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Month: November 2010

Like mother, like daughter.

A recent UK survey found teenage girls are more than twice as likely to engage in dieting if their mother has a disjointed relationship with food. This came as no surprise to me for one of the premises explored in my book, The Butterfly Effect, is that whilst in many ways it would be seductive to think the hard work of feminism has been done (we have a female Prime Minister, a female Governor General…)  we have not yet managed to make much more than a crack in our own bathroom mirrors, our self-imposed glass ceilings. I am left wondering how we can expect the next generation of women – our girls – to step up and change the world when we too are preoccupied with wanting to change ourselves, and obsessed with achieving air-brushed perfection. Business woman I have met have said things to me like: “Why is it that I can run a highly successful company and complete an MBA, yet I still can’t manage to not feel guilty every time I eat a Tim-Tam?”. Mothers say things to me like: ” Why is it that my daughter doesn’t realise how gorgeous she is? I mean if I looked as beautiful and thin as she does I would be happy!”

Many of us tell our daughters they do not need to change in order to be beautiful, while we rush for Botox. We tell them inner beauty counts, while we devour magazines that tell us beauty is really only about air-brushed perfection after all. If even the grown-ups are struggling, is it any wonder that our daughters are? Girls cannot be what they cannot see.

The Australian Women’s Weekly Online recently asked me to offer readers advice on how they could help their daughters develop a positive body image. This is urgent and important work given that yet again Mission Australia’s annual Youth Survey shows that for this generation of young people, body image remains the number one concern.

My advice to mothers can be read in full here. The number one message I wanted women to receive? Be a good role model. What we have to do for our daughters is to show them that we love ourselves. This is important business. It’s not just about healing us; it’s about healing our daughters.

When it comes to body image angst and being seduced by the diet industry’s seductive promise of a better life through a new-and-improved body, it seems that in many significant ways we are far more like our daughters than we are different. How desperately sad. But this recognition of sameness is also full of possibility. If we accept that the issues we need to work on affect all girls and women, then we have the opportunity to sort this mess out alongside our daughters. We no longer need to maintain the ‘Mother knows best’ facade and try to ‘fix’ everything for them. Or worse still, rage at their unhealthy behaviours, which really only parallel our own – how teen girls hate hypocrisy! We can join our daughters and work together on something greater; we can together find new connections and deeper mutual understandings.

I discussed this very issue on Mornings With Kerri-Anne today. I’d love to hear how you are showing the young women in your life that loving ourselves is not the ultimate crime (remember those schoolyards taunts? “She so loves herself!”, “She thinks she is all that!”) and that women do not need to take up less and less space.

Making Friends with Facebook: Technology has changed, but teens still just want to connect

rachel hansenThis week’s post, revealing the truth behind the hysteria about all the time girls spend on Facebook and texting, is by our talented program manager for Enlighten Education in New Zealand, Rachel Hansen. Rachel is an experienced health and wellbeing educator who has a first-class honours degree in Psychology and a Masters degree in Criminology from Cambridge University (UK). Her research has focused on youth development, youth offending and women’s health.

Every so often new research is published on just how much time teens are spending online and engaged in social media. Eye-catching headlines are designed to shock: “Teenage ‘hypertexters’ more likely to have sex, drink, use drugs”, “Psychologist Warns of Facebook Dangers”, “Facebook warning after Aust teen lured to death”.

Generation Y has never known life without internet, and at times the way their world functions seems completely foreign to many parents. I always get a chuckle from teen girls’ reactions when I explain to them how my friends and I managed to navigate girl-world without the assistance of mobile phones or Facebook. To them, social media is so essential to the way they connect with their friends that it is hard for them to imagine a world without it. The effect all this connectivity is having on our children is certainly a hot topic among parents that I speak to.

All this has got me thinking – just how different are the social habits of today’s teens to those a generation ago?

As a teenager, I spent many hours camped on our family landline. I would farewell my friends at school, and then as soon as I got home I would be on the phone. I have a note in my 1992 diary exclaiming: “Broke my phone record!!! 6 hours non-stop!!! One phonecall!!!” (My mind boggles. Did we have toilet breaks? Refreshment pauses?)

And when we weren’t talking on the phone, we were writing to one another. Pages and pages and pages. My friends and I would wave goodbye as we headed off to our respective classes or homes, and these waves would always be accompanied with “write me a letter!” When we saw each other again, we would exchange letters and keep them to read when we next had to endure separation for more than 10 minutes. Due to my hoarding tendencies, I have kept every one of these letters. And let me clarify that these are not notes – some stretch to 20 pages long!

My point is this: as a teenager I spent in excess of 20 hours a week engaging in non-face-to-face social contact – that is, telephone calls and letters. I think that this behaviour at times probably exasperated my parents, but it did not have them fearing for my future socialisation.

Today’s teenagers send messages and status updates constantly, just as I spent endless hours talking on the landline and hand-writing letters. The medium is different but the drive is the same: the desire to connect with others, explore friendships, delve deeper into one’s emotions, and understand and develop relationships. This desire has always driven teen girls’ behaviour. I suggest that when it comes to core needs and values, girls today are not that different at all to us as teens. It is just that the modes girls use to express themselves have changed.

A common theme of the concerns about social media is that it prevents girls from developing real friendships. In presenting Enlighten workshops to teen girls all around New Zealand, I see no evidence of this. I see girls hugging, talking and sharing their lives with one another. They write about how important their best friends are in their lives. Recent research by Girl Scouts USA indicates that:

despite popular perception, social networks are not necessarily a ‘girl’s best friend’ . . . The vast majority of girls prefer face-to-face communication. Ninety-two percent would give up all of their social networking friends if it meant keeping their best friend.

The study also showed that 52% of girls have used a social networking site to become involved in a cause that they care about, and more than half agree that social networking online helps them feel closer to their friends.

girls making heart signs

I acknowledge that there are valid concerns about cyber-bullying, children viewing inappropriate material and the effects on a teen’s sense of self-worth of maintaining an online profile. Along with the many milestones your child encounters on the way to adulthood, the “safe social media talk” must happen. The sooner kids learn the basics of social media and staying safe online, the better: Superclubs Plus is a safe, regulated social media site for 6–12-year-olds. In many schools in New Zealand and Australia, this is sponsored so is free to use.

Before we rush to condemn social media, it’s important to consider the many benefits of all this connectivity and how it can be a positive in our teens’ lives if used appropriately. In a previous post, Dannielle Miller has discussed the many benefits of girls being cyber-savvy:

Technology has the capacity to allow for connecting, creating, informing and educating. Let’s not allow fear to drive us to further isolate and limit our girls. Rather, let’s inspire girls to get savvy and to use ICT as a tool to meet their own needs.

One of the big concerns parents have regarding social media is privacy. However, ironically Generation Y is far more conscious of privacy online than their parents. According to Education IT consultant Robyn Treyvaud:

The Gen Ys who have been hanging out on Facebook for a while understand the implications of the privacy changes Facebook have implemented four or five times since December. I give them a lot of credit and we’ve got a lot to learn from them. We do fall into the trap of thinking we know better than them.

Furthermore, research by Mary Madden of the US-based Pew Internet Project this year found that

contrary to the popular perception that younger users embrace a laissez-faire attitude about their online reputations, young adults are often more vigilant than older adults when it comes to managing their online identities” . . . Young people were very aware of their online reputation – customising privacy settings and limiting the information about them that appears online.

I think it is too easy for parents to dismiss social media and demonise it. Parents who ban their teenagers from social networks or widely condemn their use are doing their children a disservice. As one writer put it: “Is Facebook really worse for teenagers’ brains than the mindless reruns of Gilligan’s Island and The Brady Bunch that their parents consumed growing up?”

I use Facebook regularly for connecting with friends, meeting like-minded people and keeping up-to-date on the latest research and news in my fields of interest. I live in (relatively) small-town New Zealand and I have many wonderful friends in my town. But Facebook allows me the luxury of connecting with a wide range of people who share my passions. I would feel professionally isolated without social media. Similarly I have heard numerous stories from quirky teens who just don’t have a social group they fit in with in their small town. The beauty of the internet is that regardless of how quirky your interests are, it’s guaranteed that somewhere there is someone else sharing your interests. For some teens, finding an online community of like-minded people can literally be a lifesaver.

Social networking icons by: ZyMOS [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The courage to be imperfect

I am buzzing this week because I’ve just discovered the work of an amazing woman, Brené Brown, a professor at the University of Houston. Years of research has led Brown, who has a PhD in social work, to a powerful theory that validates everything I have always known deep in my heart about why our girls are struggling and hurting, and what we need to do to help them.

Everyone who has been to one of Enlighten’s workshops has felt the electricity in the room. They’ve seen the profound changes the girls undergo as they experience the joy of being their authentic selves, and as they shed the need to be someone else’s idea of “perfect.” The girls are transformed when they learn that we are all imperfect—and beautiful and worthy of love.

I loved how today the true piece of everyone came out . . . because it means a lot to me to know I am not alone. You taught me to be my true self and to be happy and to love.—Kim, Enlighten workshop participant

Brown’s decade of research—interviewing a huge number of people, holding focus groups and poring over people’s innermost feelings in their journals—reveal that coming to these understandings is the very key to feeling connected and loved. And that a feeling of connection and being loved is what we need to live a life of meaning and purpose.

This strikes such a chord with me, because at Enlighten we’ve always instinctively known that making a connection with girls is crucial, and that (even more importantly) we must help them reconnect with each other. That’s why at the beginning of each workshop, we always tell our personal story, revealing our imperfections. We show them what vulnerability looks like and that we are lovable in our imperfect state. They then feel brave enough to follow suit—after all, girls cannot be what they cannot see.

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.—Courtney, Enlighten workshop participant

I loved hearing how Danni remained strong and wore her scars instead of letting them wear her . . . Being a girl is tough but every one of us is beautiful in our own way.—Caitlin, Enlighten workshop participant

That is why we also introduce the girls to the old-fashioned notion of “The Sisterhood” and show them that they are in fact more alike than they are different; they share the same fears, doubts, hopes…

Every day when I do workshops, I see girls just begin to shine as they allow themselves to trust and be vulnerable, and as they deeply connect with the other girls and with their own selves. So when I watched Brown speak, I was overjoyed, because never before have I so clearly heard an echo of Enlighten’s philosophy. She makes me feel even more revved up to get out and make a difference to the lives of girls. Brené Brown admits that her research has changed her life. I think it will change many people’s lives, so I’m sharing this TEDx talk she gave with everyone important to me. (TEDx is a nonprofit movement devoted to “Ideas Worth Spreading”.)

Towards the end, you may feel a deep thud of recognition of the reasons why girls in greater numbers than ever before are numbing themselves by binge drinking and self-harm, taking risks and “perfecting” themselves by dieting to oblivion. They’re doing it for the same reasons many adults are—to numb pain and the fear that they’re just not good enough.

My hope is that  Brown’s presentation gets a conversation going in our schools and homes, so here are a few questions that you might like to think about or put out to your colleagues and family. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

  • What signs are there that girls are numbing the feeling that they aren’t good enough?
  • Are we doing some of the same things to block out those same feelings?
  • What steps can we start taking today to make the girls in our lives feel confident they are loved and worthy?
  • What do we need to do so that we can be more comfortable with our own imperfections?

Hope and healing: Breaking the silence on sexual abuse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Kids Helpline (24 hours) 1800 55 1800

Lifeline (24 hours) 131 114

Australian Childhood Foundation

Child Wise

Survivors Australia

ASCA (Adult Survivors of Child Abuse)

New Zealand

The Sexual Abuse Centre 0-3-364 7324

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

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