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Tag: The Girl with the Butterfly Tattoo

Rage and despair: Positive, helpful ways to support girls in crisis

Trigger warning: This blog post contains references to suicide. If you or anyone you know has suicidal thoughts or behaviour, seek help immediately. These help lines are open 24 hours a day:
Australia
Lifeline: 13 11 14
Kids Help Line: 1800 55 1800
Salvation Army 24-hour Care Line: 1300 36 36 22
New Zealand
Lifeline: 0800 543 354

All of us at Enlighten have been heartbroken to see a number of media reports recently of teens taking their own lives. Cath Manning, one of Enlighten’s Victoria workshop presenters, is concerned about the high rates of depression and suicide in her area. Interviewed along with Steve Biddulph this week by her local media, Cath made this great point:

I think we sometimes forget that teen girls are going through the same things we went through when we were growing up, however, today there is even more pressure on them due to the relentless media images and messages they are bombarded with, and the added complications with social media. Of course, social media is here to stay, and there really are great benefits that come with that, but young girls just need to be given the tools to engage with the medium in a positive, helpful way.

Positive — that’s the key. There are positive things we can all do to help our kids cope. We can listen and look for the signs that all may not be well in their world, and we can offer our support. Due to the recent media coverage of teen suicides, a lot of parents and teachers have been asking my advice, so this seems a good time to share an excerpt from my book for parents, The Butterfly Effect, on how to identify and help teen girls in crisis. For the teen girls in your life, I have also written a version of the book specifically for them, The Girl with the Butterfly Tattoo. Both are available for purchase here.

Rage and Despair: Suicide

What many people who try to take their lives share is a sense of being trapped in a stressful or painful situation, a situation that they are powerless to change. Having depression or a mental illness raises a person’s risk of suicide. Stressful life events or ongoing stressful situations may fuel feelings of desperation or depression that can lead to suicide attempts. Examples of these stresses include the death of a loved one, divorce or a relationship breakup, a child custody dispute, settling in to a blended family, financial trouble, or a serious illness or accident. Any kind of abuse – physical, verbal or sexual – increases the risk. Substance abuse by any member of a family affects the other members of the family and can lead to suicidal feelings either directly or indirectly, through the loss of income and social networks or trouble with the law.

Bullying needs to be taken seriously as it has been known to make teens try to take their own life. Also, teens are right in the middle of forming their own individual identities and a major component of that is their sexuality. For a teenager who is questioning their sexual preference or gender, the pressure to be like everyone else, the taunting they receive because they clearly are not, or their own guilt and confusion can become unbearable. A relationship breakup can be a trigger for suicide in some teens. As adults, we have the ability to look at the bigger picture and know that in years to come, a teenage breakup will not seem anywhere near as important as it does at the time. A teenage girl, on the other hand, may not yet have the maturity to see beyond the immediate pain. If she seems unduly distressed about a breakup, pay attention. Another trigger for teen suicide is the recent suicide of someone close to them, or the anniversary of a suicide or death of someone close to them, so these are times when girls may need extra support.

Suicide is hard to talk about. It is almost taboo, simply too painful to touch on. But silence can be deadly. Often the parents of a teen girl at risk of suicide do not ask her the tough question of whether she is planning to take her own life. In part they may be in a state of denial, which is only human – after all, no parent wants to imagine that their daughter feels suicidal. They may also have a fear that seems to be ingrained in our culture: that if they mention suicide to their depressed or distressed daughter, they will be putting the idea in her head. But experts in adolescent mental health agree that it is more than okay to speak directly to your daughter about suicide. ‘Parents are often worried that by asking they may make matters worse. Well, I have never known a child to suicide because someone asked whether they were thinking about it,’ says child and adolescent psychiatrist Dr Brent Waters.

Another unhelpful myth about suicide is that a teen who talks about suicide is simply seeking attention and won’t actually take her life. In fact, four out of five young people who commit suicide tell someone of their intentions beforehand. Besides, I have never understood the point of making a distinction between attention seeking, a cry for help or a genuine intention to commit suicide. Even if a teen is not actually going to go through with a plan to take her life, if she is distressed enough to cry out for help, her voice needs to be heard and she needs our support.

What you can do

Number one: if anyone – child, adolescent or adult – says something like ‘I want to kill myself’ or ‘I’m going to kill myself’, seek help straightaway. Remove anything they might be tempted to use to kill themselves with and stay with them. Dial 000 in Australia or 111 in New Zealand or a crisis line. The following phone counselling services are available 24 hours a day:

Australia

  • Lifeline: 13 11 14
  • Kids Help Line: 1800 55 1800
  • Salvation Army 24-hour Care Line: 1300 36 36 22

New Zealand

  • Lifeline: 0800 543 354

Another valuable thing you can do to help someone you fear is having suicidal thoughts is to listen. These pointers are adapted from the Victorian Government’s excellent ‘Youth suicide prevention – the warning signs’ on www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au:

  • Listen and encourage her to talk
  • Tell her you care
  • Acknowledge her feelings
  • Reassure her
  • Gently point out the consequences of her suicide, for her and the people she leaves behind
  • Stay calm; try not to panic or get angry
  • Try not to interrupt her
  • Try not to judge her
  • Don’t overwhelm her with too much advice or stories about your own experiences

Suicide warning signs

  • Loss of interest in activities she used to enjoy
  • Giving away her prized possessions
  • Thoroughly cleaning her room and throwing out important things
  • Violent or rebellious behaviour
  • Running away from home
  • Substance abuse
  • Taking no interest in her clothes or appearance
  • A sudden, marked personality change
  • Withdrawal from friends, family and her usual activities
  • A seeming increase in her accident proneness, or signs of self-harm
  • A change in eating and sleeping patterns
  • A drop in school performance, due to decreased concentration and feelings of boredom
  •  Frequent complaints about stomach aches, headaches, tiredness and other symptoms that may be linked to emotional upsets
  • Rejection of praise or rewards
  • Verbal hints such as ‘I won’t be a problem for you much longer’ or ‘Nothing matters anyway’
  • Suddenly becoming cheerful after a period of being down, which may indicate she has made a resolution to take her life

 
(Heart image by Seyed Mostafa Zamani, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.)

Towards safer schools: How teachers and families can work together

In light of figures showing that there were almost 70 serious incidents in state schools in the NSW Hunter Central Coast region in the last half of 2011 – some of them violent, such as students fighting and fashioning their own weapons – a lot of parents are asking what schools can do to create safer environments. The Newcastle Herald asked me to submit an Opinion piece on this topic; I thought I’d share my thoughts with you here too.

I visit hundreds of schools every year, and I have seen some highly successful strategies. Strong peer-support programs, where older children buddy up with younger ones and look out for them, are effective. Schools can celebrate difference by hosting multicultural days, gender-awareness programs and anti-homophobia initiatives. Police youth liaison officers are happy to come to schools to discuss bullying and violence, and this can be empowering and healing.

There is a disturbing trend of children just watching, or videoing, serious incidents in the school ground – yet when bystanders speak out, bullies often back down. So schools need to do everything they can to support bystanders and encourage them to say enough is enough.

Most important of all, children need a whole-school culture that makes it clear that violence, discrimination and bullying will not be tolerated. Ever. A student is more likely to hurt someone at school if he or she feels that racists and bullies are not disciplined, according to the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research.

The buck does not stop at the principal’s desk, though. The same research also showed that families are just as important as teachers in preventing violence at school. Children who are in the midst of family troubles or aren’t getting enough supervision at home may be more prone to violence. The type of supervision is also crucial, for children whose parents discipline them with harsh punishments are more likely to attack someone at school.

Children cannot be what they cannot see. This means that if we want our kids to resolve conflict without physical intimidation and threats, we need to do the same. All of us, parents and teachers, cannot merely point the finger at violent students: we need to own the environments that foster aggression.

For young people, conflict tends to erupt into violence if they haven’t learned positive ways to solve problems with others. Yet conflict resolution is something parents seldom explicitly teach kids. Of course, it is the standard we set – the choices we make when dealing with conflict in our own lives – that will always be the primary way our children learn. But we can also be proactive.

I’m not suggesting that parents lecture kids on the right and wrong ways to deal with conflict. But I am suggesting that we have an ongoing, open conversation with our kids about the feelings that arise when we are in conflict, and the strategies we can use to move forward without violence or intimidation.

Try sharing these 10 Steps to Conflict Resolution with the young people in your life. They are very effective for the girls I work with and apply equally to boys (and adults!).

The 10 Steps to Conflict Resolution

1. Plan ahead. Think about what you want to say to the person who’s upset you, so you don’t say something you’ll regret.

2. Don’t put on a show. An audience will only escalate things. A one-on-one conversation is preferable.

3. Home in on how you feel. Use ‘I’ language – e.g. ‘I felt hurt that you talked about me’ – rather than ‘you’ language – e.g. ‘You can’t be trusted.’

4. Admit your mistakes and apologise. If you’re even partly at fault, defuse the situation with a simple ‘I was wrong, I’m sorry.’

5. Be specific. Clearly articulate only what upset you on this occasion. Do not dig up old wounds.

6. Offer time. Offer the other person time to think, so that they don’t speak or act impulsively.

7. Be calm. Learn some simple breathing and visualisation activities to help you stay chilled.

8. Assert yourself. Speak firmly and clearly, and be assertive rather than aggressive.

9. Expect to be heard. You deserve the other person’s attention, but if you’ve picked a bad time to talk, offer another time.

10. End on a positive. If your relationship ends over this conflict, it doesn’t mean you must automatically treat the other person as your enemy. You might not be friends, but you can still be friendly.

You can find a more detailed version of these steps in my books, The Butterfly Effect (for parents) and The Girl with the Butterfly Tattoo (for teen girls). (With thanks to Courtney Macavint and Andrea Vander Plimyn’s respect rules.)

 

Boy-band crushes and body image — the week that was

Last week was a big week in girlworld. Unless you were recently deposited back on earth by aliens, I doubt I need to tell you that One Direction arrived in Sydney for their Australian tour. I was in at Channel 9 to talk on Mornings about whether teen girls screaming and crying over this boy band is healthy and normal (yes!) or something parents need to worry about (no!):

For my daughter, Teyah (13), and stepdaughter, Jaz (17), the best part was that they were allowed into the studio to breathe the actual same air as their beloved One Direction, as the boys made an appearance on Today.

Jaz, 17, and Teyah, 13, in the same studio as their beloved One Direction

The fans squealed. They wept. They trembled all over. But please don’t dismiss their feelings as silly or hysterical. Their feelings are very real and raw. And they have their origins in biology: the frontal lobes of the brains of teenagers are primed for high emotions, fighting, running away and, oh yes, romance.

I actually think it is beautiful to see the fans’ excitement for their squeaky clean and sexually harmless objects of desire. The big appeal of One Direction, according to almost every teen fan you ask, is that they are wholesome, down to earth and hard working. They pose little or no sexual threat. And there is no risk of rejection.

But of course there had to be a media kerfuffle about One Direction’s visit, with dire warnings being issued, and much tsk-tsking about the unbridled libidos of teenage girls these days. (Because the hysteria over the Beatles, Kiss, NKOTB, The Backstreet Boys, and so on and so on, was somehow different, apparently.) It all started when Channel 7 apologised because their Sunrise cameras captured fans in Martin Place holding signs that said “Point your erection in my direction” and “Send your one thing Down Under”. Many voices chimed in to express their outrage about the sexual nature of young fans’ adulation. Some pointed the finger at what many girls were wearing, saying their outfits were too revealing.

The fact is, there was a veritable sea of benign, nonsexual signs being held up by the screaming crowds. And anyone who wants to criticise teen girls based on how they dress should take a look at this Facebook album of One Direction fans and do a reality check. These young women are all shades of gorgeous.

To me, the real issue is why society is okay with young men making highly sexual comments, while girls seemingly should not even think about sex. Case in point: on that Facebook album, many males have left comments about whether the girls are hot or not. How sad that some little girl enjoying her first concert with friends inadvertently enters an online beauty quest. How sad that while girls are reviled for expressing a physical interest in their celebrity crushes, no one tries to stop those males publicly ranking teen girls on their hotness. And we wonder why girls end up playing the compare and despair game.

Why are we so threatened by what Wendy Harmer calls teen girls’ “emerging sexuality with training wheels”? Clementine Ford nailed it when she wrote last week in Daily Life:

The nascent sexual desires of boys are so readily accepted as part of life that we barely blink at the mention of them. . . . But instead of encouraging a similar sexual expression in girls (who experience the exact same explosion of hormones during their teen years), we demonise it . . .

At best, this trains girls to adhere to a system that constructs women as passive bystanders to sex . . . But at worst, it encourages the idea that their burgeoning desires are unnatural and gross . . .

A handful of girls waving titillating signs outside Martin Place isn’t representative of an orgiastic trend sweeping the nation, and it shouldn’t be treated as such. But it is a sign that no matter how much we try and shield girls from sex, they’re going to find ways to explore it and it doesn’t always mean they want to actually do it.

The answer isn’t to keep talking about how uncomfortable it makes everyone . . . it’s about giving [girls] the right tools to explore that sexuality in a healthy way, and trusting them to make the right decisions. They’re not delicate dolls, so stop treating them that way.

Hear, hear, sista!

Another big thing last week in this particular girl’s world was that I was on Life Matters on Radio National, talking to Wendy Harmer about positive ways to raise teen daughters. Of course, we talked about boy-band crushes, but we talked about much more, too. I especially loved having the chance to chat with listeners who called in with their concerns. One was worried about teen girls binge drinking. Another asked for advice on how to bolster the self-esteem of her beautiful teen daughter, who struggles with low body image and is teased at school for being flat chested. And a mother was deeply concerned about her 10-year-old girl who is of average weight yet is determined to stay on a diet because she believes it’s “part of being a girl”. All of their issues were heart breaking, so I was glad to have the chance to offer some practical suggestions for turning these situations around. You can listen to the interview by clicking here.

Hearing the stories of those mothers who are worried about their daughters’ body-image angst makes me more determined than ever to help make things right for our girls. If you know any young women who are struggling with body image, please let them know they can read the chapter on body image from my latest book, The Girl with the Butterfly Tattoo, free of charge. Simply click here for this free sample chapter.

 

Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics

The Sunday Telegraph’s “Agenda” section recently ran a cover story entitled “The Invincibles”, a startling exposé on this generation of young women who, we are told, show no fear about “the dangers of sex, booze, or even the sun”.

Whilst I am as pro-slip-slop-slap as the next person, it seemed odd to plant statistics about how many young women wear hats outdoors (18%, compared to 38% of young men, in case you’re curious) alongside statistics on binge drinking and sexually transmitted diseases.

Some of the statistics were presented in a way that painted a particularly bleak picture of girls: we were told 39% of females move out of home before turning 18, compared to 28% of males, as if this is evidence of girls’ risky behaviour. It might equally be evidence that girls are more willing to live independently — possibly even to study rather than party!

The clincher, though, was the revelation that 54% of young women don’t always use condoms. Hang on a minute . . . if this is the case, then surely there must be an equally alarming statistic on the number of young men who don’t always use condoms. And why does there seem to be an assumption that contraception and protection from sexually transmitted diseases are solely young women’s responsibility?

If we are to believe articles like this, she is probably too busy worrying about her tan or next Bacardi Breezer to bother being sexually responsible.

Shame on her.

Or rather, shame on the media. This article could have helpfully unpacked the very real issues that research shows us many young women (and men) do struggle with — binge drinking, relationships and body image being just some of them.

Instead, it became yet another diatribe against girls. And as such, it was sadly by no means unusual.

If the times we live in are toxic for girls in many ways — think of the huge pressures on them to be not only thin and hot but to be smart and successful; to be everything, all at once — then equally toxic is the way in which the media and our society choose to engage with young women.

I recently spoke to Herald Sun columnist Miranda Devine about my new book aimed at teen girls, The Girl with the Butterfly Tattoo (to be published March 1st by Random House). Ms Devine obviously is deeply concerned about the plight of girls, seeing them as “easy prey for a sick society”. I was pleased that despite her concerns Ms Devine recognises that there is a way forward:

In her latest book, The Girl with the Butterfly Tattoo: A girl’s guide to claiming her power, Miller dispenses commonsense advice to girls and their mothers about how to navigate the rocky road of adolescent hormones in an unforgiving era.

And, just as importantly, despite her obvious alarm, she acknowledges my optimism and pride in the way the majority of young girls are making sense of the world: “Miller also pays tribute to this generation of girls and teenagers, who she sees as remarkably resilient . . . We need to credit the girls who are making healthy choices and aren’t running off sexting and binge drinking.”

Stories about girls in crisis are valid and valuable for they alert us to the challenges we face — but make no mistake, for every anecdotal media report of a girl in crisis, there are stories aplenty in the real world of remarkable young women doing extraordinary things. Some sail off to explore the world, Jessica Watson style. But there are plenty more everyday girl heroes.

There are a few at my place right now.

My daughter, Teyah, 12. Teyah is a naturally shy girl and finds meeting new people challenging. But at the start of this school year she set herself a goal: to say hello and talk to at least two new girls every week. So far she has made four wonderful new friends (there is a sleepover with one planned for this weekend). Teyah also set herself some academic goals — to exceed the excellent results she achieved last year in English, history and science — and she has been working solidly at this since the first day back. She has also put in a truly sterling effort at arguing with me articulately about why she should be allowed to move her bedroom into the upstairs attic. (I am holding out. Just.)

My stepdaughter, Jazmine, 17. Last weekend she had her first surfing lesson. She got up on her surfboard on the second attempt. Jazzy also impresses me with the strong, positive, platonic friendships she has nurtured with four great young men who treat her with such kindness and respect. (Case in point, one popped in yesterday when she was sick, just to check she was okay.)

Jaz and her buddies at their Yr 10 school formal.

Jemma Ryan, 17. I met Jem when I presented at her school in 2009. After seeing me speak at a girls education conference in Melbourne, she had successfully lobbied to have Enlighten present at Clonard College, where she was school captain. Jemma and I have stayed in touch ever since, and she flew to Sydney last week to stay with me and my family to help me in the office before commencing her uni studies in journalism. “Anything you need I will do, no job too small!!” she emailed me beforehand. “My goodness, it’s an opportunity, a privilege I am so, so, so lucky to have!!” How is that for a go-get-’em attitude?

Jem and I. I love mentoring young women.

Jemma also writes for her local paper; she has been doing this since she was 14. When I asked Jemma how she had fitted in studying, her role as a student leader, her part-time job at Bakers Delight and writing, she explained patiently, “Well, I just have to be time conscious, I guess. My current boyfriend and I, for example — well, we decided just to be friends until I completed Year 12. There was no time for distractions.”

The choices made by girls like these don’t sell papers — but they do deserve our recognition.

Girls, the numbers are in.

You are 100% awesome.

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