This means that if we want our kids to resolve conflict without physical intimidation and threats, we need to do the same. All of us, parents and teachers, cannot merely point the finger at violent students: we need to own the environments that foster aggression.

For young people, conflict tends to erupt into violence if they haven’t learned positive ways to solve problems with others. Yet conflict resolution is something parents seldom explicitly teach kids. Of course, it is the standard we set – the choices we make when dealing with conflict in our own lives – that will always be the primary way our children learn. But we can also be proactive.

I’m not suggesting that parents lecture kids on the right and wrong ways to deal with conflict. But I am suggesting that we have an ongoing, open conversation with our kids about the feelings that arise when we are in conflict, and the strategies we can use to move forward without violence or intimidation.

Try sharing these 10 Steps to Conflict Resolution with the young people in your life. They are very effective for the girls I work with and apply equally to boys (and adults!).

The 10 Steps to Conflict Resolution

1. Plan ahead. Think about what you want to say to the person who’s upset you, so you don’t say something you’ll regret.

2. Don’t put on a show. An audience will only escalate things. A one-on-one conversation is preferable.

3. Home in on how you feel. Use ‘I’ language – e.g. ‘I felt hurt that you talked about me’ – rather than ‘you’ language – e.g. ‘You can’t be trusted.’

4. Admit your mistakes and apologise. If you’re even partly at fault, defuse the situation with a simple ‘I was wrong, I’m sorry.’

5. Be specific. Clearly articulate only what upset you on this occasion. Do not dig up old wounds.

6. Offer time. Offer the other person time to think, so that they don’t speak or act impulsively.

7. Be calm. Learn some simple breathing and visualisation activities to help you stay chilled.

8. Assert yourself. Speak firmly and clearly, and be assertive rather than aggressive.

9. Expect to be heard. You deserve the other person’s attention, but if you’ve picked a bad time to talk, offer another time.

10. End on a positive. If your relationship ends over this conflict, it doesn’t mean you must automatically treat the other person as your enemy. You might not be friends, but you can still be friendly.

You can find a more detailed version of these steps in my books, The Butterfly Effect (for parents) and The Girl with the Butterfly Tattoo (for teen girls). (With thanks to Courtney Macavint and Andrea Vander Plimyn’s respect rules.)

 

Body image and self-esteem programs: What really works?

Doing what I love: Presenting to girls

All school children should take part in compulsory body image and self-esteem lessons.

This is the finding of a three-month inquiry by the British government into young people, body image and self-esteem.

Yes! Governments are now at least trying to catch up with parents and educators who have been concerned for years that girls and boys are hurting because of the unrelenting pressure to fit narrow, impossible-to-achieve physical ideals.

I am heartened by the fact that British MPs from across the political spectrum declared that body image and self-esteem lessons should be compulsory for all children. The Australian government didn’t go quite that far when it established policies based on the work of its National Advisory Group on Body Image. The Australian policies are a start, but as I’ve discussed here before, I think they need strengthening before they will bring about the impact that is needed.

Just as they do in Britain,  kids in Australia and New Zealand need more body image and self-esteem programs in schools – and just as crucially, they need the right type of programs. So, when it comes to body image and self-esteem programs, what really works?

The British inquiry confirmed that media images of unrealistic bodies are largely to blame for young people’s body image angst and self-esteem battles. This is why we think it is so important to equip girls with media literacy skills. Policing and patronising simply won’t work, as anyone who’s ever tried banning TV, taking away internet privileges or chucking out magazines will tell you. The end result is usually a resentful girl and an atmosphere of distrust at home. Besides, no matter how hard you try to stem the tide of harmful images, they are everywhere – on billboards, the sides of buses, you name it. The best gift we can give girls is to help them develop lifelong skills to look at advertising and media critically, deconstruct them and make up their own minds. Only then will those photoshopped images representing the ideal woman lose their seductive and damaging power.

At Enlighten, what we want to see are girls with healthy all-round self-esteem based not on appearance alone but on all that a girl has to offer the world. Her brains, compassion, humour, business smarts, sporting ability, musical talents – whatever her own unique attributes happen to be. A big part of creating healthy self-esteem is building up resilience, the ability to bounce back after facing adversity. It is important for kids to have a solid sense of their own self worth so that they don’t crumble when things don’t work out as they hoped – when their marks aren’t as good as they expected on a test, their boyfriend drops them, they don’t get a role in the school musical. The stakes only get higher as kids grow up and face adversity as adults, which makes it vital to develop coping skills from a young age.

So we love what Geelong Grammar is doing. Teachers there are following the principles of “positive education”, which was developed by US psychologist and educator Martin Seligman, who is probably best known for his book Authentic Happiness. In positive education, students are taught not only traditional school subjects but also the skills to be happy and resilient.

This is not about kids walking around with a smile on their face, ignoring critical human emotion. It’s about a flourishing person who is in control of their emotion, who can deal with adversity, knows that adversity is going to hit them and there will be sad times and bad times, but they can bounce back from that. Geelong Grammar Vice-Principal Charlie Scudamore

Some public schools in Victoria have adopted a similar approach and are seeing great results, and South Australia is doing a pilot study with Seligman to see whether they should introduce positive education in all schools in the state system.

Feeling the love: Me with a beautiful girl who brought her well-worn copy of my book for teen girls along when I presented at her school

Positivity is crucial when working with girls, because only by embracing the positive and connecting with girls’ hearts can we truly effect change. Often girls shuffle into our presentations expecting the usual lecture – do this, don’t do that – but leave on a high because we create a positive, loving vibe and an atmosphere of fun in order to get very serious messages across. We see the results in the faces of the girls as they light up, and we know that the impact lasts long after the girls have left school for the day. We hear it from parents:

I had two daughters come home this afternoon absolutely passionate about their experience with Enlighten Ed today, it seems to have been able 2reignite all the girl power I’ve been sending their way since they were toddlers, except in a fun, fascinating, non-dorky-mother atmosphere. Thanks for trying so hard to equip our little girls for the harsh and hideously sexualised world that lies ahead 🙂 – Olivia Brasington

And we hear it from educators and the girls themselves. One of the schools we work with in Tasmania drafted a reflective survey for their girls one year after we presented there. When asked if the presentation made a long-lasting change to the way they behave towards other people, responses included:

Yes, I believe it did. I have a better perspective of my life, and how I see myself and other people.

Yes, I have come to respect who people are and what they believe in.

Yes! I have stopped basing everything on looks and started looking at the inside of people. I’ve realised I can have amazing friends that don’t need to be popular or pretty. I’ve started being more happy with myself.

We are always trying to find new ways to get serious messages across in playful ways that engage girls. Recently we produced these stickers designed to go on mirrors and provoke thought and discussion. The stickers are on sale at our site, where we also offer free resources to engage girls, such as our beautiful-looking iPhone app and wallpapers with inspiring and empowering messages.

A school where we regularly present has ordered a sticker for every school bathroom mirror . . . including those in the boys’ toilets. The school told us:

It’s exactly the type of message we want our students to understand and it is delivered in a way which will engage them and get them thinking and talking.

And this is the most important part of all, the key to any program or intervention with young people: get them thinking, get them talking. Create a supportive environment for ideas to take root and flourish. Win their hearts, so that their minds will follow. And always, always keep the lines of communication open.

 

Let’s get reading: The power of fiction to shape girls’ lives

The books we read have an incredible power to shape our thoughts, and our view of the world and our place in it. Fiction delights, enthralls, infuriates, inspires. It transports us to other realities. Sometimes we escape into it for entertainment and relaxation; other times we seek out books that stretch our minds beyond our boundaries. A few simple words on a page can bring us to tears — or provide the deepest kind of solace. Books raise questions that only we can answer for ourselves; they pose dilemmas that nudge us to reconsider our own beliefs and attitudes.

All of this is especially true for children, who are still forming their identities, still getting to know who they are — and most importantly, everything they can become.

That’s why I love the picture book Ruby Who?, which is the brainchild of a talented Queensland woman, Hailey Bartholomew. She came up with a creative way of explaining to her two daughters that “wishing to be like others, or have what other people have, can be a trap and will not make you happy”. She got together with her friend Natala Stuetz and made a short film, which has since been made into a primary-school-age picture book illustrated by Alarna Zinn.

Ruby is a little girl who “wishes for so many things and dreams of being like others”. That is, until she goes on an adventure and rediscovers her own identity, and the joy of just being herself. Hailey says:

Ruby Who? was created as a way to explain to children that having more ‘stuff’ doesn’t make life better; looking like the other kids won’t make you happy; it’s who you are when you’re being yourself that counts.

What makes Ruby Who? such a special book is that not only does it have an awesome message, it’s very cute and colourful, filled with playful rhymes, and kids love it. I asked Francesca Kaoutal, Enlighten’s co-founder, to read it with her 5-year-old daughter Bianca. This is Bianca’s review (which is also very cute!).

I like Ruby. She has lots of colours like me. She is funny with her rolly shoes. You can’t jump in rolly shoes. It’s a good idea that she took them off. She goes on swings and I love swings and jumps and playing outside with the birds in my rainbow and sparkle clothes. I love the picture of the sausage dog because it is so silly. Sausage dogs don’t have hats and balloons! That is so funny. It is a good picture for laughing.
Five-year-old Bianca, daughter of Enlighten's co-founder Francesca Kaoutal, with her drawing inspired by Ruby Who?

There are a host of great books for tween and teen girls, too, and I am looking forward to reading two that were just highly commended by the judges of the Barbara Jefferis Award: Kelly Gardiner’s Act of Faith, and Meg Mundell’s Black Glass. The Barbara Jefferis Award is worth looking out for each year, as it bestows a prize for “the best novel written by an Australian author that depicts women and girls in a positive way or otherwise empowers the status of women and girls in society”. (This year’s winner was Anna Funder’s All That I Am.) Act of Faith will especially be embraced by girls who love history and books. Set in 1640, its heroine, Isabella, flees Oliver Cromwell’s England and discovers a whole new world of possibility in the publishing world of Venice, “where women work alongside men as equal partners, and where books and beliefs are treasured”.

Black Glass is more for the girls in your life who love science fiction or gritty fantasy. A work of speculative fiction, it follows two resourceful sisters, Tally and Grace, as they make their way through a dystopic future urban landscape.

Some people dismiss the books that are the most popular amongst teen girls at the moment, picking apart the literary value of series such as The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins) and Twilight (Stephenie Meyer), not to mention the slew of vampire-themed books that the latter has inspired. But is it really our job to be the arbiters of taste? As I’ve discussed on this blog before (in relation to Twilight and The Hunger Games), I think that no matter what our own taste in books may be, we should try to celebrate the books the teen girls in our lives decide to read. Rather than being judgmental of their reading choices, let’s just get them reading! I find it heartening to see so many young women reading these series passionately — and deconstructing not just the books, but their worlds, as they go. And let’s not forget that girls have wide-ranging tastes.

When I was a teen girl, I became obsessed with the Sweet Dreams series of novels, which were like Mills and Boon for teen girls. My favourite was P.S. I Love You. I thought the author’s play on words (the P.S. also stood for Palm Springs, where the book was set, and for the name of the main character’s love interest, Paul Strobe) was literary genius! And oh, how I howled at the end when Paul died of cancer.

Yet during the same period, I also devoured Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a speculative fiction that was a chilling social critique of totalitarianism and the backlash against feminism that was gathering force in the 1980s. It was a complex, thought-provoking book that was, and still is, considered a literary masterpiece.

Today your girl might be devouring a bodice-ripping vampire romance. Fight any urge you may have to roll your eyes, because it really is okay — and anyway, tomorrow she might be deep into Jane Eyre. There is a book for every mood: sometimes we read primarily for a momentary escape, other times because we want to engage in the world of ideas. But no matter what, let’s keep reading!

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