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Category: Parents

When talk is cheap – and nasty

Guest Post by Enlighten Education’s Program Director for Queensland, Storm Greenhill Brown

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Is it just me or does the proliferation of mobile phones among even our youngest school children worry others too? When waiting to pick up my son from school I often see girls as young as six or seven walking along avidly engaged with their mobile phones and comparing them enthusiastically with one another. From speaking with various Mothers who have issued their girls with these diamante encrusted pink accessories I have gleaned a few reasons for their “must have it” attitude. Safety is paramount for these baby tweens. I totally appreciate this but have to wonder how dangerous a supervised pick up school zone is and when you would need to phone Mum if she drives you to school and then walks you in. These phones are dangled on lanyards around necks with a “mine is newer, got more features” attitude. Why are they not stored away in the bag? Branding is powerful and at work in the playground of the baby tween.

But the fashion thing is not really my biggest concern about the mobile phone phenomenon. Like those other Mums, it’s safety. A forthcoming issue of Teacher Magazine (produced by the Australian Council for Education Research), reports on a study by a group of Australian academics ( including my husband Dr Mark Brown) which found that as many as 93% of school students had experienced some form of bullying via mobile phones– what they refer to as m-bullying. A similar study in the US last year claimed that 85% of children aged 10-14 years had experienced cyberbullying (via the Internet). The upward trend of people using technology to harass others is really very disturbing.

Last year, the world drew breath in collective horror when it was revealed that the high profile suicide of 13 year old Megan Meiers in the US was partly due to her being tormented on MySpace by an adult posing as a 16 year old boy – in actuality, the mother of one of her former friends. And I shuddered when I read about a teenage girl in the UK who killed herself after receiving hundreds of hate messages on her phone in a matter of hours. Similar stories are found in countries throughout the world.

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The worrying thing about mobile phones is that children carry them all the time. The ability to bombard others with text messaging or to pass on humiliating photos or video is heightened. Since it is immediate in nature, the time for reflection is reduced and the speed of action and potential for anonymity are very appealing. Who hasn’t sent off an email in a huff and regretted it the next day?

What’s more, it seems that children generally don’t like to tell adults it’s happening. Research suggests that the peak bullying years are from 11-14 years, when kids are quite keen to give it a try. The anonymity of the mobile phone means that children who may not be capable of being physical bullies can now actively participate. We need to be very vigilant about what goes on not only in the schoolyard but increasingly behind our children’s bedroom door. Depriving them of mobile phones or internet connections is probably not practical and may even harm relationships with our kids. We need to be more proactive in communicating with them about the dangers of the “always switched on” world and give them strategies to deal with it.

Enlighten’s workshops emphasise the importance of recognising self-worth, true friendships, and personal safety.  In our workshop “Stop, I Don’t Like It” we explore the importance of setting boundaries in the real, and in the cyber, world. The following links are also very helpful and well worth downloading as a reference point:

“Mobile phones and bullying – what you need to know to get the bullies off your back,” produced by the Australian Mobile Telecommunication Association.

The Child Safety Check List  produced by the Australian Communication and Media Authority- covers everything from costs and charges, to handling nuisance calls.

True Colours Shining Through

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Guest blog post by Sonia Lyne, Enlighten Education Program Director, Victoria.

I grew up as a teen in the 80’s. It was an era with A LOT of great female role models. When I was a little girl, I looked up to female musicians who expressed their individuality, but rarely got into any real trouble. My all time favourite was Cyndi Lauper; her fashion was outrageous and her songs amplified fun and girl power.

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Today the Top 10 female singers for many young girls include the likes of Britney Spears, The Pussycat Dolls and Christina Aguilera. Yes, they are singing about girls who just want to have fun – but it is fun of a very different kind. The new idea of having fun involves looking glam, sexy, and living a life without consequences. Now it is all about girls going wild: “Gonna get a little bit dirty…”, ‘Dont cha wish your girlfriend was hot like me..”, “I’m Miss bad media karma, another day another drama…”

What infuriates me is that these artists have been able to achieve role model status simply by cultivating and conveying an image based solely on their overt sexuality rather than earning it through talent, hard work and integrity.

Don’t our girls deserve higher caliber female role models?

For me a role model should not just be a person or character who is in a position to influence us. There should also be an expectation that this person will show us an alternative way to live and challenge us to be our personal best.

As adults WE ALL serve as powerful role models for our children. They watch our every move, they imitate, they “try on” our behaviours and see which best fit.

I have chosen to put myself forward as a role model for young girls through my work with Enlighten. Do I feel qualified? I have put myself through university twice. I have travelled extensively. I married a great man, I mother amazing twin boys. I take care of the environment, I own my own business, I stand up for myself and I try not to focus just on my appearance. I am not the sum of my achievements though. Perhaps more important than any of these are my positive intentions. I want to be a great role model for my children and all the girls I work with.

Am I perfect? No, but I am ok with that. I am a work in progress. I have a strong background in the arts – everything from dance to design and am married to a very talented sculptor. I know that all truly beautiful works of art take time to develop. They are inspired by other works and enriched by the artist’s own experiences, dreams and challenges. I think girls love seeing my authentic quest to be the best person I can be – I too am inspied by them and feel they add brushstrokes which enhance my own personal development.  

Our children don’t have the luxury of seeing as many powerful role models presented to them in the media as we did growing up. It is more important than ever that we step up and put ourselves forward. We cannot wait until we are “complete” for who is to say when that might be? There is beauty in our rawness too.

I find the Beautiful Women Project, an American initiative, inspiring in its passion to show the beauty and wisdom inherent in all women.

Beautiful Women focuses  on the life experiences of thirty-five woman of all ages, and what truly makes them beautiful in their present moment.  They are the mothers, daughters, wives and neighbors you see every day – at school, at work, in the grocery store, in a doctor’s office waiting room, or walking through a mall.  Through their stories women can realize that they are not alone in their insecurity and quest for self-acceptance.  These women redefine the word “beauty” by showing us that what makes us beautiful is how we choose to face both the trivial and the monumental moments in our lives.”

Enlighten is planning to work closely with the Project’s founder Nancy Bruno to bring this initative to Australia in 2008.

We want to encourage all women to realise we can become the role models and the celebrities in our daughter’s lives. Because we are “all that” and then some!

Move over Paris and all her “bad gal” party cronies – here come women with real, true colours.

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P.S. This week myself and Jane Higgins (Enlighten’s South Australia Program Director) worked with 200 beautiful girls from Mater Christi College. You can click on the links below to read their evaluations of the event. We had such a wonderful day … it was honestly a privilege to have been a part of the energy. Their comments make me tingle with joy; they help shape me and fuel my desire to be the best role model I can be.

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P.S.S Speaking of role models, what a wonderful role model Victorian team member Brooke Parsons is! Brooke inspires me, and many others, not only through her work with Enlighten but in her role as the co-founder of the Young Victorian Stroke Support Group. She was featured in the Herald Sun on Feb 18th.    

Stories and Mermaid Songs

“Something has happened. But how? Was it overnight, or has it been creeping up on us and we’ve only just noticed? It’s the girls, the young and pretty girls.They used to sing like sirens, like mermaids, all sweet and liquid, breezy melodies, wavy melodies, but now they’re shorn of melody, though their mouths open and close as before.

Have their tongues been cut out?”  

Margaret Atwood, “Something Has Happened”,The Tent, 2006.

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In our workshop “Wake Up Sleeping Beauty” we use traditional fairytales as a stimulus for discussion. All the pretty girls are challenged to awaken: to identify the poison apples in their lives and slay some dragons.

My favourite business writer Kevin Roberts, CEO Worldwide of Saatchi and Saatchi and author of the inspirational Love Marks, discusses why stories can be so transformational in his book Sisimo:  

1. Great stories touch us. They connect with our own desires and experiences and what we care about.

2. Great stories are contagious. The itch to pass on a great story is almost unbearable. Stories have to be shared.

3. Great stories are cloaked in credibility. They make practical sense, intuitive sense, emotional sense.

4. Great stories connect with the emotions. Genuine, compelling emotion drives every story.

5. Great stories surprise and delight. They are infinitely capable of the unexpected. It’s not just about novelty and revelations but also creativity and emotional truth.

6. Great stories have context. Whether it’s a fairy tale or a business lesson, stories weave facts and events together so we understand their larger meanings.

7. Great stories are fast workers. They get in ahead of our rationalizations and logic with their own compelling truth.

8. Great stories are crafted. We all like stories to be recounted with skill and effort.

9. Great stories make us laugh. Humor disarms us and opens us up to new ideas.

10. Great stories teach us to be smart. Through great stories we learn to spot disinformation in an instant. Shoddy stories reinforce prejudice and hide the truth.

11. Great stories introduce us to great characters; people we want to spend time with.

12. Great stories open us up to other worlds. Welcome to the world of the imagination, to new geographies, to new realities.”

I think it is sad that society has stopped telling great stories to our teenagers. They respond brilliantly to a tale well told. 

One of the most disturbing fairytales of all that seems to contain compelling truths for our girls is that of the little mermaid. Our words have enormous power, yet what did the mermaid decide to sacrifice to get her man? Her voice – her words. And her fins – body mutilation. When all this still doesn’t work and she cannot win the Prince’s love, Ariel throws herself into the sea. Heartbroken. No happy ending.

What will our girls do in the quest to be more beautiful? More loved? More?

A quarter of teenage girls in Australia say they would get plastic surgery if they could, and two per cent have already gone under the knife. Almost 60 per cent wanted to be lighter on the scales. Many silence their inner turmoil and pretend they are happy whilst behind closed doors they binge drink, self harm, play at being “mean girls” and bully others…

The Fairy Godmothers must act. Older women have to step up and act as guides and role models,  girls cannot be what they cannot see. Where would Cinderella have been without her Fairy Godmother, Sleeping Beauty without the kind fairies who tried to protect her, and Dorothy without Glynda the good fairy?

Don’t buy into the myth that older women have nothing to offer. The media perpetuates the quest for youthful perfection. Older women are virtually invisible and either taken off air when their use by date expires (which happens when they are mid-thirties) or sent off for surgery.

Women need to be more supportive of each other regardless of age. We’re all battling with the same dragons. We all have moments when we look despairingly into the mirror and ask, “Who’s the fairest of them all?”

There is great power in the collective female voice. Will we give power to the negative, to the compare and despair game? Or will we choose a different song? Our “Sleeping Beauty” workshop opens with the powerful song “Wake Me Up” by Evanescence. The lyrics include ” Wake me up inside (I can’t wake up) Wake me up inside (save me) …speak sentences, sing again. I’ve been sleeping a thousand years it seems. Got to open my eyes to everything. Bring me to life…”

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Let’s all open our eyes. Let’s create new realities for our Princesses and for ourselves.

Let’s create our own Happy Ever After.

P.S. I worked with the girls from All Saints Grammar yesterday and reading through their feedback comments this morning I was reminded yet again of how powerful great stories are, and of the urgent need for Fairy Godmothers! Take 5 minutes and read through their comments – what beautiful, honest words

I found the girls extraordinary – so many hugs, so many smiles.     

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The Journey – from Primary to High School

left-to-right-danni-and-enlighten-team-mebers-janeadelaide-and-sonia-victoria-reading-affirmations.JPG  “Sail away from the safe harbor. Dream. Discover. Explore.”

Mark Twain.

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The Enlighten team running The Journey at Ascham School.

The transition to high school for students can be exciting but also challenging as they must learn to traverse a new (and usually much bigger) landscape with different expectations and possibly with less individual nurturing than they received in their primary years. I thought it timely this week to offer some insights into how parents and schools can make this transition easier. I want to also say up front that Enlighten Education has a very powerful full day program aimed at making the transition as painless as possible – The Journey. The full Information Kit is provided here should you want to know more: the-journey-information-kit-email-version.pdf.

A number of schools now use The Journey as part of their own orientation program and report that as it is so structured, and focuses on developing key skills the girls really need and want ( eg: how to use timetables, how to make friends, managing stress, handling peer group conflict etc) it sets a positive tone for the year ahead.

Sarah Loch, Dean of middle school at Abbotsleigh, an Anglican day and boarding school in Sydney’s upper north shore has used our Journey program to compliment their existing transition strategies for the past three years. Sarah is well aware that for many girls there will be a period of adjustment:  “the majority of students take about two weeks to relax into the cycle of school and reclaim the confidence and self efficacy they felt in year six”.

What are some of the challenges the new high school girl must face? 

In most situations, primary students have one classroom and one teacher per year.  And yet at high school, there maybe up to eleven different subjects and eleven different teachers, all of whom will have different personalities and expectations. All of a sudden, students will need to be more independent, and an expert with timetabling and study routines.

A “big sister” is ideal. Loch says that mentoring is a method they use at Abbotsleigh to help guide the new students “the year seven students have a big sister in year nine, a peer support leader in year eleven and the boarders have a big sister in year twelve”.

And whilst the older girls can help with working out where amenities are and where they are expected to be after the lunch bell rings, their mere presence can also help with the real issue, the one that all new students worry about; friends.  Will I make friends? Will I fit in? Will everyone already be in groups?  A sense of belonging is identified as one of the greatest needs of young people in the middle years and the importance of friends cannot be underestimated. Girls tend to form cliques more than boys and involvement in a wide range of activities both within and outside school is the ideal way to encourage a range of friendships in different settings.  For many students though, this may be quite a traumatic experience and parents can really help by reminding them about basic communication techniques, such as introducing yourself and trying to remember names, be a good listener, be upbeat and positive and be sensitive to others in the class.  As much as other students may be masking their feelings, chances are they will be anxious as well.

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Emotions are running at an all-time high in those first few weeks that even the smallest incident may result in floods of tears. Parents can try and minimize those incidents by having their child as prepared as possible – have they bought all the items on the stationary list? Does she have a PE uniform? What days does she need to take it? Have you taken a walk around the school a few times so she remembers where toilet blocks are, where the library is etcetera?  Parents should help as much as possible with all the detail initially until she’s strong enough to take over – don’t worry, most teen girls are happy to tell mum and dad when to butt out! 

Being the new kids on the block, and the smallest, may result in some girls being bullied.  Bullying by girls is more often verbal, usually with another girl as the target. Recently, bullying has been reported in online chat rooms, and through email and mobile phones.

Children who are bullied experience real suffering that can interfere with their social and emotional development, as well as with their school performance. Need advice on coping with bullying? Try the following specialist web sites: Bullying No Way , Bullying in schools and what to do about it or Teach Safe Schools.

The frame of mind girls start the year in will impact on how they relate to the other students and new teachers, even on how they perform academically. Ideally, parents and schools will take time out before formal classes resume to pep them up. Girls should be reminded of their strengths and what they’ve achieved to date.  But most importantly year seven is a new beginning so encourage your girls to take a pledge to start the school year on a really positive note.

A key area many girls are anxious about is meeting new buddies.  As obvious as these pointers may sound, it’s worth reiterating them to your child:

  • Introduce yourself and remember names.

  • Figure out who you want to be friends with and why.

  • Get involved with after school activities (these will not only help you learn new skills but are a great way to meet like-minded girls. Try sports teams, debating, drama …so much fun).

  • Work on good conversation skills so you get better at listening and talking.

  • Be positive and upbeat (we might think it makes us look cool when we walk around saying how “lame” things are – it usually just makes us look whiney!).

  • Be sensitive to other people (would it kill you to say “Hi” to the new girl? She may be AMAZING!).

  • Take compliments politely and give them sincerely.

  • Be willing to risk rejection- it is possible that someone you approach may not be willing to make a new friend.

 Love and light to all the young girls starting High School this year, and to the parents and teachers supporting them.

 XXXX

Getting Trashed is SO HOT right now.

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New Foxtel show “Gossip Girl” is causing an uproar with its scenes of underage drinking – teenage star Serena downs vodka shots like Carrie downed Cosmopolitans. But is this just art imitating life? Young female celebrities are famous predominately because they regularly binge drink and go into rehab; there are entire web sites devoted to drunk celebrities ( all of those featured are female). Whilst back in the “real world,” Facebook features profiles with pictures posted by young women that proudly show themselves passed out when drunk, drinking beer on the toilet, vomiting…

American site Feministing, aimed at radical young feminists,  argues this phenomena is no biggie – girls and women should have the right to get just as trashed as the boys and should not feel pressured to act “lady like”:

“I can take the health line of approach that maybe binge drinking isn’t good for you, but the young women should know better or should be ashamed doesn’t work for me. I am always weary of shaming women for things that men do freely. Guys in college get wasted as a ritual, they don’t have to hide it from future employers, in fact they are practicing to drink with future co-workers. But women have to be careful not to ruin their ladylike manners.”

I don’t like double standards either but I do think binge drinking in women, and particularly in our young women, is deeply concerning.

The fact is that research shows teen drinking is on the rise and not just accepted, but expected. This is not new – all the “cool kids” got trashed when I was in High School too  – myself included. Why we thought it was cool to vomit all over ourselves and stumble about alludes me now but it certainly was the thing to do.  Drinking excessively has become a huge issue for teenage girls – recent Australian surveys show that half say they drink alcohol, with one in five confessing to having done something they regret while they were drunk.

The fact is that drinking, even in small amounts, affects women differently than men. And heavy drinking, in some ways, is much more risky for women than it is for men as we are more quickly affected by alcohol and much more vulnerable to the effects of overindulging. Keeping up with the boys is not a badge of honour – it is dangerous. The attached PDF put together by the Commonwealth Government is well worth reading:  womenshealth.pdf

I am concerned too by by the emotional damage our girls are doing to themselves – one in five confess to doing something they regret when drunk. 

The reality is that young girls are also at risk of sexual assault and violence when they are drunk and vulnerable. Let me be very clear here – I am NOT BLAMING THE VICTIMS. It is NEVER their fault. All I am saying is that being drunk does make you less able to think clearly and may make you a target if some vile predator is lurking…and of course the predator may well be a trusted friend of someone within the home. That is not fair, it is not right, it is unjust – but it is also reality. If girls are going to drink, they need to at the very least ensure they stay together and watch out for each other.

Blaming “Gossip Girl” and the media would be all too easy. I am more concerned by the prevalence of unsupervised teen partying.  Teens focus on the here and now, not the prospects down the road. A good lecture and then sending them off into the night won’t cut it. God knows I would glaze over when my mother talked about damage to my liver – I was 16 and invincible!

Do discuss the risks. But also be practical – know where your kids are, discuss whether or not alcohol will be present and how you both feel about this, know what time they’ll be home and how they will get home, and if the party is at your place – actively supervise.

Finally – consider cutting back on the chardonnay. It is unrealistic to expect your daughter to listen to you tell her that she doesn’t need to drink to have fun if every time visitors come around you drink excessively.  

Image from Gossip Girl – Blair and her Mother at Xmas:

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I stopped drinking completely over two years ago. I knew I was a born binger and wanted to hang up the wine glass before the kids got old enough to notice Mummy boozing on.

Sorry Feministing but it ain’t pretty and we should know better.    

P.S Talk about timely – a Government report widely published in the media on the 18th declares teen drinking is reaching epidemic proportions with children as young as 10 in rehabilitation for alcholism. The Sun Herald published a very interesting article blaming parents on the 19th: Parent’s Branded Gutless Over Teenage Boozers.

  

The sublime and the ridiculous.

Indigo 4 Girls – an alternative voice.

2007-11-19-1444-31.jpgI first heard from Beverley Park and the group of “Power Gals” behind new independent teen girl magazine “Indigo 4 Girls” after Enlighten Education was featured on A Current Affair in May 2006. This group of dedicated mothers, and their passionate, clever daughters were keen to offer girls a magazine that explored issues that really mattered…without all the marketing and manipulated images! They had asked for my advice and they have shared their progress with me.

I am just delighted to report that after much hard work they are now launching Issue 2! Editor Bev sums up what they are hoping to achieve: “Indigo will fill hearts and minds with inspiration and encourage girls to be themselves by identifying the potential they have within. The majority of the articles are written by teen girls, with just a little help from a few amazing grown ups.” I am very pleased that I am able to volunteer to offer my voice to the other authentic voices that fill this joyful, and inspiring magazine; I will write a column for each edition. 

At $5.50 an issue I think this magazine is great value and will be a fabulous addition to all school libraries. I have attached a subscription form here indigo-subscription-form.pdf and a “sneak peek” PDF copy of my first column to give you a taste of the types of article Indigo 4 Girls offers: learning-to-fly-beginings.pdf

P.S I have no commercial involvement with this magazine – just want to help share the love. 🙂 Enjoy and pass it on!

What the?

Jane Higgins, Enlighten Program Director for South Australia, forwarded me this link late last week. It is a recent article about a mobile phone-based game entitled “The Coolest Girl In School.” Apparently teen girls, who are targeted as the market for this vile game, will be “encouraged to take drugs and fall pregnant in an online life-simulator game…players must choose whether to experiment with drugs, alcohol and smoking, skip school, spread rumours, bully and even fall pregnant in their effort to win the game.”

Jane was mortified and so was I! A 30 Year old Adelaide woman, Holly Owen, is behind this and claims there is nothing wrong with it…”It’s not about glorifying bad things, it’s about giving young girls the opportunity to play around with high school.”

Please.

So proud of Enlighten Program Director for Victoria, Sonia Lyne’s, reponse… “That would have to be one of the most infuriating articles I’ve read lately Jane- her comment ‘it’s about giving young girls the opportunity to play around with high school’ just tops it off – maybe Holly Owen needs a little enlightening! What must her own self image be like if she honestly thinks this is ok??? ACTUALLY – she has really #*#!!!! me off – I’ll google her and send an email! I’m talking back on this one!”  

You go girl!

Helping Girls Develop a Positive Self Image – Tip Sheet for Parents

Karen Robinson from Women’s Forum Australia recently forwarded me the link below. It is a very useful resource from the Australian Psychological Society; a Tip Sheet for Parents on how they can best support their daughters in developing a positive self image. Do check it out…

http://www.psychology.org.au/publications/tip_sheets/girls_positive_image/

I also wanted to take the opportunity to say a big hello to all the amazing parents I met recently at St Brigid’s in Perth.

I was invited by the school’s magnificent Principal Ms Amelia Toffoli to go over to WA and present earlier this week with Sonia Lyne, the Program Director for Victoria. We worked with 450 girls and a number of their parents. I should be exhausted but am actually exhilarated! Our young girls are beautiful, funny, affectionate, and deep thinkers – working with them is never a drain. 🙂

The feedback we received was awe inspiring but I did want to share a few special comments as I think they serve as “Tip Sheets” of their own – they clearly articulate what engages girls to the learning process and highlights what they are so desperately seeking from older women…

I really got a lot out of today as I liked the truth and confidence you guys shared with us in all your stories. At the moment I have been struggling with myself but you really helped me. I love you guys. Tori

 My favourite part of today was just talking. Being told things no one ever tells me. I learnt to love myself, the importance of words and that I’m perfect the way I am. You guys are really sweet. Thanks so much. Shannon

The way you are so enthusiastic Danni makes everyone else want to be too. Anon.

My favourite part was ‘Stop I Don’t Like It’. It was very helpful in a practical way. I love how you girls really connect with us. You guys are extraordinary people. Tabitha

I just loved that you greeted when I first walked in as it brightened up my day and made me feel happy. I am beautiful no matter what. I love you. Bridgit

This workshop was so helpful. Especially the speakers. They had so much anticipation and helpfulness! They believe in us so much and I believe they can change the WORLD and I hope that I can look up to you guys and give that advice to my children and everyone I meet. It was YUMMY! Rebecca

When you girls have the confidence to love yourselves, then we realise it is ok to do the same. You are “da bomb diggity!” Jordan

Would I recommend this? HELL YEAH! I loved sharing the notes at the end from our friends as it made me feel good inside. I had a wonderful day and it is good to let things out that are positive. I hope you loved us because we loved you. Kamisa

It was hilarious, I really enjoyed listening and learning. I respect my body and love me now.  Anon.

I thought today would be a bit boring and not very useful. My favourite part was listening to Danni tell stories, she is a darl and we all got the warm fuzzies. Sonya and Danni you’re full of energy and are great at what you do. I learnt to be myself, about strength, love and to be  accepted for who I am – I won’t change for others! Jacqueline

Danni and Sonia are crazy and funny and make everyone laugh lots which means we learn lots!  AWESOME!!!!! Chelsea

I loved the Friends workshop as it made me feel good about myself, I learnt the type of friends you have reflects the type of person you are. You guys made everyone feel good about themselves today and showed us that it is ok to love ourselves. Ashni

AWESOMELY exciting and fun, you got the messages through to everyone! I loved that you were both so open and truthful! You rock, I learnt to FLY!!!! Bianca

Grab them by the emotions (capture the heart and the head will follow), be truthful and real (be brave – show them that you are not perfect either), and bombard them with positives. 

Notice them.  Love them.

An uncommon dialogue

Some months ago I first read a true story by Australian writer Debra Drake, An Uncommon Dialogue. It struck me as both incredibly brave and insightful; in it she chronicles her fight for sanity after a long bout with mental illness which was a direct result of her experiencing quite horrific neglect and sexual abuse as a child.

The story is written as a dialogue betwen Debra and her ever patient and consistent Psychiatrist Phil. As an avid reader and ex-English teacher I have read many books that have moved me, yet this had a profound effect on me – so much so that I contacted the author to offer her my encouragement and congratulate her on her brave decision to recount the important, life saving dialogue between herself and her therapist.

In my email I mentioned that I have chosen to work with young girls and hope that I too can offer an important, alternative conversation around gender and identity. I told Debra that for young girls experiencing the type of extreme circumstances she was in, perhaps my words of celebration and challenge may not have had much of an impact, but that I sincerely hoped and believed that for many girls enlighten is indeed a powerful voice.

Debra responded and advised me to never underestimate our work and the power of even fleeting conversations that offer “news of difference” :

“My psychiatrist and I often wondered what kept me as sane as I was given the circumstances, I believe it was the moments of kindness from strangers and the few odd words I heard that hinted that things could be different for me…I clung to these. What you are doing is enormously important.”    

Can the words we hear, even if we only hear them very briefly, really change and heal us? Long term?

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Certainly the girls we work with tell us they can:
“I thought it would be a boring lecture where the whole time all you are thinking about is ‘When will this finally end?’ BUT Danni really connected with everyone, and out of all the things people in my life have ever said to me, and out of all the lectures I’ve been given, I really listened to you and to everything you said and I TOOK EVERYTHING IN.” Courtney, Year 9.  

“I am in shock as I didn’t think it would be so interesting – I think you  ladies should continue talking to other schools of young people. You can teach  girls so much as everyone listens to you and is really interested in what  you have to say.” Anon. Yr 8

Apart from this type of very positive immediate feedback, we also get BEAUTIFUL letters and emails from girls  (many of these make me quite teary) and I do think they are worth a read as they offer a powerful insight into the adolescent mind. letters.pdf

Certainly my own life experiences have show me that words can be powerful agents of change.

I recall some of the words that scarred me, and rejoice in the words that later healed me with the girls I work with through enlighten.

However, I also vividly recall  another “light bulb” moment.  I was in Yr 9, Maths, with Mr Scott. He was joking with the class and I boldly told him he “loved himself” ( in girl world, loving yourself, or thinking you are “good” is the ultimate crime –  isn’t that a sad indictment on teen girls self esteem!). Mr Scott looked at me and said, “Danni, yes I do love myself. I am great. I hope you love yourself too. I hope all you girls love yourselves. You’re really lovable girls.”   

Wow. I am sure that I had been told how important it was to love and accept myself before, but that day I really heard it. For me, it started a quest to find out more – was it actually OK to like myself the way I was?  It started a new type of self talk…” I am alright, I am lovable…” rather than “I am not pretty enough, I am not as popular as…not as skinny as…” There were so many NOTS in my adolescent mind!

How can we ensure that more really important messages are heard?
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enlighten realises it is important to balance the head (knowledge, facts, reason, experiences), the hand (allow some DOING, application of the learning) and the heart (encourage passion and an emotional connection). Research indicates that teenagers are particularly interested in hand and heart connections!

Andrew Fuller’s excellent “Don’t Waste Your Breath, an Introduction to the Mysterious World of the Adolescent Brain”  offers three particularly sage pieces of advice to all of us who wish to have meaningful conversations with teens : “Grab them by the emotions,” “Bombard them with positives” and:

Never underestimate your power. Adolescents need someone around them – an adult who has more options that they do. Someone who they may battle with, but someone who ultimately they imitate and emulate and believe it or not, that someone is you.”

Steve Biddulph, in his outstanding article in the Sydney Morning Herald Teenage Girls Under Attack (a must read!) goes so far as to argue that :

A successful and happy adolescence entails hundreds of conversations about what matters, who you are and what you stand for. Yet many teenage girls are basically abandoned by distracted parents and the impersonal melee of large secondary schools. The rise of themed peer groups like emos and goths, the hazards of queen bee-style bullying and exclusion are a consequence of this adult abandonment. Kids band together for comfort that the adult world is not providing. “

Is it perhaps not the fact that teenagers don’t want to listen that is the real issue, but rather that we are all too busy and distracted to make time for conversations?  Are we just too busy to have dialogue that has meaning?  

It may surprise parents to know that when I ask girls what is the one thing they think would really help and support them in making sense of their world they overwhelmingly respond it would be just spending more time with their Mums. More talk. More cuddles. 

What are you waiting for – go have a chat. It may fall on deaf ears, but then again – it may also prove to be an uncommon dialogue.

 P.S Love to hear what words have helped shaped your identity and allowed you to make sense of your world…add a comment.

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