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Author: Danni Miller

For girls, 10 is the new 15

Worried that your little girl is 10, going on 15?

You’re not alone.

When I first started working in schools with young women to give them the skills they need to move beyond mean girl machinations and body image blues, I envisioned I’d be working only with high schools. The frequent SOS calls from primary school teachers soon made it apparent, however, that this type of proactive work needed to start in Year 6.

And yet in the past twelve months, it’s been Year 4 girls that seem to be causing the most concern. Although it is well known that relational aggression tends to peak in the middle school years (Year 5-Year 8) this demographic does seem to be more vulnerable than ever before.

Why might this be the case?

1. A significant number of girls are hitting adolescence at a younger age. Over the past 20 years, the average onset of menstruation has dropped from 13 years to 12 years and seven months (although it is increasingly common for girls to start menstruating as early as eight and nine years of age). Significantly, the hormonal surges associated with puberty, known as adrenal puberty, will be happening even before any physical traits become apparent and can cause heightened emotions. There is also often a divide that forms between girls who may look very childlike still, and others who will begin to look more like young women.

Friendship groups, social media and physical development all contribute to girls growing up before their time. (Pic: iStock)

2. Rather than finding childhood carefree, many kids of both genders report feeling overwhelmed. They may be in families that are experiencing financial hardship, or relationship breakdown. With only childlike strategies to fall back on, many can’t cope alone; a recent University of Sydney study found the largest increase in the use of antidepressant medications was among children 10-14 years old.

3. There is increased external academic testing happening in our primary schools. Parenting expert and passionate proponent for play, Maggie Dent, blames NAPLAN for damaging our children. “Too much emphasis in the younger years on testing steals time away from the vital work of play” says Maggie, “and it through child-led play and caring human interactions that we learn how to build relationship and resilience.”

4. The average age for first exposure to porn is 11 years old. The type of messages young people receive about their emerging sexuality via this medium are often both confusing and confronting. One Principal shared with me how a young girl at her school was being asked by a male peer to send nudes, “This little girls was literally playing with dolls one minute, and being thrown into a situation where she had to try to cope with sex based harassment the next.” Parents who bury their heads in the sand and think there’s plenty of time for conversations around sexuality and respectful relationships later are doing their children a dangerous disservice.

Parents who bury their heads in the sand and think there’s plenty of time for conversations around sexuality and respectful relationships later are doing their children a dangerous disservice. (Pic: iStock)

5. Social media platforms such as Snapchat and Instagram stating the minimum age to sign up is 13 years. Despite this, surveys have shown that three-quarters of children aged 10-12 years have ignored the age limit, many without any parental guidance or monitoring. While we tend to be (rightfully) alarmed at the possibility of our girls being groomed by predators online, or bullied by their peers, we put far less thought into how we can support them to make sense of the narrow definition of beauty and messages around materialism they will be bombarded with when following their favourite influencers. Teachers tell me they are concerned about students in Year 4 who are already dieting, or refusing to participate in swimming as they fear looking fat in their costumes.

Once our girls reach double digits, we might be fooled by their increased desire for independence and more grown-up appearance to take a step back. Yet the reality is they still desperately need us to hold their hands just a little longer and support them to safety navigate the path to womanhood.

This post was first published in The Daily Telegraph, 8/9/18.

Carrying the burden

Mental health issues are taking a terrible toll on our teens.

But it’s time we also acknowledged the damaging ripple effect carrying the burden of worrying about their suffering friends may be having on their peers too. Because while it’s encouraging that young people are asking each other “are you OK?”, if the answer to that question happens to be “no”, what are kids meant to do with this information?

Make no mistake, there are plenty of young people out there currently serving as inexperienced, unqualified counsellors to their highly vulnerable mates. In fact, a struggling adolescent is actually more likely to first talk about their problems with a close friend before reaching out to their own family. And often, the conversation will be couched as one expected to be kept private; “Please don’t tell anyone but …”

For teens on the receiving end of a disclosure that a friend is struggling, there may well be a reluctance to pass on their worries to an adult for fear of being accused of betraying a confidence; secrets are a particularly powerful form of social currency for teenagers and often shared to solidify friendships.

Teens are taking on the burden of friends’ mental health struggles. (Pic: iStock)

Through my work in schools, I have in fact noted a generation burdened with feelings of responsibility for the mental health and safety of their inner circle. In a misguided attempt to maintain their friend’s confidence, often teens acting as a support person will struggle alone. “I guess the best I can do is just to be there for her, ” one 15-year-old girl told me. And thanks to the always-on social media world our teens inhabit, the support is often delivered 24/7. She concluded: “Whenever she feel like hurting herself, she calls me first and I talk her through those feelings. It actually is really stressing me out, but I can’t let her down. She told me if it wasn’t for me, she’d want to end it. I am so scared something bad will happen to her if I don’t respond to her messages.”

Some young people are, however, at least reaching out anonymously to seek direction in knowing how to support friends they are worried about.

Kids Help Line, a telephone counselling service for young people, recorded almost one thousand calls in 2017 alone from kids concerned over the mental health of someone they know. Over half of these related to concern that their friend was suicidal (Kids Help Line are in fact so highly aware of how prevalent this concern is that they offer downloadable resources on this topic, front and centre on their website’s homepage).

Jaelea Skehan, director of Every Mind (one of the organisations behind the latest mental health #youcantalk campaign) explains: “There’s a lot of young people holding heavy stuff for others. Being a good friend is about reaching out and checking in on our friends, but it is also about recognising when we aren’t equipped to manage complex issues and involving professionals who do have those skills.”

Jaelea Skehan is the director of Every Mind, who are behind the #youcantalk campaign. (Pic: Peter Lorimer)

We need to very clear. Yes, we can talk. However, young people urgently need to be reassured that reporting concerns they hear to trusted adults is vital — and isn’t a betrayal of their friend’s trust.

How can we break this message down for them?

I teach teens that we should never keep dark secrets for people. When a young person begins talking to me and says something to the effect, “I want to tell you something but you must promise not to tell anyone.” I respond with the following; “You may tell me anything. And I will listen with my whole heart. But if you have been hurt, or could be hurt, I want you to know that I care too much about you not to do something about that.”

All young people need to know that reporting concerns to trusted adults is not a betrayal. Rather, it shows the depth of their compassion and bravery.

Tools to know how to best manage the conversations they are having are also important to share with our kids. They don’t need to solve complex issues, but simply acknowledge their friend’s feelings and tell them they care. They can also gently point out the consequences of their friend’s actions, for both themselves and the people that care for them. And if their friend has been hurt, or could be hurt? They can support their mate to get the professional help they deserve.

Teens should also be encouraged to take care of themselves during this process. They can reach out and debrief with a trusted adult if they are feeling overwhelmed or anxious by what they’ve been told (this is particularly important as we know that suicide can have a contagion effect on vulnerable youth).

By caring for themselves too, these accidental counsellors will be modelling for their mates that while sharing with those closest to us is a helpful first step, healing comes from also talking with professionals.

This OpEd was first published by The Daily Telegraph, 11/8/18

We must eradicate harassment from our schools

Were you surprised the recent Plan International survey on Sexism in the City showed that for most young women, experiences of street harassment are common?

If so, there’s a good chance you’re a bloke.

Because every woman I know has been catcalled, or followed on the street, or perhaps had a man lunge at her.

The first time I recall being sexually harassed in my community was when I was 12 years old, and just starting high school.

As I walked across a bridge with my friends, filled with nervous excitement about the new girls I might meet, and the stationery I had so carefully selected and packed in my shiny new sparkly pink pencil case, I noticed a man waiting under the bridge for us to pass.

He was masturbating in front of us.

I was so horrified that I ran straight to the local police station to report him. I’m not sure why the police never pursued this — although I do recall them laughing at me when they asked me what exactly I had seen him do and I replied, “wanking”; they hadn’t expected this ponytail-wearing schoolgirl to be quite so blunt. Their amusement only added to my feelings of powerlessness and humiliation.

But “The Wanker”, as all the girls at my school soon named him, remained waiting for us each morning for months. And eventually it became a game to run past him, yelling out our disgust. Shockingly, it no longer shocked me.

For many girls, high schools are a place of learning and harassment. (Pic: iStock)

This was by no means an isolated incident. Plan International’s Report confirms that despite all the education campaigns aimed at reducing sexual harassment, most young women first experience intimidation when in a public space between the ages of 11 and 15 (I sometimes wonder if the very same men who find it amusing to yell out “show us your tits” to school girls as they drive past them at bus stops are the same ones who rant on social media about how paedophiles should be castrated).

In my work as an educator of teen girls, I often hear stories about intimidation and harassment. And I hear the type of advice given to young women in order to help keep them safe, “walk in groups” “follow your instincts and move away if you feel unsafe …”

These offerings are not designed to make girls feel that they are somehow to blame for a culture that often doesn’t seem to like them very much, nor to limit their freedoms. But rather because short-term, while we work to help change the type of culture that allows sexual harassment to flourish, providing our girls with scripts and strategies for keeping them safe feels essential.

I’ve had emails from three different school principals in the years since we have been running our in-school courses thanking us for giving their students the information they needed when they were in a potentially dangerous situation. On all three occasions, not only had the girls known how to respond to stay safe, importantly, they also knew it was not their fault that they had been targeted. As one principal emailed: “They felt angry rather than ashamed which is just as it should be.” Any protective advice given must be carefully framed within a context of unpacking victim blaming and emphasising why violence is always the fault and responsibility of the perpetrator, and never the fault or responsibility of the victim or survivor.

But our girls are not just being harassed on the streets.

I’ve had many conversations with teen girls who feel sexually harassed in their classrooms. There are boys who flick their bra straps, they tell me. Or sniff their seats when they get up to change classes. Boys who talk loudly about porn in graphic, violent detail. What guidance do we give then, when there is no moving away? When speaking to a trusted adult may mean the aggressor is removed from class for a day or so, but is likely to return?

Our schools must make a strong stance against all forms of harassment and be safe places.

How can this be achieved?

We urgently need to do more work with boys in our classrooms on issues like combating violence against women, and helping them unpack toxic masculinity — action that not only helps create a safer environment for young women, but for other boys as we know that the type of boys who sexually harass their female classmates often target other boys they perceive as being more vulnerable too.

We must stop expecting young women to act as modifiers for male misbehaviour. So many girls have told me their teachers ask them to sit near the more disruptive boys as they think this will quieten the lads. But as one 14-year-old girl told me “these boys are just gross and it’s not fair”. And she’s right, it isn’t fair.

And our schools must realise that in the age of #MeToo, discussions around sexual harassment are not theoretical for most young women — but are part of their day-to-day experience.

This post was originally published in The Daily Telegraph, 2/6/18 

‘I cried when my son told me he wants to be a teacher’

We’ve been bombarded with reports lately about how depressed and depleted educators are, so when my 16-year-old son recently announced he wanted to become a high school teacher when he graduates, I cried.

These weren’t tears of dismay, but rather of pride and happiness. Because I know that despite the seemingly endless piles of papers to mark, the ever-encroaching administration, and the increasingly challenging student (and parent) behaviours teachers are expected to manage, it remains an incredibly rewarding role.

And it’s high time we stopped trying to deter young people from the profession.

Bombarding those who aspire to be educators with tales of woe is nothing new. When I announced at the end of Year 12 that I wanted to study education, a number of the teachers I admired most, and who indeed had inspired me to want to shine in my own classroom, tried to talk me out of it. The pay is dreadful, they said; it can be thankless, they insisted.

Despite the naysayers, teaching can be an incredibly rewarding profession. (Pic: iStock)

Yet despite the doom and gloomers, I did teach in a government high school for five years. I was then promoted to running special programs for our most at risk kids in the Catholic education sector for a further six years, before setting up my own social enterprise aimed at creating more resilient teens.

After working alongside hundreds of teachers in a variety of schools, here’s what I will tell my son about the profession:

1. Teachers matter. For some young people, their teachers are the most constant and caring adults they know; they are the ones who will bring them a sandwich and discreetly give it to them before class, who will hear their dark stories about abuse or neglect and who will hold their hand through the process of seeking a way forward. Parenting expert and ex-teacher Maggie Dent shared with me why she loved her many years in the classroom, and still cheers those who aspire to teach on: “I loved being the bringer of hope for kids who had none.”

Even the students who you don’t think you’ve had any particular impact on may have been inspired by you in ways you may never know until when, many years later, they will stop you at the shops and gush about how some advice you gave, or encouragement you offered, helped shape their lives.

2. You will get to immerse yourself in a subject you love on a daily basis. And although it might at times feel incredibly frustrating that your Year 7 history class don’t quite share your passion for Ancient Rome, discovering how you can engage them in this will be almost as fascinating as the content itself.

Teachers can have a huge positive impact on the lives of their students. (Pic: iStock)

3. Watching young people grow and develop is a joy. Cheeky little lads become deep-voiced, thoughtful young men. Timid girls who blush red when they are asked to answer a question in class bloom into confident, articulate young women. You get the proud-parent style moments, without the laundry and messy bedrooms.

4. The skills you develop are highly transferable. While many teachers do make it their life’s work, those who later wish to explore a new vocation will find they are highly employable. I may have started my career as an English teacher at a high school in Blacktown, but since then I have founded my own company, become an author, a newspaper columnist, worked on television, and consulted to business. Maintain your own love for learning and you’ll go far.

Dr Natalie Ferres from management consultancy Bendelta agrees that while it’s vital we openly discuss the challenges our educators face, support those who are struggling, and be open to make system-wide changes, we must also not forget to celebrate the wins: “All we seem to hear in the media is the negative. Without tuning into those positive voices that say the intrinsic rewards outweigh the hardships, we run the risk of negative contagion through the profession. This social contagion is the spread of affect or behaviour from one source to another.”

What price might we pay for creating a culture of dismay? “The pervasiveness of negativity about being a teacher could repel top talent,” Ferres warns.

My son hasn’t always found learning easy, nor as he always liked school. Yet, thanks in no small part to the dedicated teachers he has been fortunate enough to have been taught by, he has decided school’s a place worth sticking around. He won’t always have A+ days at work (nor do any of us), but I also know it’s a profession worth passionately pursuing.

This post was originally published in The Daily Telegraph, 16/6/18 

Dads are just as vital as mums for kids

Although it’s vital to support young men to make sense of images of sexuality that are largely devoid of meaningful relationships, and to encourage them to be mindful about how much time they spend online, when we work with boys in schools one of the topics that incites the most animated discussion is both much closer to home, and far less likely to usually be raised as worthy of discussion — parenting.

Perhaps there’s an assumption boys won’t be interested in exploring what it might mean to be a father. After all, as little boys they are far more likely to have been given an action figure to play with than a baby doll. TV tropes have long had us believe dads are a bunch of disinterested, bumbling slackers (from Fred Flintstone through to Homer Simpson).

And despite the rise of more dad-friendly commercials (an advertising trend known as “Dadvertising”) the vast majority of messages we receive about parenting still feature mothers as the nurturers and primary caregivers.

Member for Perth Tim Hammond with his wife Lindsay and seven-month-old son Tully in Bayswater after announcing he was resigning from parliament. (Pic: Rebecca Le May/AAP)

The reality is though that thankfully more men are choosing to defy convention and take a more active role in their children’s lives. Men like Labor MP Tim Hammond who resigned from Parliament this week by confessing, “I realise this is very unexpected news. But as much as I have tried desperately, I just cannot reconcile my life as a Federal Member of Parliament with being the father I need — and want — to be to my three children.”

And men like the fly-in fly-out miners in North Queensland who have recently signed up to “Hair 101 For Dads”, a workshop being run by to help fathers learn how to do their daughter’s hair. Lucas Vidler, a coal miner, told local news reporter Zarisha Bradley, that as he is away working for six months ever year, when he’s home he wants to be as involved as possible: “A lot of dads don’t know how to do hair and often we have to do the (school) drop-offs…(in the past) I’ve dropped my daughter off with some pretty average hair.”

For those young lads who don’t have a father present in their lives, opportunities to connect with good dads are particularly valuable. Earlier this year a pastor in Dallas, Donald Parish Jr., put out a plea on Facebook for men who could act as male mentors for the students who didn’t have a dad to bring to the High School’s “Breakfast with Dads” event. “We know that the majority of our students were not going to have dads present,” Parish told USA Today. “Many students don’t have any males figures around, or at least the kind who would show up for a school event like this.”

Marcus Obermeder learns to braid the hair of his daughter Annabelle, 5 with some help from Leigh Dole at Blow Bar in Waverley. (Pic: John Appleyard)

The school had hoped for 50 fathers. On the morning of the event, 600 fathers, uncles and grandfathers lined up to help out. One of the volunteers, Assistant Chief of Police Jason Rodriguez, took to Twitter afterwards to share how moved he was being involved, “Powerful to see a community of fellow men and fathers come together to wrap their arms around or (sic) young men.”

I saw how life-changing it can be for young men to be connected to positive father-figures first hand at the conclusion of a mentoring program I once co-ordinated for young people at risk.

I asked one of the teen participants what he’d most enjoyed about the six months he spent working alongside a plumber, Paul, who had acted as his mentor. I had expected this lad might mention some of the construction projects I knew they had worked on together, but his reply was far more poignant.

He said, “Every morning we’d get in the van and first drop off Paul’s son to the lady who would mind him. Paul would get his son out of the car seat so carefully and talk to him so kindly. He’d kiss his baby goodbye and tell him how much he loved him.”

“I’d never seen a man do anything like that before”, he continued, “and I want to be that man too one day.”

When boys grow up to become involved dads, everyone wins.

This post was originally published in The Daily Telegraph, 5/5/18

Heartbreak hurts at any age

When I was sixteen, my first serious boyfriend broke up with me — and I was crushed.

Why do they call it a crush when you start liking someone? Infatuation feels more like a flutter. Crushed is how you feel when someone you adore tells you that they no longer want to be with you.

Then I had to go to school the next day and face everyone. I felt like everyone was judging and labelling me: The Girl Who Got Dumped.

I became depressed afterwards. My school marks suffered. I started binge drinking on weekends. I even played with dark thoughts about hurting myself. I didn’t really want to die; I just wanted to scare him into realising the mistake he’d made and come running back to me. The realisation that this was a manipulative, destructive fantasy added shame to the mix of emotions already doing my head in.

The pain of a break up can be overwhelming the first time. (Pic: iStock)

I recall feeling deeply misunderstood and alone when my family and teachers told me that I was a smart, attractive girl and I should simply get over it. That I would go on to have many more loves. (They were right.) That my heart would be broken many more times. (They were only partly right there. Yes, I have had heartbreak, but not as crushing as that first experience of rejection. Although I’ve loved others since then, and far more intensely, I had no understanding then that I would heal — no experience of heartbreak passing. I gained that knowledge through this first breakup).

More than 30 odd years later, I’m still puzzled by the fact that while most parents work themselves into a lather of concern over the possibility that their teens may be about to begin a relationship, they are often very dismissive of their child’s emotional needs when their romances end.

Is it because we assume teen dating is mere ‘puppy love’?

Yet many of the young people I work with explain that apart from the very real pain we all feel when a bond ends (regardless of our age) there are unique circumstances surrounding their break ups that often further complicate things.

Fifteen year old Kiara laments that fact that she can’t have any physical distance from her ex: “How I am meant to get over him when I have to sit in the same class as him and watch him with his new girlfriend every day?”.

Peer group relationships can often complicate feelings after a break up. (Pic: iStock)

Darius, seventeen, explains why he felt the loss of his girlfriend left him alienated from his peers: “Everyone at school tends to pick a side. I’d walk past groups at school and hear them whispering about what I must have done to make her make want to break up with me.”.

Nick Duigan, senior clinical adviser from mental health foundation Headspace, agrees that we need to take the emotional turmoil teens feel when their romances end far more seriously. “There’s now a strong awareness of the impact bullying has on young people.

Yet we rarely acknowledge the impact of a relationship break down on teens is equally as likely to trigger the onset of a mood disorder. Teens feel things with a heightened emotional intensity and this, combined with their impulsivity, is almost the perfect storm for enormous distress and confusion.”

What should we be doing to help heal broken hearts? Duigan advises beginning by acknowledging that what your child is feeling is real, and viewing it as an opportunity to help them learn to process grief (positive, protective work that will hold them in good stead for any future losses and major life changes).

We must also resist saying ‘I told you so’ (even if we did) and encourage them to build their self-soothing skills and networks of support (ask, ‘What could you do right now that might help you feel better? Who would you feel safe speaking to about this?’).

A good old fashioned dose of TLC goes a long way too.

When Melanie broke up with her boyfriend at 18 she said her mother became her greatest ally: “She’d listen to me moan about him for hours, and cry alongside me. She bought me flowers and reminded me daily that I was loveable — with or without him.”.

If you would like to find out more about taking care of yourself after a breakup, go to headspace.org.au

This article was originally published by The Daily Telegraph, 14/4/18. 

Some uncomfortable truths about bullying

THE resounding “No way” you heard earlier this month was Australia’s commitment to stamp out bullying.

But while the aim of the National Day of Action against Bullying and Violence (NDA) is admirable, how committed are we really to acknowledge just how complex this issue is, and to implement multifaceted programs to tackle ongoing aggression?

In the current hyped-up climate (often dominated by blustering, finger-pointing adults — which is surely counter intuitive if we are serious about modelling less aggressive methods of dealing with differences) here’s some of the uncomfortable truths we need to start discussing:

1. Young people don’t change their behaviour long-term just because someone has shamed them.

Change-makers know that the key to winning minds and hearts is through the sharing of personal stories that help build empathy, the use of humour (Scott Weems, a cognitive neuroscientist and author asserts that “humour is a great way for us to have evolved so we don’t have to hit each other with sticks”) and through using shame-free language that fosters connection, rather than distance.

There are some ways we can encourage children to interact with more respect, while still being authentic. (Pic: Getty)

2. It’s naive to expect teachers or parents will be able to eliminate all bullying.

The reality is most bullying happens outside the watchful gaze of adults. The classroom bully will taunt behind the teacher’s back, or lash out in the toilets. The cyber bully will type their missives when their parents are out, or when they are engaged in another task (no parent can look over their child’s shoulder and read all their social media exchanges, and nor would it be appropriate for them to do so). Consider too, not all kids are blessed with parents who really care what they are doing — we know some parents are neglectful, and even abusive. We absolutely should strive to create more inclusive homes, schools and communities. But we need to be realistic in our expectations, and develop approaches that also rely on self-regulation and peer reinforcement of positive behaviours.

3. Bullies need support too.

The reality is that some individuals who use bullying tactics have been bullied themselves (either at school, or perhaps in their homes), and so use bullying as a maladaptive strategy to feel more powerful. The line between villain and victim can often be blurred. There is ample research to show that bullies are more likely to drop out of school, use drugs and alcohol and engage in criminal behaviour. They have a one in four chance of having a criminal record by the age of 30. Bullies need early intervention by schools, parents and the community to help them curb their aggression — not to be further ostracised.

4. Not liking everyone all the time is not bullying.

Fearful that our children 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. Although well intentioned, this advice 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.

Our political leaders, including Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, need to set an example for our children. (Pic: Tim Hunter)

To help stem the rising tide of kids who are too quick to cry “bully!”, some schools have taken to posting signs 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.”

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. 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.

Finally, it’s time for us adults to do some self-reflection. A recent US survey found that only 14 per cent of young people surveyed strongly agreed that their nation’s leaders model how to treat people with kindness. Given the state of political play here in Australia, do we really think the response from Aussie children would be much different? If our politicians are serious about curbing bullying, they need to start setting a better example.

After all, our kids can’t be what they can’t see.

This post was originally published by The Daily Telegraph – 17/3/18. 

Finding a place for anger

Bono may well have struck the wrong note with his recent comments on a lack of musical outlets for male anger.

But a conversation on what to do about male rage is long overdue.

In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, U2’s frontman Bono discussed why he and his son are hopeful for a “rock and roll revolution”. The singer then elaborated, “I think music has gotten very girly. And there are some good things about that, but hip-hop is the only place for young male anger at the moment — and that’s not good.”

First, let’s address the “girly” comment. Not only is this dismissive and sexist, the Courier-Mail’s music writer Daniel Johnson confirmed for me that it’s laughably out of touch; “Some of the most sonically vital and thematically important music from the past year has come from female singer-songwriters. Might I suggest Bono have a listen to Marie DeVita of Brisbane band Waax baring her soul on Wild & Weak … or perhaps Melbourne band Camp Cope’s latest single The Opener, on which Georgia Maq unleashes on men in the music industry espousing exactly this sort of misogyny: ‘It’s another straight cis man who knows more about this than me/It’s another man telling us we’re missing a frequency.’ ”

And even the most fury-fuelled male artists have expressed a desire to explore the full gamut of human emotions throughout their musical careers; Bono himself once crooned about love as being the Sweetest Thing.

Social media predictably quickly blew up with those wanting to slam the music industry’s favourite punching bag (ever since Apple automatically downloaded U2’s Songs of Innocence to everyone’s iTune library without permission — a freebie that rapper Tyler the Creator tweeted felt like “waking up with a pimple or … herpes …” — it seems Bono can do no right. Even his support of causes including Poverty Is Sexist, was overshadowed when Glamour magazine’s Women of the Year Awards awarded him a gong him for it — “Now little girls will know they can grow up to be Bono” tweeted the cynics.

It’s easy to forget that U2’s early work was marked less by media mishaps, and more by raw emotion; their debut album Boy explored the often chaotic and painful transition from childhood to manhood. “When I was 16”, Bono told Rolling Stone, “I had a lot of anger in me. You need to find a place for it …”

And it is this point that is not only valid, but vital to discuss. For if there is no safe place for boys and men to put their red-hot feelings, where do these go?

Dr Andrew Smiler, a therapist and author who specialises in masculinity, believes that although sport and the arts can provide a valuable outlet, “These don’t work for everyone, they may not work over the long term, and they may not be enough in the case of more intense feelings such as rage. At that level, it’s not unusual to see violence. That violence can either turn outwards and manifest in the type of news stories that almost always have at their centre a man who is very angry and can’t find other ways to express the depth of his emotion or cope with the cause of those feelings, or inward (suicide can also be considered a form of violence, except the target is the self instead of another).”

If we are serious about curbing male violence, both the type that is directed towards others and the self-destructive variety, we need to start the urgent work of educating men on how to identify their emotions; studies show that we spend much less time talking to boys about their feelings than we do girls. We need to increase their emotional vocabulary (is what they are feeling really anger, or is it perhaps loneliness, fear or shame?), teach them how to manage triggers for their rage, and encourage them to see the value in seeking support when things feel overwhelming.

We also need to explicitly show boys how to move beyond versions of masculinity that would have them dismiss the expression of some emotions as feminine (and therefore undesirable). The fact that many of us would still be more confronted by the sight of a man crying than by seeing him kick a wall in anger or frustration shows there is still an urgent need for more open conversations around what defines both strength and vulnerability.

In our work on deconstructing gender stereotypes in schools, we find that boys don’t want to be angry young men, nor do they want to be told that blokes must be stiff upper-lipped and simply “man up” when overwhelmed. They are ready and willing to sing a new song.

This post was originally published in the Daily Telegraph, and online at RendezView: 27/1/18

The four New Year’s resolutions you should make (and keep)

Long after we have swept away the aftermath of the countdown to a new year (the empty bottles and trampled party streamers) something shiny and marvellous will still remain. The promise of a fresh start.

And I’m not alone in embracing the possibility of change; about 40 per cent of us will have made a New Year’s resolution.

Tellingly, in our looks-obsessed culture, most of these pledges will relate to a desire to lose weight.

Not because we necessarily want to be more energetic or healthier, but rather because we’ve bought into the diet industry’s seductive promise that along with our new body will come a new, more joyful life; “If I just looked like that, then I’d finally find a partner”, “I’ll be happy once I reach my goal weight”. Skinny is fine, but it doesn’t guarantee you contentment or love. Forget carb counting and body fat index ratios. It seems to me there are more important resolutions we need to make (and keep) if we are serious about the passionate pursuit of happiness.

1. Be truthful

If 2017 has taught us anything, then surely it is that despite all the political doublespeak and accusations of fake news (a phrase that is reported to have risen in usage by 365 per cent since 2016) we still believe that truth matters. The #metoo movement also taught us that the truth almost always eventually surfaces — and cleanses.

Writer Rayya Elias has a mantra worth adopting: “…When everything else in the room has blown up or dissolved away, the only thing left standing will always be the truth. Since that’s where you’re gonna end up anyway, you might as well just start there.”

Sure the truth can be complicated, but owning it tends to ultimately simplify things.

2. Practice gratitude

In recent years there has been increased interest in the field of positive psychology, a discipline that looks beyond the treatment of psychological problems and focuses on helping people to actively thrive. Essentially, it’s the science of how to have a more positive outlook on life.

And when it comes to the research on what drives happiness and a healthy mental attitude, the standout is gratitude.

Daily doses of gratitude work best to flex the thankfulness muscle — whether it be through keeping a gratitude journal, writing letters or cards of thanks, giving to the less fortunate, or by volunteering to do acts of service to the community. Thankfulness is also the antidote to perfectionism.

When we develop deep gratitude, we know that we are enough (with, or without, the extra five kilos) and that we have enough (regardless of what gifts we may, or may not, have received at Christmas).

3. Connect

We know social isolation is strongly linked with depression, suicide, drug and alcohol use, and violence. Janet Morrison, from the UK’s Campaign to End Loneliness, believes loneliness is a health risk we don’t take nearly seriously enough, “ … it has the equivalent impact as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and is as big a risk as obesity”.

Yet despite the numerous online connections we make, research has shown that one out of four of us feel we have no real friends. And it is adults who are most at risk of friendlessness.

Culturally, we are encouraged to seek out someone we are romantically interested in and pursue them.

We are also trained to fine tune our skills at attracting a lover — there are dating guides and workshops, even reality shows that share every moment of the journey towards love for us all to dissect. Yet we don’t often discuss how to woo a potential new friend.

Sure we can learn conversation skills, and get involved in clubs or volunteer in the hope we might connect with those who are like-minded. But we also need to be prepared to make an effort.

Rekindling old friendships, and igniting new ones, shouldn’t be put on the bottom of the 2018 to-do list.

4. Forgive

Last year on New Year’s Eve I gathered with a small group of close friends to share dinner and engage in a forgiveness ritual; we wrote lists of things we forgave others (and ourselves) for in the year that had past, and then burned these to represent letting go of these hurts.

Rather than being a solemn ceremony, there was much laughter and a focus on the future.

Rituals can be powerful tools for developing bonds, building mindfulness, and providing meaning in a world that can all too often feel chaotic. On New Year’s Day I’ll resolve, as I have for the past few years, to take small, determined steps towards authenticity, thankfulness, deeper relationships and releasing hurts. Some years, I have more success on this journey than in others.

But there will be magic in beginning — again.

This story was first published by The Daily Telegraph, 1/1/18


Strange ways to be brave

Netflix’s Stranger Things series features a band of Dungeons and Dragons playing, science-loving geeks who have won over audiences by displaying tremendous courage in the face of supernatural forces of evil, and the horrors of hormonal changes.

The show pays homage to 80s cult films such as Stand By Me, E.T. and The Goonies; films that also presented motley crews of unlikely heroes and heroines.

Yet while we are keen to embrace a broad spectrum of what courage can look like on our screens, it seems in real life we are not quite as willing to acknowledge that our kids can earn bravery badges in other ways besides the more tangible conquering of a physical challenge.

Which helps explain why parents may get frustrated if their child happens to be reluctant to leap off the high diving board at the public pool — and why almost every school camp aims to build up bravery by requiring kids to navigate ropes courses and abseil.

Over time, the four friends from Stranger Things realise they are stronger together than apart. (Pic: Netflix.)

I recall loathing this dastardly duo when I was at school; “You’ll feel so proud of yourself once you’ve completed this!” the perky instructors would insist as I tried to explain why I had zero interest in testing myself by clambering backwards off a cliff face. But as you can rarely debate your way out of these activities, I was always, eventually, forced to participate. Afterwards, all I really felt was glad the whole public ordeal was over (and angry at the adults who insisted this was good for me: at the time I was dealing with a myriad of family issues that required great courage to navigate alone. Frankly, I had bravery burn out).

Perhaps due to these type of negative experiences, as a high school teacher, I sought to notice other types of bravery such as emotional and social courage in my students too — and there was plenty to acknowledge. There were the kids who stood up to their peers when they didn’t agree with their behaviour, the young people who were managing violence or absent parents within their homes, the teens who built up the courage to ask their crush to the school formal (despite their trembling hands and quivering voices). No climbing ropes in sight.

I also told my students stories; tales that featured plucky young people who used their wisdom and wit to conquer dark things. And I encouraged them to write their own courage narratives — to articulate a time when they had stepped up, or taken a risk.

The beauty of focusing on the brave? It grows.

Clinical psychologist Andrew Fuller, who specialises in working with young people, argues we should be more actively teaching the type of courage that moves beyond taking a physical risk and instead requires young people to take social risks; “Physical bravery is actually often easier (we may be merely acting on impulse in these moments).”

Fuller talks of the importance of being on “a continual treasure hunt” with our kids. This does not imply we should praise their every thought and deed (a path that may foster narcissism). Rather, we should be on the look out to help them identify and be inspired by moments of courage both in themselves, and in others.

In season one of Stranger Things, Mike tries to inspire his friends to help them look for their missing mate Will by reminding them of his bold and selfless play during a recent marathon game of Dungeons and Dragons. “He could have played it safe but he didn’t. He put himself in danger to help the party.” The boys agree that they need to follow Will’s example; they will apply what they have learnt about courage through playing a board game to the frightening real-world predicament that are now facing.

Perhaps we need a reminder too; our children can, and do, draw on various types of courage to slay all manner of monsters.

This post was originally published in the Daily Telegraph, 11/11/17 

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