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Category: Child abuse

Time for solutions not more talk

Regular readers will know I have spent the past six months as a volunteer Board Director for a new women’s shelter that is opening in Sydney’s northwest, The Sanctuary. Like most Australians, I’ve become increasingly alarmed by the headlines about women dying at the hands of their partners. In my work with teen girls, I hear more and more stories about young girls who are already trapped in relationships that are dangerous. My team of presenters at Goodfellas report the young men they work with also express concern about the men in their lives who make home a frightening place. 

Part of the solution lies in educating youth and broadening awareness through my writing and work in the media. My more hands-on work at The Sanctuary is another more practical part of the way forward.

I’m  happy to do everything from running our social media, to writing media releases, to helping with fundraising. But I am particuarly proud of two of the initiatives I’ve instigated for this refuge. One is The Sanctuary’s partnership with local boys’ college Oakhill. The other is connecting our work to the broader community through the establishment of an Ambassador program. Here our Ambassador Sarrah Le Marquand explains why this connection matters to her.  This guest post was first published in The Daily Telegraph 5/4 and posted online at RendezView.  

Ambassadors Maggie Dent (far left) and Sarrah Le Marquand ( far right) with Sanctuary Chair Yvonne Keane and myself.
Ambassadors Maggie Dent (far left) and Sarrah Le Marquand ( far right) with Sanctuary Chair Yvonne Keane and myself. Photo by Hills Shire Times.

It might sound a bit rich coming from someone who writes and speaks for a living, but talk alone is cheap. Heightened awareness of certain issues is vital, but unless that awareness eventually translates into action then words are just words.

Which is why, at a time when certain aspects of the national discussion regarding domestic violence threaten to descend into a he said/she said slanging match, it is on-the-ground measures and community solutions that are making a real impact.

Late last week I had the privilege of touring The Sanctuary, a new shelter for women and children fleeing domestic violence that will open in Sydney’s northwest suburb of Castle Hill this week.

A state of the art facility equipped to provide three months of crisis accommodation for six women and their young families, The Sanctuary is a collaboration between the local community and Women’s Community Shelters that has become a reality despite no government funding.

To see first-hand the generosity of volunteers, including welcome packs for each family put together by male students from a nearby high school, is to see first-hand the triumph of action over talk.

There’s no navel-gazing lectures and petty point scoring on domestic violence here. Just good men and women making a real difference in the lives of victims.

Sarrah Le Marquand also spoke about her visit on Radio 2UE. You may listen here: 

How young men will help put an end to domestic violence

The following post was originally published by RendezView 15/10/15.

 

Like most Australians, every time I hear news reports about yet another woman who has died at the hands of her partner, I feel horrified.

And as at least one woman gets killed as a result of domestic violence every week, I find myself feeling horrified often.

But how does one move from anguish into something more constructive that might form part of the solution?

As an educator and author I’ve dedicated my career to date to working with young women; empowering them to know their worth, encouraging them to deconstruct limiting gender stereotypes and teaching them how to develop and maintain respectful relationships.

But putting an end to violence against women and children cannot just be the work of women; we desperately need the passion, creativity and hard work of good men too.

So when I joined a committed group of people in my local community working to establish a new domestic violence shelter in the Sydney suburb of Castle Hill, called The Sanctuary, I wanted to initiate a partnership with the largest boys’ school in the area, Oakhill College.

It is these lads who can help us ensure that one day, our refuge may no longer be needed. Because while shelters are focused on creating crisis accommodation for women and children, they are also focused on early intervention and prevention work.

This is why all 220 of the Year 10 boys who will be adopting The Sanctuary as their own were briefed about why a refuge is needed in their local area, and about what they as young men can do to help curb violence.

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This initiative was also featured in The Daily Telegraph 14/10

They then did further research — including looking at the underlying issues that drive domestic violence such as gender inequality and sexism — and started creating their own anti-DV posters they will carry when they join in our local White Ribbon march in November.

The boys will also now begin making up Welcome Packs (toiletries, chocolates, etc) that can be given to women and children as they arrive at the shelter. The attached gift card will simply read, “We care about you and we are glad you are safe. This gift is for you to show you that you’re valued.” This small act of kindness has the potential to have a huge impact for both the giver and the receiver.

Their English teachers have also now begun brainstorming ideas for how they can embed this work across their curriculum. The staff love the social justice focus and also the opportunity this creates for the application of learning in the real world.

And like with all projects that young people feel a sense of ownership over, it will evolve in ways none of us can even anticipate at this early stage. From the simple (the lad who approached me to say, “Danni, this really means a lot to me and if you want I’ll get some friends and go door knocking to get you more money”) to the more innovative (there’s talk of producing and performing plays, and of making film projects).

Why has the initial response from these boys been so positive?

The boys have been encouraged to realise they can be part of the solution.

When I first met these boys, I looked straight into their eyes and told them I knew they were gorgeous young men who felt just as distressed as I did by knowing not all women and children are safe in their own homes. And I told them I knew they would welcome the opportunity to learn and be voices of difference.

So often too we forget that in homes where there are violent men, there are young boys who are not violent. Rather, there are boys who feel scared. Boys who feel angry. Boys who feel powerless.

Boys who want to make things OK.

And while I am incredibly grateful for the enormous contributions of the women who work tirelessly in this field, in my community I have been inspired to see there are plenty of men who want to step up and make things OK as well.

There are fellow Sanctuary Board members, like Hills Local Area Commander Rob Critchlow, who helped get the ball rolling here by seeking out a location to establish a safe shelter and managing security concerns. And the Centre Manager for Castle Towers, Martin Ollis, who convinced his QIC Board to donate a fully refurbished property to The Sanctuary rent-free. There’s the Assistant Principal at Oakhill, Bob Munday, who jumped at the opportunity for his boys to be The Sanctuary’s advocates.

And there are these young men.

All are true champions for change. Their attitudes reaffirm that most men in Australia respect women and children and believe that the current culture of violence is unacceptable. And those who feel otherwise are discredited and put on notice.

Update 30/11 – I was asked to speak to Brisbane Breakfast FM radio 97.3 about this initiative for White Ribbon day. You may listen to this animated discussion here:

I don’t believe self-defence training is “victim blaming”. And I’m a feminist.

I’m a proud feminist. And I’m the CEO of Australia’s largest provider of in-school workshops for teen girls that help develop self-worth and resilience. And I promote self-defence classes to young women.

Here’s how, and here’s why.

The uncomfortable truth? Teen girls are likely to experience violence in their lifetime; this can occur in a wide range of contexts ranging from schoolyard bullying and peer based aggression, through to street based harassment and stranger intimidation, through to physical assault and sexual violence.

And while we all agree this is a situation that needs to be urgently addressed, where feminists disagree is on the kind of advice, if any, which should be given to girls given this reality.

Some argue passionately that any attempt to modify young women’s behaviours is in effect victim blaming, and that the onus on change must always be placed squarely and solely at the feet of those who would harm.

I agree that often the dialogue on what women should do to stay safe, particularly after high profile media reporting on the death of a woman, can become (sometimes unintentionally) focused on what women wear, where they choose to go, whether they chose to drink alcohol. It focuses on limiting women’s freedoms.

This is never helpful. This is never OK. And it tends to assume that men who would harm are strangers lurking in dark alleys, waiting for their next vulnerable victim. As the statistics on domestic violence here in Australia clearly show, this is not always the case.

However, if self-defence is 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, it can do much to shift this type of thinking. In fact, at the end of our sessions, many girls have approached us to explain how for the first time they felt understood; “I’ve always felt like maybe I must have somehow been to blame for my boyfriend hurting me like that. I now know that it had nothing to do with me …”

Importantly too, there must be an emphasis on the fact that we must also never blame a victim who doesn’t (for whatever reason) act assertively or fight back when in a threatening situation. Any of us, even trained professionals in the army or police force, can freeze in the face of danger. By explaining the body’s instinctive fight, flight or freeze survival mechanism, again much can be done to alleviate victim blaming and shaming.

In this age of body-image angst, self-defence classes also challenge the myth that women’s bodies are merely ornamental. Girls can be fast, strong and powerful; they can set physical boundaries. They can take up more space.

And girls can learn how and when to set verbal boundaries: “Stop! I don’t like it!”. Self-defence classes encourage girls to find their voices which is in contrast to the passivity-push that would have us believe girls should be sugar, spice and all things nice; seen and not heard.

In addition, girls are encouraged to shout-out not just for themselves but for others too; we also teach ethical bystander behaviour. There is great strength in connecting girls to each other and in fostering a sense of sisterhood.

And let me tell you, girls love all of this. Our self-defence workshop would be one of the ones girls rave about the most in their evaluations of our work. There is always laughter, giggling and a real delight in feeling powerful rather than powerless.

Finally, there is plenty of evidence to show self-defence classes can be useful in certain contexts. After news of an English women who had been trained in martial arts beating her sex-attacker unconscious broke recently, journalist Rhiannon Lucy Cossett argued that it was her own knowledge of self-defence that had saved her in an attack too; “After fighting off my attacker … (I kicked, scratched, punched, wrestled him to the ground, and told him he was a motherf****r) … I am baffled as to why self-defence has become so apparently outmoded, because it helped me when I needed it most. I grew up with a mother who used to run workshops for women who were victims of domestic violence in South London. It was she who taught me to face my attacker kicking and screaming, and in doing so she saved my life.

“That’s not to say that I might not have frozen … you cannot predict how any human will react, and I speak only for myself — but I am baffled that it is not taught more in schools. Why not have kickboxing and martial arts in PE lessons? Ultimately, extra-curricular karate lessons proved more useful to me than netball ever did.”

And what do the schools we have worked with say?

I have had emails from three different school principals in the years since we have been running these courses thanking us for giving their students the information they needed when they were in a potentially dangerous situation. On all three occasions their girls had been harassed on trains and knew to follow their instincts, move away quickly and to let other adults around them know they were feeling unsafe. Importantly, they also knew it was not their fault that they had been targeted: “They felt angry rather than ashamed which is just as it should be.”

And I have had many, many messages from teen girls that have told me that they suspect knowing that it is OK to set boundaries (and how to do this assertively) has kept them safe in a myriad of different situations. Everything from being bullied in the playground by other students, to being cornered at a party by a guy they trusted who tried to coerce them into sex.

Doctors Jill Cermele and Martha McCaughey, women’s self-defence advocates and founders of site “See Jane Fight Back!” also argue: “Self-defence challenges the belief that rape is thwarted only by the perpetrator “coming to his senses”, through bystander interference, or divine intervention. “Yep. In a perfect world? It would not be necessary to focus on how women and girls can learn assertiveness and self-defence skills. But we do not yet live in that world.

And while the vital work to help curb violence continues, so too should the programs for girls and women that provide options and strategies for keeping safe.

Knowledge is power. And I choose to pass power on.

This post originally appeared in News Corp’s popular online opinion site RendezView. 

 

High School, High Anxiety: How to support teens with anxiety disorders

Last week’s inspiring post by Jane Caro on overcoming an anxiety disorder struck a chord with many readers who have been through the same thing. Many of our girls are facing this issue, too. In fact, 15% of people aged 16-24 are affected by an anxiety disorder. So this week, we’re taking a look at the causes and symptoms of anxiety — and most importantly, what we can do to support girls who are dealing with it.

What is anxiety disorder?

We have all experienced anxiety. For you, the pounding heartbeat, flushed face, dry mouth, sweatiness and feeling of dread might hit before you have to give a speech. Or perhaps it’s going to a job interview or sitting for an exam that makes you feel shaky, short of breath and queasy.

This is a normal reaction to stress. It’s your body’s fight or flight response, and humans have been experiencing it since we lived in caves: in the face of a threat, adrenaline is released, ramping up your body to either defend yourself or run. Since then the threats have changed from sabre-toothed tigers to things like impending deadlines and public speaking engagements, but our body’s reaction is the same. And this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. According to Youth BeyondBlue, “a certain amount of anxiety is good for us, as it gets us hyped up to perform at our best.”

It becomes a problem, though, when that feeling remains long after the stressful situation has passed. For a girl with anxiety disorder, it pervades her whole life and continues for weeks, months or longer. The anxious feelings tend to be a more intense and overwhelming. The anxiety may interfere with her daily life, as she avoids situations that are likely to trigger her anxiety. Vanessa, who had an anxiety disorder for several years during high school and overcame it at age 17, describes her experience this way:

I would be standing on the bus coming home from school, and boom, my heart would start racing so fast that I was convinced I was about to have a heart attack and die. Obviously that didn’t happen — but instead of being relieved, I thought that this must be how insanity starts. I was worried I would just slip away and lose all grip on reality. Some days it was too hard to go to school, because I thought everyone could tell I was going crazy. It was a vicious cycle, because those thoughts only fed the anxiety.

Anxiety can take several forms:

  • Generalised Anxiety Disorder — continual worrying about aspects of everyday life such as school, work, relationships and health
  • Social Anxiety — crippling fear of being judged by others in social situations
  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder — obsessive fears leading the continual repetition of an action or ritual — e.g., a fear of germs leading to the frequent washing of hands
  • Panic Disorder — periods of intense fear and anxiety lasting from a few minutes up to half an hour
  • Phobia — fear and avoidance of a particular thing or situation — e.g., heights, enclosed spaces, dogs, etc.
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder — periods of anxiety, flashbacks or bad dreams related to a traumatic experience

What causes anxiety?

Stressful situations such as parents breaking up, family conflicts, being bullied or abused, or going through a relationship breakup can  trigger an anxiety disorder. And genes can play a role, so girls may be more prone if other people in the family have gone through it.

Perfectionism also seems to be a common thread for many people with an anxiety disorder. Adelaide psychologist Dr Michele Murphy said in July’s edition of Madison, “Of course perfection is impossible, so anxiety may result from a sense of failure and the exhaustion of attempting to attain unrealistic standards.” Hmm…attempting to attain unrealistic standards, now doesn’t that sound familiar? Given the constant barrage of media, pop culture and social messages telling girls that they aren’t thin enough, or hot or pretty or popular enough, or they aren’t achieving enough, it’s  little wonder that so many of them feel overwhelmed and anxious. (And their mothers, too!)

Bella, who is 20 and had anxiety throughout her teens, always performed well academically, and this became a major focus of her anxiety:

In the subjects I got my best marks in, I was a wreck for weeks before exams. I couldn’t sleep and I had this dread of what would happen if I didn’t get the mark everyone was expecting me to. It was like my life was going to come to an end. Now I know that fear was out of all proportion — but at the time, I couldn’t think about anything else.

Signs of an anxiety disorder

It’s normal for everyone to experience a certain amount of anxiety surrounding stressful events, but if a girl shows these signs and they are impacting her everyday life and activities, she may have an anxiety disorder:

  • fast heartbeat
  • pain or a tight feeling in the chest
  • shortness of breath or hyperventilation
  • tingling sensation or pins and needles
  • feeling light-headed or dizzy
  • trembling, shaking or being easily startled
  • sweating
  • nausea
  • insomnia and tiredness
  • constant worrying, about big or small concerns
  • fear or avoidance of certain places, situations or things
  • compulsive actions such as hand washing

What you can do to help

If you believe that your child may have anxiety, the first step is to speak to her about her feelings. Yes, you might meet resistance or even anger. Embarrassed by the thoughts that are going through her head, a girl may try to suffer in silence. Or she may have trouble finding the words to describe the feeling of dread that’s hanging over her. Here are some pointers to get the conversation started and keep it going (adapted from Youth Beyondblue‘s advice for parents and caregivers):

  • Try to stay calm and  relaxed.
  • Set aside a good time to chat quietly without distractions, and give her all of your attention.
  • Ask open-ended questions that can’t be answered with a simple “yes” or “no”.
  • Resist the urge to jump in with advice straightaway. Instead, focus on acknowledging her feelings.
  • Avoid making judgments or saying things like “Snap out of it” or “That’s silly”, as this only shames and doesn’t help solve the problem.
  • Try not to take it personally if she can’t fully open up to you about her anxious feelings, as some girls find it easier to talk with a neutral professional.
Treatments
These suggestions made by psychologists for curbing anxiety may sound almost ridiculously simple, but they really can be effective:
  • Eat a balanced, healthy diet.
  • Get a good night’s sleep.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Try relaxing activities such as yoga, tai chi or meditation.

Also seek advice from a professional, because if it is left untreated, anxiety may escalate rather than subside. Your family doctor is a good starting point, and he or she may suggest a specialist or a counsellor. There are a range of treatments, including medication, relaxation techniques and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which equips girls to challenge unrealistic, negative thoughts and fears and replace them with a more realistic and positive outlook.

In Vanessa’s case, a rapid heart rate and shortness of breath meant she saw multiple doctors and was even admitted to the cardiac ward of a hospital before a switched-on doctor set aside her medical chart and instead asked her about her thoughts and feelings, and diagnosed an anxiety disorder:

It was the hugest relief that someone had put a name to what I was feeling and to know I wasn’t going crazy. He got me in to see a psychiatrist, who taught me breathing and relaxation techniques and CBT. As an adult, in times of stress I have the skills to manage anxiety so that it doesn’t take hold. Having an anxiety disorder was awful — but I don’t regret it, because I think that learning to take charge of it has made me a stronger person today.
Resources
  • Youth BeyondBlue has fact sheets; advice for parents, caregivers and kids; and a comprehensive checklist of anxiety symptoms. Their helpline in Australia is 1300 22 4636.
  • Reachout provides great articles and resources on anxiety in young people.
  • Lifeline Australia’s number is 13 11 14. Lifeline New Zealand is 0800 543 354.
  • Kids Help Line Australia is 1800 55 1800.

On “targeting” little girls who wear shorts as “trampy”

Do short shorts = trampy? Does a short skirt = slutty?

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines “sexualisation” as  occurring when a person’s value is believed to come only from their sexual appeal; their sexiness is judged according to a narrow ideal of physical attractiveness; or they are sexually objectified (that is, seen simply as an object for others’ sexual use). This may have a serious impact on a child’s cognitive functioning, physical and mental health, and on their sexuality.

As a parent and educator, this has concerned me enough to compel me to act.

Back in 2002, I founded a company, Enlighten Education, which now works with over 20,000 girls a year in schools. We encourage girls to be discerning consumers and critical thinkers and to find their own voice and power in a complex world. I’ve taken to the streets to protest against child beauty pageants. I’ve backed boycotts of stores that market Playboy-branded merchandise to kids. Back in 2007, when 60 Minutes did a feature story in response to the Senate’s inquiry into this issue, I was presented as the “poster girl” for parents who were concerned that our culture imposes pressures on girls to be too sexy, too soon. Hell, I have even written two books aimed at supporting parents, and girls, to claim their own power.

So why am I not thrilled at the latest online furor over the mother’s Facebook message to clothing store Target that slammed them for encouraging girls to look “trampy”? After all, over 57,000 people agreed with her. Why too aren’t I elated by the subsequent media storm this has initiated, which has seen two different pairs of denim shorts held up as shocking examples of sexualized clothing we should all be morally outraged by?

A pair of shorts presented by the media as evidence of the sexualisation of girls.

Because short shorts are not evidence of the sexualisation of our children, nor should children ever be labeled as “trampy”. And the really important and valid discussions around the sexualisation of children we need to be having at the moment seem to be being hijacked by those that would have this issue used as an excuse to shame girls and women based on their clothing choices.

This diversion may have serious consequences. History shows us that the natural progression in making moral judgements about an individual based solely on their clothing is to then begin blaming victims for sexual assaults based on what they were wearing at the time. I have already seen a number of comments and posts on Facebook that suggest if little girls are attacked by predators, it would be reasonable for us to then question what they were wearing at the time of the assault. Not only is such thinking deeply offensive, it is misinformed and dangerous. All the research shows that those who would harm girls and women pick targets they perceive as vulnerable; as easy targets. They don’t go around measuring short lengths or skirt hems.

Keep in mind too that sexual assault is a very real issue in our society and when we make statements that are in effect rape-apologist in nature, or that shame women based on clothing choice, the victims of these assaults hear that we think somehow it was their fault. That they asked for it. Their shorts were an invitation to judge them / insult them / harm them.

Truly, where do we think this policing of the length of a pair of shorts might end? Should girls and women be ashamed of their flesh? Do we want to keep them covered up from head to toe?

I absolutely agree that there are many marketers who are selling out on our children by pushing a product that does enforce an artificial, adult version of sexuality upon them. Should the shorts have been brandished with “Flirt”, “Playboy”, “Porn Star” or pouting lips (and make no mistake, I have seen products aimed at children bearing all these slogans) then yes, this would clearly be evidence of sexualisation.

And whilst I support any individual who wishes to speak back to corporates and demand more for children, I know that a path which invites the shaming of girls and women based on clothing choice, and that views garments that seem only to be guilty of perhaps “showing too much leg,” is not a path we should be going down.

* This post was first published by The Hoopla, 15/8/12.

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.


Dieting and children – weighing up the arguments

I was recently invited to join a panel discussing body image on channel 9’s Kerri-Anne. The panel also included social commentator Angela Mollard, psychologist Ian Wallace, and Sally Symonds who is a weight loss consultant. The conversation got rather heated at points with quite different opinions expressed over dieting and the oft-reported obesity epidemic in particular. I’d love you to take 12 minutes to watch the vision below as I think these are conversations we should all be having, particularly at this time of the year (pre-Summer / beach time) when the diet industry really ramps up its push to have us all believe that we could transform our lives if we simply said “No” to food and transformed our bodies.

I asked expert Lydia Jade Turner to offer her insights and further unpack the above exchange. Lydia is a psychotherapist and the Managing Director of BodyMatters Australasia. BodyMatters Australasia is a specialist clinic that was established to not only treat disordered eating, but to diminish the complex factors that contribute to our global epidemic of eating problems. Lydia’s expertise has been featured at my blog before, both here (“Look good by doing very little’) and here (“Fat talk “).

 

Should children be weighed at school?

Children inevitably play the ‘compare and despair’ game, and for many, a comparatively higher weight will result in a deep sense of shame. Contrary to popular opinion, research shows that shame does not lead to sustainable health-giving behaviours, but instead increases risk of unhealthy weight loss behaviours and clinical eating disorders.

Weighing children in front of their peers also sends the message that weight is the most important determinant of their health, and that their health is everybody’s business. In fact weight tells us very little about a person’s health except at statistical extremes.

Although it is commonly assumed that being ‘overweight’ is automatically unhealthy, in North America research shows that the overweight category (BMI = 25 to 29) is now outliving every other weight category.

Given we share much of the same cultural DNA, it would not be surprising if that were the case in Australia. We also know that being a bit ‘overweight’ can actually be protective against certain diseases including certain types of cancer, and especially protective for the elderly population.

 

Should fat children be removed from their home?

In the Kerri-Anne clip, Psychologist Ian Wallace immediately paired the idea of fat children with trips to McDonalds and fast food outlets. Yet we cannot make assumptions about a child’s lifestyle choices simply by looking at them. It is a myth that all fat children are fat because they eat too much and don’t exercise enough.It is also dangerous to assume that all fat children are fat as a result of abuse and / or neglect.

At BodyMatters we see children at a range of sizes, many of whom are very much loved and supported by their families. While not all fat children binge or overeat, children who do overeat or binge, do so for a variety of reasons: it can be a way of coping with stress, parental divorce, grief and loss issues, a physiological response to dieting.

For some, this will lead to significant weight gain, but for others, they may still be thin. Regardless of size, they deserve help. But threatening to remove them from their families and pressuring those who are fat to lose weight will only exacerbate the situation.

Imagine the message internalized by a fat child who has just been told they may be taken away from their family: lose weight, or your family will be ripped apart. It will be all your fault because you’re too fat. This kind of messaging is likely to put a child at risk of developing disordered eating behaviours, reduced self-esteem, and significant distress.

 

Should fat children be encouraged to lose weight to avoid bullying?

Children will always find something to bully another child about – red hair, poverty, handicap. It does not make sense to pressure a child to change something about themselves in an effort to escape bullying, as this is a form of victim-blaming. Parents and teachers should work to change school culture so that children learn to respect difference and accept that bullying is never justified, and that there are consequences for engaging in that type of behaviour.

 

Is citing genetics just an excuse to be fat?

Earlier this year The Biggest Loser trainer Michelle Bridges wrote an article for the Sydney Morning Herald, claiming that people can outsmart their genetics. Unfortunately we now have evidence that many of The Biggest Loser contestants are weight cycling or have returned to their pre-diet weight.

Research tells us that weight is not as malleable as we think. How we each respond to a lifestyle is different, for example, two people can eat the same amounts of food, and while one person gains weight, another person’s metabolism will kick in and prevent weight gain.

Genetics account for about 70% of a person’s weight, and there are a host of other factors that contribute – socioeconomic disadvantage, ethnic background, Indigenous background, low income households, family history of obesity, regional and remote location.

This may explain why weight loss attempts fail 95% of the population after 2-5 years. Anyone can lose weight in the short term but we simply don’t have solutions that work long term. The good news is when people adopt a healthy lifestyle, they will experience health benefits, regardless of whether or not their weight changes.

We need to be cautious about making assumptions about people’s lifestyle choices based on size. Just as one person emailed the Kerri Anne show expressing frustration at being called Anorexic (even by her teachers) because she was skinny, the same frustration exists for people who are fat who are told they must not exercise enough and make poor food choices. We need to recognize that issues of health and weight are complex.

 

According to weight loss consultant Sally, there are far more people who are overweight/obese than those with Anorexia Nervosa. Should we therefore prioritise obesity issues above concerns about eating disorders?

This argument that “the odd anorexic is a small price to pay” is an unethical one. Nobody chooses to have an eating disorder, in fact we know that dieting is the biggest pathway into an eating disorder. Sufferers typically engage in weight loss attempts with good faith, believing that they are improving their health. Unfortunately this tips some over into a clinical eating disorder.

It’s time we recognized that the solutions typically prescribed to combat obesity are the same behaviours we are diagnosing in those with eating disorders – for example counting every calorie, weighing every gram of food, counting each step in pursuit of thinness. There’s something very wrong with this picture and Sally’s suggestion that we should encourage schools to integrate calorie counting with maths homework is incredibly dangerous and ill-informed.

We cannot continue to pit “The Obese” against eating disorder sufferers. There’s this idea out there that if people are not ‘obese’ or do not meet the strict criteria for an eating disorder, they must be healthy. Yet we know this is simply not true – there are many who exist in between these extremes, but who compromise their health due to body shame and internalization of misguided health messages.

Many put their bodies under enormous strain going on diet after diet, taking diet pills, smoking to control their weight, engaging in bizarre bariatric interventions (for example stomach balloon insertion), so it’s not as simple as sixty percent overweight/obese versus five percent eating disorders.

We would be better off focusing on promoting healthy behaviours, and letting people’s weight fall where it will. Kerri Anne’s statement implying that a poor lifestyle is “okay” when you’re young but will catch up with you when you’re fifty misses the point – if people want to be healthy, then they should be engaging in a healthy lifestyle whatever their age, whatever their size.

 

Sally has managed to keep the weight off since 2002- that’s nearly ten years! Should people aspire to be in the 5% who do manage to keep the weight off?

Sally’s long term weight loss is atypical. While it is wonderful to know she has made some healthy lifestyle changes, the reality is that the outcome of sustained weight loss is not likely to be the case for most. In fact, while I respect that she has a right to tell her story, every time she does, she perpetuates the fantasy that if others just tried damn hard enough, they could lose the weight and keep it off too.

Encouraging people to aspire to be in that five percent that keeps the weight off ignores research that shows inherent risks that accompany weight loss attempts – including weight cycling, disordered eating, reduced mood, eating disorders, food and body preoccupation.

Telling people to lose weight is essentially setting many up to fail – and when weight loss is the main focus, most quit when they find the weight is no longer reducing or has begun to increase. If people want to be healthy, then fitness and healthy dietary choices are important regardless of their size.

 

 

 

Babies, not Barbies! Sand pits, not glitz!

IMG_0271
Danni Miller with Junior Activists at Sydney rally.

I am feeling pumped after this week’s national Pull the Pin protests against the glitzy, sexualised child beauty pageants as seen on “Toddlers & Tiaras”. This type of competition is heading to Australia if American company Universal Beauty goes ahead with its July pageant in Melbourne. Tuesday’s protests were our way of saying “This is not going to happen on our watch”, as I told Kerri-anne.

I was honoured to speak at the Sydney protest in front of Parliament House and was thrilled to see that so many people want to protect little girls from being primped, waxed and fake-tanned to look like women, then sent out to be judged against an incredibly narrow, limiting definition of beauty.

Pull the Pin, the movement created by Enlighten Education’s simply amazing Catherine Manning, would like to see child pageants banned. So would I. And so would the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists’ chair Phillip Brock. He says that placing girls in pageants could lead to anxiety and depression because:

Infants and girls are objectified and judged against sexualised ideals. The mental health and development consequences of this are significant and impact on identity, self-esteem and body perception.

When will the government listen?

We know the pageant organisers won’t. They’re making too much money out of the toddler equivalent of the compare-and-despair game women know all too well. This is big business — two words that should never be seen in the same sentence as childhood.

Case in point: Eden Wood. The six-year-old US pageant contestant who is being used to publicise the Universal Royalty event is promoted as “the prettiest little girl in America”, but The Sydney Morning Herald dubbed her “Little Miss Pricey” when her agent said it could cost up to $20,000 for the paper to interview Eden. Annette Hill, the founder of Universal Royalty, wanted $5,000 to be interviewed.

These pageants are not about developing girls’ talent and confidence, as pageant fans say. These pageants are about currency: cold hard cash, and the message that girls’ currency is their looks.

Enlightens Cath Manning, speaks at the Melbourne rally (Photo by melbourneprotests.wordpress.com)
Enlighten's Cath Manning, speaks at the Melbourne rally

It breaks my heart to look at the pictures of Eden Wood on her Facebook fan page. In many of them, she has been heavily Photoshopped. In some, it isn’t just that she no longer looks like a child but that she doesn’t even look real any more.

US pageant contestant Eden Wood, 6
US pageant contestant Eden Wood, 6

Phillip Brock says the photos of Eden Wood:

can be interpreted as alluring and appealing to the sexual instincts of the observer, and if that observer is an adult then it’s voyeuristic.

Some supporters of child pageants expressed concern that children went to the rallies. Girls and young women have the right to express their opinions and make their voices heard. That some school-aged girls chose to come at lunchtime to show their support is a testament to just how passionate girls are about protecting their younger sisters from being forced to become too sexy too soon and to be judged on their looks. One Year 12 student attended the Sydney protest to conduct research for an assignment, as did a university student. Susan Moretti, whose 17-year-old daughter goes to a school Enlighten has worked with for years, sums up the deep protective feelings of many teen girls:

I just had to calm my daughter down . . . she’s so outraged over this! It’s been talked about at school and ALL the girls feel so badly for the little ones who are cajoled to enter the pageants. I think they may even start a rally of their own by the sounds of their sentiment!

Melbourne Pull the Pin rally
School girls (and Betty Grumble aka Sydney-based performance artist Emma Maye Gibson) at the Melbourne Pull the Pin rally (Photo by melbourneprotests.wordpress.com)

Thank you, everyone who showed their support at the rallies in capital cities around the country. In Sydney, we even had a great-grandmother stop by to thank us for saving her great-grandchildren. The two policemen on duty at parliament house were both dads and they were behind us 100 percent. It seems that we had a lot of Sydney dads on our side: as two men in suits walked by, one of the organisers, Jenn Lane, overheard them saying they would never want their young daughters to be in beauty pageants. A member of a Muslim women’s group in western Sydney came along and offered to involve her community in the movement in the future. The rallies helped to publicise the issue, with media all over the country covering it, including Channel 10 news.

We need to keep up the pressure and keep spreading the word. One way in which you can be heard is by signing the online petition here:. As I so often say, the standard we walk past is the standard we set. Let’s not be complacent.

I always think laughter is one of the best ways to get a point across, so I’m passing on this gem that a friend forwarded to me:
prenatal pageants

And if you haven’t seen Tom Hanks’s send-up of Toddlers & Tiaras yet, you just have to watch it. Even a pageant parent would have to be made of stone if they can keep a straight face watching the “Miss Ultimate Sexy Baby” contest. Who knew Tom Hanks could sashay like that?

Hope and healing: Breaking the silence on sexual abuse

There are a couple of important events coming up next week that I want to let you know about. Forget-me-knot Day is Friday 12th November, in support of survivors of child abuse. And from 12–13 November, some of the world’s leading experts are in Sydney for the ACARP conference on clergy abuse and a sexual assault summit run by Survivors Australia. I will be attending, so please come and say hi. I hope to see many teachers there, as sexual abuse is such an important issue for the girls we work with.

At least 12% of girls are sexually abused before the age of 15, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. That’s more than 1 in 10 of the girls in our classrooms. As sexual abuse often goes unreported, the real figure is probably even higher.

In my teaching career, sadly I was told of sexual abuse by four separate girls, and worked with them through the process of reporting it to DOCS and getting counselling for them. It is heartbreaking to see the impact of sexual abuse on girls. And reading the firsthand account of Nicole Wells, founder of Survivors Australia, it’s clear just how urgent it is that we do more to prevent it. She was 8 when she was first abused. Of the long-term effect, she writes:

This wasn’t just the destruction of my childhood . . . I couldn’t finish school. I couldn’t go on to university. I couldn’t keep friends. I couldn’t maintain relationships. I couldn’t keep a job. I couldn’t be happy. I couldn’t control my anger . . .

Comparatively speaking I’m one of the lucky ones. I’m alive. I’m talking about my trauma. I am finding the strength to help myself and help others. Many don’t survive and are consumed by substance and other forms of abuse and/or suicide. Most never reveal what has happened to them.

In the midst of my anger and sadness at the injustice of sexual abuse, I remind myself of girls’ incredible strength and resilience. With professional support and love, long-term emotional wounds can begin to heal. Melinda Hutchings, author and ambassador for Forget-me-knot Day, says:

My message as a survivor is that to overcome the trauma of sexual abuse it is important to be open and honest about it, and not to be afraid to seek professional help. The process of seeking professional help can be painful because it will bring up memories and horrible feelings will rise to the surface – however, the only way out is through, and by acknowledging the pain and finding strategies to deal with it, you really can move forward and create a happy and fulfilling life . . .

For those who love victims of child sexual abuse, listening, understanding and supporting are critical to the healing process.

Melinda’s latest book, Things Will Get Better: Finding your way through teen issues, has a section about coping with sexual abuse, including real stories from teens along with expert advice.

BUSTING MYTHS ABOUT CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE

Stranger danger. We are right to teach our children to be cautious of strangers, but we also need to know that a child is more likely to be sexually abused by someone they know. “Most abuse occurs in the circles we mix within – the perpetrator is almost always someone known to the family,” says Melinda Hutchings. Most abusers are heterosexual males and they come from all socioeconomic backgrounds. Some are female.

It must not have been that bad if it took years for her to speak out about it. A girl may block sexual abuse from her memory or go into denial as a survival mechanism. Most girls are scared to talk, because abusers are often physically or emotionally violent and threaten to harm them or their loved ones. Other reasons a girl may keep abuse to herself is that she didn’t feel she had someone to talk to she could trust, she thought no one would believe her, she thought she’d get taken from home or she blamed herself for the abuse.

Children lie about sexual abuse. It is in fact rare for a child to make up a story about sexual abuse or imagine it.

WHAT CAN WE DO?

Watch for early warning signs. When a child has been sexually abused you are more likely to notice behavioural changes than physical signs.  Here is a list of warning signs to watch for:

  • An increase in aggression
  • Going back to behaviour from an earlier developmental stage, such as bedwetting or thumb sucking
  • Sexual behaviour and play that is too mature for her age
  • Depression or withdrawing from friends and family
  • Getting into trouble at school, especially if it seems in order to avoid going home
  • Self-harm such as cutting or attempting suicide.

If a child’s disposition alters it is worth finding out why . . . By staying in tune with what is going on in your child’s world, you will have every chance of recognising if something doesn’t feel right.—Melinda Hutchings.

Never blame the victim. On this blog I’ve talked about the vitriolic language that is often used to deride a girl or woman who speaks out about sexual assault. The media, and indeed ordinary people, say things like “She was asking for it being dressed that way” or “Well, she went back to the footy player’s room, so what did she expect?” What message does that send to a 12-year-old girl who has to go home every night to an abusive situation? If she hears people making such judgments, how comfortable is she going to be about speaking up?

Be vigilant. We need to be mindful of the people in our children’s lives. Australian organisation Child Wise has some great resources on signs that should ring alarm bells, and how to create and choose organisations and activities that are safe for children.

Instinct is powerful so trust your gut when it comes to the people you invite into your life because they will automatically be in your child’s life as well.—Melinda Hutchings.

Educate. From an early age, every girl needs to be taught that no one has the right to touch her inappropriately or to ask her to touch them. Children also need to be taught that if an adult makes them feel scared or uncomfortable, they need to tell someone immediately.

Child sex offenders generally do not target children who are confident, knowledgeable and assertive when it comes to protecting their bodies.—‘Wise Up’ to Sexual Abuse, Child Wise

Listen. Reassure her that it is not her fault and that you believe her. Stay calm.

RESOURCES

Australia

Kids Helpline (24 hours) 1800 55 1800

Lifeline (24 hours) 131 114

Australian Childhood Foundation

Child Wise

Survivors Australia

ASCA (Adult Survivors of Child Abuse)

New Zealand

The Sexual Abuse Centre 0-3-364 7324

A note about boys: As this blog focuses on girls’ issues, in this post I have referred only to girls — but of course all children, boys and girls, are affected by sexual abuse, and all children need our protection and support.

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