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Category: Parents

Theres an art to being alone and loving it

I spend a lot of time alone.

I’ve been single for about five years now, and I often work by myself from home.

My children are teenagers and although we are very close, they are swept up in their own whirlwind of assignments and social gatherings.

Although it can, at times, feel lonely, I rarely feel as isolated as I have been when I’ve been in the wrong relationship. Feeling a disconnect with the person you’re supposed to be most connected with feels far heavier.

And there are things I have learnt to do to help lift the loneliness. I will take myself to see a movie, or go out for a meal.

Although I am still alone, being surrounded by others and hearing their chatter feels less isolating, and not at all as awkward as some might expect.

Sometimes, I’ll strike up a conversation with someone and make a new friend. I might read a book, or play on my phone (who said social media is making us feel more isolated? I love the instant connection to my tribe who may not be able to meet up in person, but will happily chat away with me online).

Who said social media is making us feel more isolated? I love the instant connection to my tribe. Picture: iStock

In fact, there have been times when I’ve looked around at the couples dining near me and been struck by how crushing their silence seems. Less the amicable quiet shared between companions, and more the loaded, simmering wordlessness of the estranged.

Besides, I’ve come to recognise that loneliness is just another feeling. Like joy or sadness, for me it passes.

Yet for others, loneliness can lead to feelings of shame and desolation.

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”.

We have spent millions on campaigns aimed to deter children from smoking, and to be more physically active. However, our solution to giving young people the skills they need to respond with resilience to loneliness seems to be to convince them they should never experience this emotion.

“You must have more than one child to prevent your poor offspring feeling alone!” relatives will advise. “No child should ever have to sit by themselves!” well-meaning folk will decree.

Being alone can be deeply satisfying. Picture: iStock

None of us should be expected to cope with being ostracised, or with being socially isolated for long periods of time; humans are wired for connection.

But if our little darlings have the odd day when they feel lonely? Rather than panic on their behalf and rush to call their school to demand to know what they are going to do about this, perhaps we should instead encourage our kids to find out what makes them feel better in these moments.

Could they go to the library and escape into a book? Could they do their homework and then enjoy taking the night off? Perhaps they could go and practise shooting hoops on the basketball court (an activity bound to attract at least one other child wanting to throw too). Could they tell some classmates who seem nice that they’re feeling alone, and ask to join them (despite the popular belief that the schoolyard is dominated by bullies, most kids are actually kind and accepting).

And we can show our children too that we don’t always have to have a plus one to enjoy ourselves either.

Rather than lamenting the fact that none of our loved ones want to go and see a show we are interested in with us, we could go off merrily to have our own “me party” and chat about how much we enjoyed the experience afterwards.

Learning to be content in your own company is a vital life skill.

Let’s not deprive our kids from the opportunity to develop it.

It might just save them from rushing into the wrong relationships later in life simply to avoid flying solo.

This article was first published in the Daily Telegraph 1/12/18 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dads are just as vital as mums for kids

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heartbreak hurts at any age

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some uncomfortable truths about bullying

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Bullies need support too.

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

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

Fearful that our children might fall into the trap of becoming a bully, we urge them to make friends with everyone. As in, everyone — whether they like them or not. Although well intentioned, this advice ignores the complex dynamics of human relationships. The truth is, we are not going to like everybody, all the time. And it’s not only OK to acknowledge that — it’s healthy.

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

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

It’s far more empowering and realistic to let our kids know they don’t have to be friends with everyone, but they should be friendly. When we give permission to our young people to behave authentically, within a framework of mutual respect for others, we are showing them that we don’t just value the feelings of others, but we value their feelings too.

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

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

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

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 

Teens need love, not war

In the 4th century BC even the usually open-minded Plato clutched his proverbial pearls in despair: “What is happening to our young people?

“They disrespect their elders, they disobey their parents. They ignore the law. They riot in the streets inflamed with wild notions. Their morals are decaying. What is to become of them?”

Today, thanks to the online world, our lamentations and judgments provide a running commentary not only to, but on the lives of many young people.

And yet what strikes me is that apart from being unhelpful (has there ever been a young person who has behaved more positively as a result of being shamed?) the discourse about teens often bears little resemblance to what the young people I meet are actually like.

I’m a teen educator who has worked with adolescents for the past 25 years. And I’m mother to two teens. Far from being obsessed with selfies, sexting and sponging off their parents, this may well be our hardest-working and most civic-minded generation ever.

If we look beyond the media-fuelled stereotypes, shibboleths and anecdotes, what does the actual data show?

School retention and the progression on to higher education courses continues to increase (eight out of 10 young people aged 15 to 19 are enrolled in education and training).

Despite these academic pressures, young people also do almost twice the volunteer work that adults do.

More young people are giving up their already limited time to help others.

They are having less unprotected sex, taking fewer drugs and smoking less than their parents did, and many are far more aware of the risks of alcohol consumption.

And while the one per cent who make headlines (and sell parenting guides drumming up fear of a generation desperately in need of a firmer hand) the 99 per cent who are doing their best in a culture that often doesn’t seem to like them very much are often largely ignored.

The latter is the group who have to get up early every day even when they feel exhausted (biology dictates that many teens do feel more sleepy early in the day, more active late at night). Drag themselves off to school to sit through classes which may or may not interest them, with people that they may or may not like. They then come home not to switch off for the day, but rather to ramp up again and do homework or prepare for the next round of state-mandated testing.

All while dealing with pimples, pubes, images of beauty and masculinity that don’t look anything like them, and coping with crushes.

Let’s put more focus on the positive attributes of our teens. (Pic: iStock)

We seem to suffer from a collective amnesia about what we were like ourselves at this age. Case in point?

The successful, dedicated dad who attended one of my parenting seminars recently and tearfully asked me how he could bond with his daughter who he was worried was becoming withdrawn and snarly.

Before offering strategies to help offer him some perspective, I first asked what he was like as a teen. “Oh I was a real piece of shit,” he laughingly replied.

There are numerous very real issues teens (and many adults) struggle with that we do need to address: body image angst, dealing with stress and anxiety, navigating technology safely, developing and maintaining respectful relationships, just to name a few.

But while stereotypes might be easy to relate to, they are rarely helpful.

 The one thing I know for sure is the way forward lies in sharing positive stories about teens and in connecting with them, not in spreading moral panic, or in policing and patronising them.

And the way forward lies in reminding ourselves that even the one per cent who do act out deserve our compassion too.

A school I worked in recently had a sign in the staffroom that struck me as a timely reminder to us all: “The kids who need the most love will ask for it in the most unloving of ways.”

This post was originally published by The Daily Telegraph, 23/9/17. 

 

The right way for dads to parent teen girls

As a best-selling author and educator who works with teen girls, I tend to get streams of emails seeking parenting advice. But the calls for help I get from parents wanting to improve their relationship with a teenage daughter are increasingly coming from dads.

Despite the popular perception that it is mothers who fear losing their bond with their daughter during adolescence, it seems there are plenty of fathers seeking deeper connections too.

Many of these men tell me that they found bonding with their daughter when she was younger relatively easy, but now that her interests are more adult how, they ask, are they expected to stay relevant?

The hundreds of conversations I’ve had with teen girls (and the wide body of research that supports their claims) tells us what won’t work. Any attempt to control her changing body, or lock their princess in the proverbial tower, will be met with rightful resentment.

It’s understandable for parents to want to protect their children. But it’s important our girls feel empowered to know how to set their own boundaries; particularly as the reality is most romantic exchanges won’t happen under dad’s watchful eye.

When asked about how he feels about his teen daughters dating, entertainer Harry Connick Jr offered a refreshing perspective, “Everybody always says, ‘Oh your daughters are dating, you better get the shotgun’… it drives me nuts because I think that’s such an antiquated way to talk about young women. It’s almost presuming that they don’t have the good judgment to go out with a guy that’s appropriate for them… The way we raise our kids? Hopefully they will have enough self esteem so that they will be able to attract guys of a certain calibre, and then you don’t need a damn shotgun.”

Actively seeking to build the self esteem Harry Connick Jr refers to is vital work for fathers too. The gentle teasing some dads find amusing is likely to grate with a teen girl who may be hypersensitive, particularly to comments around her appearance (don’t let all the pouting selfies fool you — these aren’t necessarily indicative of a solid sense of self).

Comedian Dawn French attributes her strong sense of self to her father and in her memoir Dear Fatty, describes a parenting moment par excellence. As she sashayed down the stairs on her way to a party, dressed to impress a boy she fancied, her dad pulled her aside. Rather than delivering the almost obligatory, “You’re not going out dressed like that!” lecture, he told her she was his sun, moon and stars — and that any man would be bloody lucky to have a woman like her on his arm.

She got to the party, saw the hot boy, and decided he probably wasn’t good enough for her after all.

Smart fathers will also seek out opportunities where they can learn more about their daughter’s changing world. Whether it be by asking her to explain why she loves a particular band and listening to their music with her (hey, you sat through hours of the Wiggles, you’ve got this), or offering to take her to that Instagram famous art gallery she’s so excited by (#LetHerLead).

Smart father realise too their own world is also one worth sharing. A colleague says that some of her fondest memories of her father when she was a young girl were of going to the hardware store with him on a Saturday morning, “He’d scoot thorough the aisles looking for supplies for his latest project. When I got my first house? I found myself doing the same thing every weekend and thinking back fondly on all the things he taught me how to fix.”

We can all be taught how to fix things. Even if there are angry silences, and shut bedroom doors, bonds built on trust, empathy, and mutual respect may bend a little — but they rarely break.

This post was originally published by The Daily Telegraph, 22/7/17.  

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