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Category: Books

Relationship Education – beyond the birds and bees banter

Did you know that:

*24% of 14 to 17 year-olds know at least one student who has been the victim of dating violence, yet 81% of parents are either unaware of it, or turn a blind eye. What’s more, 33% of teenagers report knowing a friend or peer who has been hit, punched, kicked, slapped, choked or physically hurt by their partner.

*72% of teens say boyfriend/girlfriend relationships usually begin at 14 or younger. That’s younger than things used to be, and of those in a tween relationship (11-14 year olds) 20% report that it is conducted with secrecy so that their parents don’t know.

*Of tweens who have been in a relationship, surveys indicate that 62% said they know friends who have been verbally abused and only half of those surveyed claim to know the warning signs of a bad/hurtful relationship.

* As adolescents become more autonomous from their parents, their romantic relationships increasingly become a key source of emotional support. In fact, one study found that, amongst Tenth graders, only close friends provide more support than romantic partners.

*Young people spend a great deal of time thinking about, talking about, and being in romantic relationships yet adults typically dismiss adolescent dating relationships as superficial. The quality of adolescent romantic relationships can have long lasting effects on self-esteem and shape personal values regarding romance, intimate relationships, and sexuality.

* Within the school environment, students may get sex education – but they rarely get relationship education. The crowded education curriculum, and the pressures placed on educators due to external examinations, make the delivery of comprehensive, effective relationship education very challenging.

I had the opportunity to discuss why statistics like these prompted me to partner up with Nina Funnell and write Loveability – An Empowered Girl’s Guide to Dating and Relationships recently on radio 4Bc  in Brisbane. You may listen to this very comprehensive interview here: MediaClips_EED69_EnlightenEducation_4BC_23Feb2013_Miller-2

I was thrilled then when the excellent team at Harper Collins chose to produce Teacher’s Notes with a particular focus on how Loveability could be used in the classroom for the subject Personal Development, Health and Physical Education to achieve the following learning outcomes:

•Stage 4 Personal Development, Health and Physical Education

•Strand 1: Self and Relationships

•Stage 5 Personal Development, Health and Physical Education

•Strand 1: Self and Relationships.

The package may be downloaded here: Teachers Notes Loveability-2

Screen shot 2014-02-28 at 9.08.27 AM

I’ve also been thrilled at the early uptake from our client schools for Enlighten Education’s new one hour “Loveability” in-school workshop. You may download the flyer for this here: Loveability – EE in-school program flyer

Let’s ensure our girls know how to navigate the often complex world of relationships and receive advice that is smart, warm, engaging and never judgemental.

Destroying The Joint

I was thrilled to be asked to contribute to “Destroying The Joint – Why Women Have to Change The World,” an incredible new collection of writing initiated as a response to radio broadcaster Alan Jones’ comments that Australian women leaders were ‘destroying the joint’. Editor Jane Caro describes the work in her introduction:

The women who have contributed their responses to this book represent a wide cross-section of backgrounds, ages, beliefs, experiences and biases. Feminism is a broad church…Some of their stories will make you laugh. Some will make you cry and some rage with fury. The following pages include polemic, satire and impassioned arguments. The one thing they all share is a desire to change the world and make things fairer: for women, for men, for children, for the disabled, the indigenous, the migrant, the poor, the gay, the straight, the despised and, not least, the planet. Some people call that destroying the joint.”

The publishers, University of Queensland Press, have very kindly given me permission to republish my essay here.

Beyond Jeering – An unapologetic love letter to teen girls.

Nine times out of ten when I am introduced as a guest on radio or television, the host makes a comment to the effect that I must be somewhat unhinged to have devoted my career to working with teen girls (insert knowing smirk at just how awful they can be) or looks at me with genuine bewilderment, almost unable to comprehend why anyone would enjoy working with a group that’s 50 shades of trouble. I can see them thinking: ‘Is she perhaps just naive about what girls are really like?’ At best, they may say I’m brave.

I don’t see myself as crazy or brave. What I do see are the unhelpful common perceptions of teen girls in our culture.

How are our daughters labelled when they hit adolescence? They have been reduced to a series of caricatures. There’s Little Miss Cynical, the eye-rolling teen dismissing everything with a ‘whatever’; Little Miss Surly, the angry, no-one-understands-me bitch; Little Miss Stupid, the kind of girl TV executives love to portray on reality TV shows, helping to really ingrain the ‘clueless’ stereotype in our psyches; Little Miss Slut, she of the short skirts, provocative pouts and insatiable sexting; Little Miss Diva, too spoiled to work, clean her room or contribute to society; and Little Miss Queen Bee, who spends all her time creating burn books or Gossip Girl-esque sites where she can play the compare-and-despair game of ranking and rating her peers.

The media and entertainment industries are hypercritical of girls and take an almost salacious pleasure in exposing girls-gone-bad type stories. Every week I appear on a panel on Channel 9’s Mornings show to talk about issues affecting girls and women. When they asked me to discuss a physical fight between two young women on the show The Shire, within weeks the clip of that discussion had attracted some 135 000 views – in comparison to the few hundred views most of my clips attract. It’s hard to imagine a story about a fight between two young men on a dramality show garnering that level of attention from the media or viewers.

Even those who should have teen girls’ best interests at heart, the people who write parenting books, often describe teen girls in terms that are less than kind or generous of spirit. Walk down the parenting aisle of any bookstore and you’ll find plenty of covers depicting adolescent girls as sluttish or surly. As one girl said to me after a seminar, ‘If I came home and found my mum reading a book that presented girls in the way some of these books do, I’d be so hurt. We don’t read books entitled Parents are Pains in the Arses, do we?’

I am not naive, either. I do not view girls through rose-coloured glasses. I began my career as a high school teacher and worked in schools for ten years, predominantly with students at risk, who always give it to you real and raw. Since I founded my own business in 2003, my company has worked with tens of thousands of girls from all kinds of backgrounds, and I have a teen daughter. Yes, I know girls can be challenging. But I wonder at times if they slip into this mode because they feel it is expected of them. There are times when my daughter can become almost a caricature of the difficult teen girl – a fully fledged Ja’mie from Chris Lilley’s satirical Summer Heights High – and, in fact, the best way to snap her out of it is to casually call her Ja’mie and say that her behaviour is ‘so random’.

Binge drinking, body image anxiety, friendship fallouts, self-harming, navigating the ever-changing online world: these issues are all impacting our girls, and we should care. But the answer lies in education – not moral panic, or policing and patronising. We must give girls the skills they need to make informed choices and encourage them to turn their critical gaze on their culture, not themselves and each other.

And truly, being a pain is not typical of only the teen-girl experience – look around you! Just as many adults are struggling with alcohol, poor self-esteem, toxic relationships and stress.

I think it is far too easy to lose sight of the fact that girls are not one-dimensional stereotypes. Girlworld is made up of a multitude of identities, personalities, talents, skills and ideas. It is this diversity and the vast complexity of girls that delights me and that I think our culture often refuses to acknowledge. Of course, girls might have their Little Miss moments of acting cynical or surly or spoilt, but they are so much more than that.

Bullying and bitchiness get a lot of press, but I am often astonished by the intensity of the affection teen girls have for each other. To see a group of teen girlfriends together is a beautiful thing. They hug each other and snuggle together, styling each other’s hair, with giggled whispers and knowing looks. I wonder sometimes if we envy them their unbridled enthusiasm for each other and the intimacy of their relationships with their BFFs.

And this warmth, generosity and caring doesn’t just stop at their circle of friends.

Teen girls are destroying the joint – but not through dysfunction, apathy and nastiness, as we are led to believe. Make no mistake, for every 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. I am full of optimism and pride in the way our girls are taking on, and making over, their world.

The teen girls at a school I worked at in early 2012 in Sydney were so inspired by Real Girl Power, our workshop on the history of the women’s movement, that, at lunchtime, a group of them waltzed up to a particularly sexist boy in their year group. Samantha, the group’s nominated spokeswoman, told him, ‘You always like to say, “Go make me a sandwich,” whenever we say something you don’t agree with in class. Guess what? There will be no sandwiches for you. And you don’t have to like what we say, but you do need to listen. If you try to dismiss us again, we are all going to start clapping loudly every time you speak. It’s going to really shine the spotlight on you, and we’re not sure you’re going to like that.’

There were no more orders for sandwiches, Samantha emailed to tell me. And we realised that collectively, we were strong. You could see the fear in all the boys’ eyes after that … LOL. I loved that this made her laugh – there is indeed a joy in claiming one’s power.

A teen girl in Western Australia, named Daffodil, shared with me her own story of activism: ‘This year, my school, St Brigid’s College, has given me the opportunity to complete a personal project and … I have been inspired to raise awareness of self-esteem issues in teenage girls in our society. I have also started to create a beauty campaign for the school community, which includes posters and affirmation cards promoting true beauty.’ Daffodil posted images in the school toilets and on classroom doors that reminded her classmates that they are more than just their bodies, they are somebodies.

A group of teen girls in Victoria decided they didn’t know much about feminism and why it mattered, so they chose to do a research assignment on it as part of an interest project at school. They interviewed me and a number of other women. Then they presented their work to their classmates and invited them to join the Young Feminist group they were starting at school. They had a 70% take-up.

I am inspired by the fifteen-year-old who had a baby, as a result of being raped, and turned up at the school carnival the next week to join in sporting events and cheer on her classmates. And by the fourteen-year-old who sends me poems she has written on what being beautiful really means and tells me how she will survive being bullied and emerge a shinier girl.

I am impressed by Tess Corkish, who at age eighteen was outraged when a popular retailer began selling products she thought were sexist. She transformed her outrage into something positive by starting an online petition. Amassing thousands of signatures and drawing media attention, the campaign resulted in the products being withdrawn from store shelves.

Then there’s Jemma Ryan, seventeen. After seeing me speak at a girls’ education conference in Melbourne in 2009, Jemma successfully lobbied to have me present at Clonard College, where she was school captain. Jemma and I have stayed in touch ever since. She flew to Sydney earlier this year to stay with me and my family to help me in my office before she commenced 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, no-divas-here attitude?

Jemma also writes for her local paper; she has been doing that since she was fourteen. When I asked her how she had fitted in studying, her role as a student leader, her part-time job at Bakers Delight and writing for the paper, she explained, ‘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. When we first met, I was in my final year of high school and was really committed to my studies … some would say school was my first love. My first love and I had been together for thirteen years, and I wasn’t about to stop spending time with it for a boy! So when I did meet someone (a boy that is, not another school), I had to find a balance that worked for all three of us (yes, me, boy and studies). I know how it sounds, this girl was all about the parent pleasing, but that wasn’t it at all, it was about values and priorities. I only had a few months of hard study to go, and I knew anyone that really liked me for me would respect my school lovin’ ways!’

And what does Jemma plan to do with all her smarts and determination? Join the revolution, of course, and work on empowering the next generation of young girls. She says, ‘I can’t think of anything that would be more fulfilling!’

Me either, Jem.

The choices made by girls like these aren’t often shared in popular culture – but they do deserve our recognition.

We must try not to let the slammed doors, angry silences or sarcastic asides of adolescence blind us to girls’ essential lovableness. And we must also not be distracted by the toxic culture our girls are immersed in and that they do sometimes struggle with, for there is a risk that it can blind us to an even more important reality: not only the lovableness, but also the strength and resilience, of girls.

All 400+ girls Enlighten worked with recently at the Australian International School in Singapore wore shirts declaring themselves “Resilient.” I love this!

Destroying The Joint will be available in all good bookshops from 24th April, R.R.P. $29.95.

All About Women – Bringing Up Daughters

I am thrilled to announce I will again grace the stage at the Sydney Opera House; you may recall last year I joined Germaine Greer, Eva Cox and Tara Moss there as part of the Festival Of Dangerous Ideas.

This April I shall Chair a panel on “Bringing Up Daughters.” Other panellists will include Nigel Marsh, Maya Newell and Barbara Toner.

I thought this week I would begin my preparation by drawing on your collective wisdom. Ms Toner’s most recent book, Because I Love You, is a guide written for her three daughters. In it she offers them advice on everything from “The meaning of life and how it should be lived”, to “How to buy property and live in it happily.”

In many ways I consider my book for teen girls, The Girl With The Butterfly Tatoo, to be a heart-felt conversation with young women on all things I think they need to know to be empowered.

What advice would you offer your daughter to ensure she does not end up ending her days in the manner in which the blurb on the reverse of Ms Toner’s book cautions she might should she not heed her mother’s wisdom:   “on the streets, in the gutter, with spoilt children, gum disease and bosom droop.”

Book Give Away! I have a copy of “Because I Love You” to offer to one of my readers. Simply comment below, and leave your email address for us to contact you should you win, and we will pick a reader at random on 10th March. 

 

Judging A Book By It’s Cover

This week there has been animated discussion about book covers. Concern over the truly awful feminised version of Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar” went beyond merely that of taste.

1966 cover design
Faber’s 50th Anniversary edition

Writer Nicole Elphick highlighted the concerns of many in her excellent analysis over at Daily Life:

The cover also illustrates a larger problem in how women’s literature is treated. By making the cover so explicitly, narrowly feminine in imagery, it assumes that if a woman writes something it will only be of interest to women and should only be marketed to women, as if somehow women are completely incapable of speaking to the breadth of human experience.

Elphick goes on to site author Jennifer Weiner on literary sexism in a 2010 interview she did for The Huffington Post: “I think it’s a very old and deep-seated double standard that holds that when a man writes about family and feelings, it’s literature with a capital L, but when a woman considers the same topics, it’s romance, or a beach book.” Amen.

However, some of the commentary on the new-look Anne of Green Gables cover (pictured below) is frankly ridiculous. Sure, the new look may feature a traditionally attractive blonde posing in an unnatural way, but to say she has a “come-hither” look, is a “bosomy vixen” and packaged to be like a “porn star” is crazy. She is wearing a high collared button up shirt for goodness sake! Crazy over-reactions like this do nothing to further the very real issue of the premature sexualisation of children and only undermine the valuable work being done in this area.

The controversial new cover of Anne of Green Gables.

I assume the publishers were hoping to update the look and appeal to the young Saddle Club audience with this version. Boring? Yep. Inappropriate to use a blonde rather than a red -head considering Anne is quite famous for the colour of her locks? Agreed. But let’s not start implying that girl’s bodies are innately dangerous and sexually provocative; that even in buttoned up shirts they could be leading people on ( “She’s asking for it by leaning back like that…”).

I’ve previously cautioned against over-reactions, and explained why they are so dangerous, over at The Hoopla. 

Love to hear what you think of both covers…

 

My next book

The Next Big Thing encourages writers to share their work. Participants answer questions on their next big project (usually a book, but not always – one of the nominees listed with me was a playwright) each Wednesday, and pass the baton on to five other writers to continue the project the following week.

Last week, I was tagged by Rachel Hills.

This provides me with the perfect excuse to discuss my next book which I have just completed. I had the pleasure of co-writing this with my dear friend Nina Funnell.

1) What is the working title of your next book?

“Love – An Empowered Girl’s Guide to Dating and Relationships”. It must be said though that we are still playing around with a number of titles. Like all expectant parents, we are keen to ensure we get the name for our baby just right. 

2) Where did the idea come from for the book?

Recently Nina and I met for coffee and found ourselves browsing through the self-help / relationship section at a local bookshop. We noted there was a whole genre of books out there aimed at young women, that would have them believe that landing a man means being less of who they really are. And there didn’t seem to be any books at all that were offering the kind of advice we actually wanted when we were teen girls – how to survive crushes, how to tell if someone likes you, how to cope with heartbreak, how to set relationship boundaries, how to know when it’s time to break up with your partner, and even (shock horror) how to actually enjoy being single (because it can be awesome)!

And while there are hundreds of studies conducted on teenagers and sex every year, there are almost no comprehensive studies (or very few) about teen relationships, in part because teen relationships are often viewed as trivial or unworthy of serious academic study. But the reality is, teen relationships are far from trivial. In fact these early experiences help shape us and lay the foundation for future relationships.  

So we decided that if we didn’t think any of what was out there already was particularly helpful, that we should offer something different.

3) What genre does your book fall under?

Relationships – non-fiction. 

4) What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

My initial thoughts were that it is not the type of book that would be made into a film; but I then realised that of course one of the classic guides to relationships, “He’s Just Not That Into You”, was made into a very successful movie. So, should Hollywood call, I would  suggest a cast of young, diverse, interesting actors and actresses. With the soundtrack by Paul Dempsey / Something For Kate. 

Hey, if we are dreaming here…

5) What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

This book is an up –front guide to ethical dating and relationships which will empower young women. 

6) Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

The book will be published by Harper Collins, February 2014. 

7) How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

Nina and I had discussed the book concept for some time, but really only began writing 6 months ago. 

8) What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

The chapters I wrote are similar in their tone to my other book for teen girls, The Girl With The Butterfly Tattoo. However, the book itself  deliberately parts ways with other guides to relationships that are already on the market for young people.  

9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?

All the girls Nina and I work with in schools inspired this book. 

10) What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

Think of this book as being a little like a “Lonely Planet” guide to Love written specifically for teen girls. We tell them about our travels, what we liked, what we hated, the places we would definitely go again and those they need to avoid… and we invited many other “travelers” to share their experiences too. It is warm and wise – and the teen girls we have shared it with to date absolutely love it! 

Next Wednesday, you’ll see a response from this writer I hereby tag*:

Sharon Witt  

* Technically, I am supposed to tag 5 writers but as as it is the Christmas season, I could only access one willing to participate at this time. Hey – it’s quality,  not quantity that counts.

 

Amazing Grace: One woman’s story of overcoming anxiety

I am fortunate to regularly be a panelist on Channel 9’s Mornings with Jane Caro, self-described novelist (Just a Girl), author (The Stupid Country, The F Word), writer, feminist, atheist, Gruen Chick, speaker, media tart, wife, mother and stirrer. I recently spent time with her at the Byron Bay Writer’s Festival, where she took part in two particularly inspiring and stand-out panels on public schooling and feminism.

I joked with her afterwards that she should get a T-shirt made up: “Jane Caro, challenging bullshit since 1957”. I think her considered, and occasionally fierce, approach to challenging issues is exactly what we need in this age of subtext and hidden agendas. She and I have had some really powerful discussions on the role the media  plays in shaping our self-perception and on whether or not real confidence can, in fact, be taught. I enjoy our ongoing debates, as they are always mutually respectful and stretch me enormously.

At another session at the writer’s festival, Women of Letters, Jane read a piece she had written on her experiences overcoming an anxiety disorder. I loved her honestly in revealing her struggles. When we share our struggles, we have enormous capacity to inspire others to face and overcome their own issues. That’s why I share my struggles with body image and alcohol in my books. Many girls thank me and say things like “I thought I was the only one who struggled” or “I felt so alone.” Girls (and women!) can’t be what they can’t see — imagine how liberating it would be if more female leaders revealed their vulnerable sides and spoke of their own trials. The truly powerful show all of themselves.

I’m excited to feature Jane’s moving and inspiring account of overcoming anxiety here on the blog this week. This is a special exclusive for Enlighten Amazons, as it is the first time this story has been published. Next week, we’ll be following up this feature with a look at the causes and treatments for anxiety, which affects 15% of people aged 16-24 and 5% of Australians of all ages.

 

At the Byron Bay Writer’s Festival (from left): Jane Caro, Dannielle Miller and feminist and author Susan Johnson, whose three-part article on teens and body image recently appeared on our blog

A letter to the person I’d have been if I had stayed in “that relationship” with anxiety

Are you still waiting for that sword to fall? Are you still facing the world with your eyes wide open (I have the wrinkles your hyper-vigilant state of alert etched into my forehead with me still), eyebrows lifted as you scan the world for the danger that you are sure is there – just there, round the next corner, crouched like a lion ready to pounce, in the very next second?

The fangs and claws you feared was madness. It wasn’t what was outside you that terrified you, it was what you carried within.

Do you still have pins and needles in your wrists and hands? That sense of being eternally tensed and ready to fend off danger, to protect yourself or turn and flee? Poised, on tiptoes, ready for fight or flight. How exhausted you must be, how ground down – or maybe, finally, you have managed to do what you always most feared and have driven yourself mad. I used to think it might be a relief to give in, to stop fighting and let the demons take over.

Do you still drive past pedestrians, convinced that only by dint of great effort have you defeated the impulse to run them down and that next time – the mental anguish of this thought always nauseated you – you may not be so lucky? Do you still hate edges? Edges of train platforms, cliffs, open windows on upper floors? Remember how you had to crawl past that long, low window in the hotel room in Rome, sick to your stomach? You never knew if you had the mental strength to resist the twin urges that overwhelmed you whenever you came to an edge – especially unexpectedly – to either push someone else over or plunge over yourself. And, truly, I know well, you would have preferred the latter. I remember thinking – when I was still you – that I could always commit suicide and that the thought was a comfort. And we were so young, back then, and so afraid.

So many things nauseated you – sharp knives, little children, boiling water – you became convinced you carried a monster around inside you. A monster you had to control.

Have you still not realized that was what it was all about – control? That you were casting magic spells with fate, trying to make a bargain with gods you didn’t actually believe in? You felt that you could (had to?) control the monsters by anticipating them and remaining on high alert. Have you still not understood that you had neither the power to defeat danger by imagining it in advance nor – as you always deeply feared – make it happen by simply conjuring it up in your mind?

Are you still trapped in the vicious circle of worrying about worrying about things? It was egotistical, in a way, that belief in your own importance and power – your imaginary dangerousness. This may astonish you, but in the end, I believe it was humility that defeated the fear.

But before I get to that, I have so many things to thank you for and now is my chance to give my ten years of anxiety their due. You taught me so much that I do not believe I could have learned any other way. You taught me not to rush to judgment, ever. To understand what struggling with mental anguish and the demons in the depths of your own mind is like. I cannot condemn the murderer, the evildoer, even the pedophile as others seem able to do. I thought I was a monster; I felt overwhelmed with terrifying, dark thoughts. I know their power and their terror. Who am I to judge? Thank you for that; it was worth every nauseating minute to learn that lesson in humanity, not simply intellectually but viscerally. The only hymn I love is “Amazing Grace”, because I feel as if I understand it. When I read of someone the world is vilifying and whose deeds are dark, there is still a part of me that reminds me “There but for the grace of God go I.” Thank you, thank you, thank you for that. Compassion and humility are very great gifts.

You made me a writer. Novelists, in particular, must be able to understand and value all their characters, even the worst of them. We must be able to fully occupy their inner world to make them real to our readers, to make them live. Suffering informs the imagination, broadens it, hones it, softens it.

You forced me to seek help. Now I understand that my anxiety was the healthiest part of me at that time. You would not let me go until I had dealt with the patterns of thinking that were no longer working for me. You were inexorable. I had to face you, and you would not leave me until I did. It was you who forced me to reach out to psychologists, psychiatrists and, finally, most successfully, a counsellor. All of them taught me many things about being alive and what it is to be human. They could not cure me – in the end, I had to do that for myself – but they gave me the tools, the information, the commonsense and the wisdom that, when I was finally ready, I picked up and used. I use them all still. And when I need it, I remain happy to seek help knowing that I will find it. I have passed on many of the skills and wisdom I learnt, particularly to my daughters, neither of whom seem to suffer with the anxiety that so bedevilled my own youth.

And my terror made me feel alive – painfully so – but very aware of myself, the world and my place in it. I struggled and I grew. Sometimes I miss that. I am happier now but also more complacent and a little bit less present. Even self-confidence has its price.

But how did it end? How did we break up and how did I manage to leave you behind, now for almost a quarter of a century?

I experienced real, rather than imaginary, danger and did not go mad.

My first baby was born prematurely and caught an infection in the hospital: RSV and bronchiolitis, still the biggest single killer of babies under one. After a few harrowing days in the crowded babies ward, she stopped breathing in my arms and had to be resuscitated. She stopped breathing two more times that night and ended up being intubated in the last available intensive care neo-natal bed in NSW. She was officially the sickest child in the state.

The next morning, convinced she would die (I remember clearly thinking, “I have only known her for 13 days but if she dies, so will I”), I did what I had learnt to do – thanks to you – and reached out for help. Dr Peter Barr, neo-natologist and grief counsellor, met me in the coffee shop of the hospital. There he said these words to me that, 25 years later, I can still quote verbatim.

“There is nothing special about you,” he said. “There is nothing special about Polly. Terrible things can happen and they can happen to anyone. Safety is an illusion. Danger is reality.”

Invisible bricks fell from my shoulders as he spoke, as I realized that I had to deal with what was and not what might be. There was nothing special about me; I had no power over my fate or even my child’s. Terrible things could and might happen but I would only worry about them when they did. I gave up control.

I have been frightened since, but never anxious.

I still don’t much like edges, though.

 

Jane Caro is the author of:

Just a Girla young adult historical fiction told from the perspective of Elizabeth, daughter of King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, who on the cusp of her coronation wonders, “How do you find the courage to become queen even though you are just a girl?”

The Stupid Country: How Australia is dismantling public education (with Chris Bonnor), which aims to “show how government, anxious parents, the church and ideology are combining to undermine public schools”.

The F Word: How we learned to swear by feminism (with Catherine Fox), which challenges “the pervasive idea that women will never be able to effectively combine work or interests outside the home with marriage, a social life and parenting” by telling the stories of a range of women and providing “practical suggestions for forgiving ourselves, having fun and not giving up while holding it all together”.

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.


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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