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Category: Friendship

For girls, 10 is the new 15

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

You’re not alone.

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

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

Why might this be the case?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carrying the burden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How can we break this message down for them?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Be truthful

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

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

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

2. Practice gratitude

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

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

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

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

3. Connect

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Forgive

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

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

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

But there will be magic in beginning — again.

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


Strange ways to be brave

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The beauty of focusing on the brave? It grows.

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

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

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

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

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

Ladies, teach your daughters to say ‘No!’

What’s the one word we need to teach our daughters to be more comfortable saying? “No”.

While most of us would agree that teaching what defines active consent when it comes to sexual relationships is vital work (both how to say no, and how to accept it when one hears it from someone else) we are less likely to provide opportunities for our little girls to flex their freedom-to-choose muscles in social situations.

We tell them they should be friends with people they say they really don’t like, often without even first asking why they feel uncomfortable with that person (“You should be friends with everyone”), hug relatives they instinctively pull away from, and unquestioningly do as they are told.

They are encouraged to be seen (ornamental) yet rarely heard (sugar, spice and passively nice).

As women we may think we have moved beyond being girls who just can’t say no, and fought to finally find our own voices. But how often do even the most empowered of us still actively avoid difficult conversations?

To avoid telling the guy we met online that we’ve decided we don’t want to meet, we simply delete his profile and disappear like ghosts. When friends we no longer have anything in common with ask us out for drinks, excuses are made and we wait for them to get “the hint”. We silently sulk when we are unhappy with a decision our partner has made, hoping they’ll read our minds and change course.

It can certainly be difficult to set boundaries, those of us who are hard-wired for connection may be burdened afterwards with guilt. And there can be a backlash – women who say “no” may be  labelled as bitches or ball-breakers.

Yet if we can find the sweet spot between passive and aggressive, in my experience assertiveness and honesty are both ultimately not only respected, but viewed as refreshing.

If we can start by being honest with ourselves, surely then we’d see too that all the people pleasing we do isn’t really pleasing anyone. Women often feel overworked, over-committed and frankly exhausted. Those closest to us can usually tell when we turn up looking tense, stressed and resentful. 

As with most skills, practice makes perfect and starting off small can help build competence and confidence.

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The next time you are at the shops and someone pushes in front of you, calmly explain the line starts behind you. When a family member assumes you will be happy to do something you don’t want to do, offer to show them how to do it themselves instead. If a colleague asks you to do a task that goes beyond your job description, explain this makes you uncomfortable and tell them why you don’t feel able to do it, or, if it suits you to complete the work, ask for the support you will need to get it done.

The key is to delivering an effective “no” is to be brief (long winded explanations only open up points for disagreement) and breezy (by staying calm and controlled, you will defuse the potential for the exchange to be seen as confrontational). Finally, don’t play at regrets afterwards.

When we say yes to more balance and to more authentic connections, we not only help ourselves but say to the little ladies in our lives who are forever watching us, “See, you can speak your truth too.”

We are vaccinating our girls against the disease to please. 

This post was originally published by RendezView, 24/12/16. 

Take a bow, class of 2016. You’ve made it

This week the HSC exams finished for another year and, as an educator and the parent of a teenage girl who sat her last test on Monday, I can’t help but reflect on this time.

Not so much on the historical dates and quotes from literature she may have memorised, but on what I hope she and her peers have really learnt from surviving this academic rite of passage.

At some stage during these gruelling last years of high school (years one girl ­described to me as being like The Hunger Games “where kids battle it out against other kids and feel like they could die at any moment”) many teens will want to give up. Some on a weekly basis.They may fantasise about opting out and running away, of getting a rare illness that will leave them unable to do school work (yet strangely still able to watch re-runs of Gilmore Girls and hang out with their mates), of doing anything other than write yet another essay.

But they back up again the next morning, pack their schoolbags, and get on the school bus. Many will think no one understands what they’re going through.

If they read any of the more negative media reports that ­eagerly brand them whingers and wimps, they may even think others are relishing their struggles.

But then they’ll have a debrief with their mates at lunchtime, or find virtual kindred spirits via social media, and ­realise everyone else is just as anxious, stressed and unsure as they are.

They’ll learn that there is a deep comfort in this connection and find relief through using humour (even at times dark humour) to vent.

They’ll learn, too, that those who can see the funny side are highly valued. How else to ­explain why a student named Kelvin who loves “photography, chess, memes and math” developed a cult-like following among the 60,000 students who were members of the Facebook page for 2016 HSC students he helped moderate?

At times they may despair that each failed assessment will have ruined their future life plans.

And yet in the next task they complete they will have performed better than they had hoped for, or their plans will suddenly take on a different shape and they will realise there are still possibilities; that there are always possibilities.

Make no mistake, I don’t think for one minute the current system does our kids any favours by teaching them more about perseverance, camaraderie and resilience than it does about learning.

But I have taken enormous pride and solace in seeing my daughter and her peers realise they are stronger and more ­determined than they had ever realised they could be.

Class of 2016, I’d love to tell you that you will never again be put under such huge pressure, or have your worth sized up by a rank, or be asked to do tasks that seem to have little real world relevance.

The reality is, you may have to face all these demons again.

But if you do meet them again, you will know them. And, more importantly, you will know that you’ve got it.

Feel free to celebrate by burning your books, and gleefully forgetting your math equations. But don’t ever forget what you have learnt about you this year.

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This post was first published in the Daily Telegraph, 5/11/16.

Not being friends with everyone isn’t bullying. It’s life

It’s the deceptively unhelpful piece of advice that every well-intentioned adult has at one point issued to a child: “You should be friends with everybody!”

Admit it — who among us, parent or not, has not acted as unofficial cheerleader when discussing playground friendships with a young child? Fearful that they might fall into the trap of becoming a bully, we urge them to make friends with everyone. As in, EVERYONE, whether they like them or not.

Amid all the positive messages that were shared yesterday as part of the National Day of Action against Bullying and Violence, the edict “You should be friends with everybody!” was the one sentence I dreaded hearing.

Although well intentioned, it ignores the complex dynamics of human relationships.

The truth is, we are not going to like everybody, all the time. And it’s not only OK to acknowledge that — it’s healthy.

It seems we’ve become so hyper-vigilant against bullies that every playground disagreement, or failure to be invited to a party, is now catalogued as evidence of bullying.

To help stem the rising tide of kids who are too quick to cry “Bully!” some schools have taken to posting sign that try to help explain the nuances of our more complicated social interactions: “When someone says or does something unintentionally hurtful and they do it once, that’s rude. When someone says or does something intentionally hurtful and they do it once, that’s mean. When someone says or does something intentionally hurtful and they keep doing it,- even when you tell then to stop or show them that you’re upset, that’s bullying.”

And it’s not just the kids who need educating. Parents are becoming increasingly quick to call schools to express concern that their child has been bullied when in reality, their child has experienced one of the many garden variety friendship fall outs that we all face at some point.

“There are kids who find school hell as they are subjected to ongoing campaigns of intolerance,” a colleague told me. “I’d much rather see resources poured into resolving this rot than in dealing with the tide of parents who call before their child has even had an opportunity to flex their own conflict resolution muscles.”

It’s problematic too that the friendship police often target girls. Any reluctance to have another student sit with them is viewed as evidence of mean girl machinations. Any whispered discussion about their classmates sees them labelled as gossip girls.

Given young women are expected to be paragons of acceptance and inclusivity is it any wonder that some grow up to unable to recognise unhealthy relationships and struggle to set boundaries with those who would hurt them?

The reality is that there are intricate sets of rules that govern the relationships between all young people (boys and girls) and much of the behaviour we are so quick to demonise is how they solidify friendships and practice social manoeuvring.

After all, don’t we as adults have particular mates that we prefer to spend our free time with? Don’t we also find it cathartic to vent to our inner circle when someone annoys us?

It’s far more empowering and realistic to let our kids know they don’t have to be friends with everyone — but they should be friendly.

It’s OK to not invite someone to your party, but don’t boast about the event in front of them. It’s understandable that you may not want to sit with a student you don’t have much in common with, but you could still smile at them when you see them in the playground. It’s natural that you might want to discuss someone who has hurt you with your mates, but be discreet.

When we give permission to our young people to behave authentically, within a framework of mutual respect for others, we are showing them that we don’t just value the feelings of others, but we value their feelings too.

And when they don’t feel forced into faux friendships, well it’s then our young people might just surprise us (and themselves) by realising that kid they initially didn’t like is actually kinda cool.

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This post was first published by the Daily Telegraph newspaper, 19/3/16 and online at RendezView  

Ask Me Anything

I was thrilled to be asked to contribute to a book that is destined to become a teen-girl must-have; Rebecca Sparrow’s latest title for teen girls, Ask Me Anything (heartfelt answers to 65 anonymous questions from teenage girls). As a fan of Bec’s other titles for young women, Find Your Tribe and Find Your Feet, I knew this little book would have a big heart.

And now I’ve had the opportunity to read the finished version? I found myself lamenting the fact this book was’t around when I was a teen girl! I would have giggled, nodded along in agreement, called my bestie to read her out my favourite responses, clutched to it in moments of crises. Rebecca tackles the real issues that matter to our girls with incredible humour and not only her own voice, but the collective wisdom of other women, too.

Below is a sample question and answer reprinted here with permission. I’ve previously reprinted another question (‘I’m ugly. So how will I ever get a boyfriend?”) and Bec’s stunning response here.

Isn’t this exactly the kind of wise, warm and accessible advice we want all our girls to be able to access?

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Q. How do you know whether your friends like you?

Answer: It sounds like there have been some red flags waving in your mind that your friends aren’t such great ‘friends’ after all.

So how do you know for sure? Look at how you feel when you’re around them. Do you feel happy and confident and strong around your friends? Do you trust them? Can you be your authentic self? Can you admit you love reading romance novels or watching nature documentaries or playing cricket in your spare time? If the answer is no – well, there’s your answer.

One of my dearest friends is Mia Freedman. Mia is the co-founder and content director of the Mamamia Women’s Network of websites and podcasts. She has three kids and an awesome little rescue dog called Harry. Over the years, Mia has written a number of articles on the important role female friendships play in her life. So I went to Mia for her advice on how to know when your friends really like you. Here’s what she had to say …

“When I’m with good friends, I feel like a phone that’s been plugged in to recharge. Friends who like you fill you up: with energy, with confidence, with joy. Friends who like you are as happy to be there for the bad times as they are for the good times. Be very wary of any ‘friend’ who isn’t there for both. Friends who only seem to be around when you’re miserable (after a breakup, when you’re having trouble at home, when you’re having a fight with another friend) can be a bit like parasites. They feed off other people’s problems. Your misery gives them energy and makes them feel better about themselves.

On the other hand, if someone only wants to be around you when you’re happy or you’re the centre of attention, your friendship probably isn’t very deep. You won’t be able to rely on them when things are tough (which they inevitably will be).

A true friend is constant and solid and listens as much as she talks. A friend who likes you might still make mistakes, and your friendship may well have ups and downs, but she will be willing to work through them. You won’t walk away with that scratchy, insecure feeling meaning you don’t know where you stand. The best friendships are very equal. They don’t make you feel guilty or anxious or sad or paranoid. Friends who like you want you to be the best you can be and celebrate your happiness as their own. This is exactly the same logic you should use for relationships throughout your life, whether they’re romantic or platonic.”

“Ask Me Anything (heartfelt answers to 65 anonymous questions from teenage girls)” by Rebecca Sparrow, University of Queensland Press
In stores from 18 November 2015 Pre-order http://www.booktopia.com.au/ask-me-a…/prod9780702253874.html

Sex-obsessed. Boy-crazy. Annoying. Not so fast — teen girls are much better than that.

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

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“Lies, scams and deceit — just your average teen girl.” “Lost innocence: Why girls are having rough sex at 12.” ‘Drug toll … A generation of teenage girls riddled with fear and anxiety is overdosing in record numbers.” “The Invincible — A startling exposé on this generation of young women who show no fear about the dangers of sex, booze, or even the sun.”

Another day, another media headline urging us to view adolescent girls as either vulnerable victims in need of protection, or as a wanton and wild demographic we need to be protected from.

Worrying about the younger generation is nothing new. An inscription found in a 6000 year-old Egyptian tomb highlights the enduring nature of our fears that youth are lost: “We live in a decaying age. Young people no longer respect their parents. They are rude and impatient. They frequently inhabit taverns and have no self control.”

But thanks to this digital age the hand-wringing dialogue that surrounds our daughters in particular — no matter how well intentioned it may be — is now forming the running commentary for the lives of many teen girls.

Author and feminist Emily Maguire, in her essay “Sugar, Spice and Stronger Stuff” asks us to consider how the teen girls who see and hear these discussions might feel:

“Teen girls are not a separate species — they walk among us. They see and hear and read the same things we do, including all those features about sexting and raunch culture and under-age sex. They notice how those articles are always illustrated with photos of teenage bodies in tiny skirts or low-cut tops, the faces blurred or heads lopped off. They are aware of the way serious news sources and trash media alike use their bodies to sell papers even as they express deep concern about how girls are using those same bodies — their own — for pleasure …

No wonder so many girls feel misunderstood and alienated … And when loving parents buy into it they end up either alienating their daughters or infecting them with their own fear and panic.”

There is in fact a longstanding tradition of using scare tactics as a means of controlling women and this starts early. Fairytales are some of the first cautionary tales told to girls. These stories provide clear messages about obedience, adherence to traditional gender roles, beauty and virtue, and the dangers inherent in being an ambitious woman who seeks any form of power (cue wicked witches). They also often emphasis the need for girls to have male protectors; whether these be handsome princes or kindly kings.

There is also a longstanding tradition of omitting the bravery and resilience of young women from our cultural narratives. We tend not to share stories of girls who thrive and strive, or broadcast statistics that highlight the positive.

Here in Australia teen pregnancy, cigarette smoking, illicit drug use and alcohol drinking rates and all down. Meanwhile school retention and academic performance rates have significantly increased for girls. It seems we have a generation that are not as self-obsessed as we’d like to paint them as being. 80 per cent of Girl Guides over the age of 10 commit two or more hours each week to volunteering; almost double the amount of time contributed by adults.

Anecdotally, as an educator who works with thousands of teen girls every year across Australia I’ve observed that girls are doing remarkably well in a culture that often doesn’t seem to like them very much, or have much faith in their decision-making capacity.

And when we are not choosing to ignore, we sometimes choose to conceal. Historically, we have attributed the achievements of adolescent girls to those of much older women. Case in point, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin who in 1955 was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama.

Colvin’s act inspired the civil rights movement that followed as nine months later middle-aged Rosa Parks became the public face for this movement. Colvin has since explained “[t]hey (the leaders of the civil rights movement) thought I would be too militant for them. They wanted someone mild and genteel like Rosa.”

None of this is to say that there are not very real issues teen girls struggle with that we do need to address; body image angst, disordered eating, self harm, binge drinking, navigating technology safely, developing and maintaining respectful relationships. These are some of the issues I’ve devoted my career to supporting girls to manage. 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. We must present them with more positive role models. We must actively seek out opportunities to celebrate their wins. Importantly, we must also make it OK for them to take risks and make mistakes.

Dr Briony Scott, Principal of girls’ school Wenona, in her essay on “Women and Power” called too for a change in perspective:

“In the years that I have been a principal, it is abundantly clear to me that families are doing a magnificent job but they do so in the face of cultural expectations that would lead them to think otherwise. There is a social and cultural normalising of the belief that raising girls is an almost impossible task. Along with this comes a presumption that when anything does goes wrong for girls, it must be because they are depressed, mentally fragile, and/or prone to anxiety.

Such a view, apart from being inherently presumptuous, trivialises those young women (and men) who genuinely struggle with their mental health, and pathologises what is fundamentally, a normal developmental path. It does an extraordinary disservice to young women who are simply navigating the road to adulthood.”

Let’s not feed the self-fulfilling prophecy that teen girls are either troubled or trouble.

Because the real picture? It’s far brighter.

This is what teen girls need and deserve. THIS.

I recently posted the following on my Facebook page. It quickly attracted over a hundred shares so I thought it worth sharing with you here too.

Sometimes I see things marketed towards teen girls under the guise of “empowerment” that make me feel deeply uneasy. It’s fine if girls want to dabble with cosmetics, or focus on styling. These things can be enormously fun (getting a pedi or having my hair blow-dried are amongst my favourite “me-time” things to do). But they aren’t by any stretch of the imagination going to “empower” you or genuinely improve your sense of worth long term ( just make you feel pampered perhaps, and help you to conform to a narrow definition of beauty). Besides, I’d argue that girls are already bombarded with messages about what defines beauty in this culture; the average young person sees between 400-600 advertisements every day and at least 50 of these will provide girls with a direct message about what size, colour, shape and look they need to have to be considered “worth it”.

Obviously I believe in my company Enlighten Education‘s approach. It focuses on the whole girl ( positive body image, managing stress, fostering positive friendships, money management, navigating cyber world, establishing and reaching career goals, making healthy dating and relationship choices, feminism). Enlighten is also non-commercial, non-denominational and strategy based; a program developed by experienced educators. And it’s incredibly engaging! We’ve been doing outstanding work in this space for over 10 years and have won numerous Awards for our work ( including being a Finalist for an Australian Human Rights Award twice).

But I also strongly believe in the work others are doing in this space. There are some books for teen girls that all young women should have on their book shelf ( apart from mine of course!). Emily Maguire‘s “Your Skirt’s Too Short: Sex, Power and Choice.” Rebecca Sparrow‘s “Find Your Tribe” and “Find Your Feet.” Abigail Bray’s “Body Talk: A Power Guide For Girls.” Kaz Cooke’s “Girl Stuff.” Melinda Hutchings‘ “It Will Get Better.” For younger Christian girls Sharon Talbot Witt‘s books.Local bloggers / writers to follow include Rachel Hansen: Good Talks on all things related to sex education, Nina Funnell for brilliant analysis on culture and ground-breaking work on respectful relationships, BodyMatters Australasia for support with eating disorders, and lots of the stuff at Birdee ( which is written by young women) is very interesting – although the language can be strong so it’s for an older teen reader. Internationally, A Mighty Girl and Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls are brilliant. Intensive in-school workshops on cyber safety by PROJECT ROCKIT also look very good (I’ve not seen them deliver, but hear wonderful things).

Let’s demand GREAT things for our girls!

In keeping with the goal of expecting great things for girls, I want to share with you here an extract from a new book from one of the authors I mention above, Rebecca Sparrow. Bec’s newest title, “Ask me Anything” will be in stores this November ( University of Queensland Press). I was thrilled when she asked me to respond to a couple of the very real questions she had teen girls ask her in this title as I couldn’t love this book anymore if I tried. Bec’s writing for young women is exactly what they need and deserve; it is positive, authentic, highly engaging and, above all, wise. Listening to her voice here is like being embraced in a warm hug isn’t it?

More of this for girls please. More.

Bec and I.
Bec and I.

Q. I’m ugly. So how will I ever get a boyfriend?

Define ‘ugly’ for me.
Ugly in what way? Because let me tell you what ugly means to me. Ugly is someone who is racist or homophobic or sexist. Ugly to me is the person who belittles others to make themselves feel better. Ugly is the person who mocks others, who celebrates at the misfortune of those around them. Ugly is disloyalty and unkindness. Ugly is the person who is verbally or physically abusive to others.

But I don’t think that’s what you’re talking about.

You’re calling yourself ugly because you have too many freckles or big ears or chubby thighs. You think you’re ugly because you hate your stupid flat hair or your boobs, which are too small (or too big) or that scar above your left eye.

Darling heart, that’s not ugly. That’s called you learning to love yourself. Nobody is perfect. We all have things we dislike about ourselves – even supermodels like Megan Gale and actors like Jennifer Lawrence. Life is about loving what you’ve got. And it’s about putting your best foot forward. If you’re feeling like one big hot mess (and everybody does at least once a week!), there’s nothing wrong with reading up on how to dress to suit your shape. There’s nothing wrong with talking to a hairdresser to get a great haircut that suits you to a tee.

But it’s not your face or your cute skirt or your haircut or a thigh-gap that someone falls in love with. It’s your spirit. Your personality. It’s the way you really listen when people talk. The way you always nail the art and culture questions when you play Trivial Pursuit. It’s your kindness, your patience, your famous lip-smacking chocolate cake. It’s the joy you bring with you, your compassion, your empathy. It’s the way other people FEEL when they’re around you. It’s your ability to see the good in others. It’s your glass-half full attitude. It’s the delight you take in laughing at yourself. It’s your passion for human rights OR saving the orang-utans OR student politics. It’s your confidence when you walk into a room with a smile that says you know you belong there. Confidence is magnetic.

You’re ugly? No you are not.

And the boyfriend will come. Give it time. Wait for the person who loves the quirky things about you that make you special. Wait for the person whose eyes light up when you enter the room. And that person who loves you madly, deeply will arrive. There is a lid for every jam jar, as someone once said to me.

And PS you don’t “get” a boyfriend, dear girl. YOU get to CHOOSE someone. If you wanted a boyfriend (or girlfriend) that badly you could have one by now – you and I both know that. You could nod your head at the next desperate teenager you come across. But you’re talking about someone special. And maybe you’re not quite ready yet anyway? Because if you’re sitting around thinking you’re ugly, if YOU can’t appreciate how awesome and magical and beautiful YOU are – then how can someone else see it? Fall in love with yourself first and that then gives permission for others to follow your lead and fall in love with you too.

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