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Author: Danni Miller

Our girls are being killed with kindness

Our girls are being killed with kindness.

There’s a growing trend to tell girls (and the messages promoting kindness are so often directed at young women) that if they were simply kinder, there would be less mean girl machinations, more sugar, spice and playground niceness.

Sounds simple, right?

Too simple. If we’re serious about stamping out bullying, we need to stop thinking in trite slogans. Instead, we need to start identifying and addressing the factors that contribute to relational and physical aggression.

And we need to equip both girls and boys with the skills they need to regulate their emotions, and manage conflict respectfully.

To be clear, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with being a kind person. I highly value people who are compassionate and considerate. Surely most of us do? That’s why we feed our daughters on a diet of tales about princesses who are sweet not only towards those who may help them (such as dwarves, and forest creatures) but even towards those who may harm them (enter beasts and evil step mothers). 

Research suggests that in fact around 98% of people already consider themselves to be kind.

But sometimes, our girls chose to act out regardless.

Why, and what can be done to modify this behaviour? 

Author of Odd Girl Out, Rachel Simmons, told Harvard Ed Magazine this month that, “Girls are still raised with a psychology that is trained to think about other people before themselves. This… is a real recipe for unhappiness.”

Simmons isn’t suggesting we raise a generation of moral narcissists. But she is suggesting that we should be teaching girls how to be kind to themselves, and value their own needs and wants too.

The road to resentment and burnout is littered with misplaced empathy and compulsive acts of altruism.

We must also be mindful to ensure that our messaging isn’t misinterpreted as, “Be kind – no matter what.”

And make no mistake, we do still tell girls that they should be friends with people they say they really don’t like (often without even asking why they feel uncomfortable with that person) hug relatives they instinctively pull away from, and unquestioningly do as they are told.

Surely if the #metoo movement has taught us anything, it is that turning a blind eye, or trying to placate with acts of kindness, may in fact only make victims more vulnerable.

In her New York Times column entitled “I do not want my daughter to be nice”, Catherine Newman explains that, “I bite my tongue so that I won’t hiss at her to be nice…I want my daughter to be tough, to say no, to waste exactly zero of her God-given energy on the sexual, emotional and psychological demands of lame men — of lame anybodies. I don’t want her to accommodate and please. I don’t want her to wear her good nature like a gemstone…”.

The uncomfortable truth is that there is also often far more going on with bullies than a mere lack of kindness.

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 three biggest bullies I ever encountered throughout my 25 year teaching career were all later revealed to have being sexually molested in their own homes by family members.

There are plenty of victims of abuse and neglect who internalise their trauma, but for those who do rage outwards, we need to offer far more than snap judgements and mere platitudes.

And ultimately, we also need to engage in some honest self-reflection.

Kids have a finely tuned radar for falseness. When the adults advocating kindness aren’t always kind themselves, and when the very leaders of our country not only engage in bickering and back-stabbing, but are rewarded for it, is it any wonder that young people may be cynical about kindness campaigns?

Kindness matters.

But it would be both unkind and untrue to suggest it’s going to cure complex issues like bullying.

How to stop domestic violence before it even begins

The time for token gestures and endless discussions about the physical, emotional psychological and financial costs of violence against women and the impact this has on individuals, families and communities has long passed.

In Australia, one woman every week dies at the hands of her partner. According to Our Watch, a not for profit organisation aiming to engage the community in action to prevent violence against women and their children, the combined health, administration and social welfare costs of violence against women is estimated to be $21.7 billion a year.

We must seek out new, creative ways forward.

And we must start walking the talk.

Women’s Community Shelters sees first-hand the pain and wasted potential behind the much-discussed family violence statistics. Since 2013 they have established six shelters in NSW and accommodate up to 100 women and children fleeing violence every night.

Yet they’re desperate to make their services redundant.

CEO Annabelle Daniel says: “Make no mistake, we are a vital service, but we’d like nothing more than to be able to eventually close our doors. We want to demonstrate that building capacity and providing education at the local level, and providing a practical application for this learning, will work to reduce domestic violence, provide channels for early intervention, and enhance crisis outcomes for local women and children.”

To this end, WCS have now entrusted me to launch their new education initiative, Walk The Talk, which is based on a pilot project I first ran in 2015 as a pro-bono board member for my local women’s refuge.

Phase one of the program involves my Enlighten Education team speaking to high school students about respectful relationships, teaching them conflict resolution skills, and inspiring them to be change makers. No lecturing. No scaremongering. Rather, it’s a strength-focused, inclusive program for both genders filled with laughter and connection.

The initial education component is then followed up with an opportunity for students to practically apply their learning; they are invited to adopt their local refuge.

Young people will support the work of these shelters through helping with fund-raising, assisting with raising community awareness, and volunteering at key events.

Capture their hearts and their minds, and hands will follow.

Already 12 schools (Catholic, independent and government) have committed to participating.

The 187 teens we launched the program with earlier this week in North West Sydney could not wait to “walk the talk” and put everything they learnt with my team into action by brainstorming ways in which they could help their local refuge, The Sanctuary.

I was particularly touched by the 15-year-old young man who was keen to call his Nanna.

He said: “She really does the best knitting. I know she’d knit blankets and toys for us. I can talk to her tonight?”

Then there were the groups who excitedly brainstormed possibilities ranging from the practical (setting up a box at the canteen so everyone can put their change in it) to the creative (painting art works for the women to take with them when they transition out and into their own new homes).

Their Year Advisor and I were both almost in tears of pride and possibility.

 

Dannielle Miller presented her Walk the Talk program at Oakhill College. She’s pictured with students Adam Taras (left) and Ryan Symons. Picture: Jonathan Ng

Statistically, we were well aware that within this cohort there will be kids who are currently directly affected by domestic violence; this was an opportunity to help reduce the stigma surrounding this, and an exercise that helped give them back a sense of their own agency.

I was heartened too by the young teen girl who told me she was going home tonight to teach her little sister everything she learned: “We need to pass these empowering messages on! We can solve hard problems!”

Yes. You can. As an educator who has spent almost 30 years teaching teens, I’ve always believed that if engaged in the right way, young people can (and will) change the world.

So when the teens who decided they wanted to build a vegetable garden to sell the produce questioned me on how helpful this might be as it would take a long time for their crop to grow, I smiled and reassured them they should simply go ahead and plant the seeds.

This article was first published by The Daily Telegraph, 22/2/19

Walk The Talk update – Phase 1, the student in-school delivery component, has now been completed to huge acclaim! I was really thrilled with the phenomenal feedback from the student participants. We have had almost 2,000 students from 15 schools complete the half-day workshop. 100% said they’d recommend it to other students, and (on average) over 97% of both boys and girls rated it as either Very Good, or Excellent! It’s safe to say they were both educated, and inspired. 

Phase 2 is now happening with schools completing their own projects to assist their local refuge. We’ve already had fund raising drives including sausage sizzles and Mother’s Day stalls and large numbers of students signing up to volunteer to help at events.

 

 

Policing the boundaries

Reports of improper teacher-student relationships are on the rise.

Earlier this month, in a Daily Telegraph exclusive it was revealed that sexual misconduct incidents have increased by two thirds in NSW schools.

While much has rightly been made of the role social media plays in contributing to professional boundaries being all too easily crossed, The Australian’s “The Teacher’s Pet” podcast series was a powerful reminder that inappropriate relationships between the adults we entrust to guide our young people and their charges can be fostered with, or without, modern messaging apps.

When I was 16 years old, I developed a crush on my high school English teacher. The object of my affection was middle aged. When my friends would tease me as he was balding, I’d shake my head in dismay at their youthful superficiality. It was his intellect that I loved!

When he’d read Shakespeare to us in class, I’d imagine what it might be like to sit across from him at dinner discussing the bard (in my fantasies, we spent a lot of time together reading).

I would occasionally say something to him that at the time I thought was outrageously flirtatious (“I like your tie Sir, you look handsome today.”). I’d spray myself with an extra layer of Calvin Kleins’ Obsession (and yes, that actually was my perfume of choice back then) before meeting him in the library for our 3 Unit English lessons.

And yet he never once fed his ego by encouraging my affections.

He did, however, encourage my feminism (he persuaded me to do an analysis of advertisements from the 1950s aimed at women and compare them to the marketing messages of the present day).

He did foster my love of literature.

And he encouraged me to question unhealthy relationships. We studied Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf in Year 12, a play about an ugly night of alcohol were two couples tear at each other. It resembled many nights at my home. Hearing him challenge the dysfunction was revelatory.

On the last day of high school, I convinced my classmates I should give him the farewell gift we’d all chipped in to buy him so that I could kiss him on the cheek after my speech. When I did this, and blushed afterwards, he very graciously covered for me by diverting my classmates with a speech about how emotional endings can be. And he gently explained to me privately afterwards that I really shouldn’t have kissed him, but shaking my hand would be lovely.

From the first to the last, he remained a professional.

And yet while he will always have my gratitude for what he taught me about words, he doesn’t deserve any special commendation for how he managed my crush.

Because the truth is that any teacher, regardless of their age or looks, is likely to be the object of a student’s affection at some point. And any teacher worthy of the title knows this, and knows how to manage it both professionally, and compassionately.

In fact when I started teaching English as a 22 year old, I soon realised that hormonally charged, bored teens will find almost anyone they are forced to stare at for 60 minute periods of occasional romantic interest.

And yes, I had a few teen boys who blushed when they approached me too.

When I’d notice a boy suddenly dousing himself in Lynx aftershave and calling me over more frequently to check his work, I’d know to be careful — and kind.

The same lad would often awaken one day as if from a trance and accidentally call me “Mum” in class, a sure sign that the hormonal spell had been broken and he now viewed me as a matriarchal figure rather than a hottie (which is, ultimately, a far greater compliment).

Our teens are emotional, impulsive and vulnerable.

Teachers know this, and behave accordingly.

It is predators who take advantage.

As we begin yet another fresh school year, perhaps it’s timely to reinforce this important distinction.

The bad apples need to know that there’s no excuse for them using their power to transform youthful admiration and affection into something far more self-serving and sinister.

This post was originally published by The Daily Telegraph, 1/2/19.

Class is now in session

That woeful sigh you can hear?

It’s the sound of hundreds of thousands of tweens who have only just come down from the heady days of being the big kids on campus in primary school. They’ve now realised that in a few short weeks they will be leaving the safe harbour, and navigating the unfamiliar waters of secondary school.

There will be sleepless nights. Possibly some tears. And this is just from parents who will be angsting over everything from whether they have chosen the right school, to how they might be able to afford the school fees.

Forget fretting over whether you’ve bought the right lunch box, or the latest on trend Typo pencil case. Here’s what our kids really need us to be equipping them with so that they can manage this journey successfully.

1. Resilience. There will be days that are stressful, and leave them feeling flat. Don’t rush into solve their upsets for them too early; that science teacher who they say is too strict may end up becoming their favourite. Give them some time to adjust to new teaching (and learning) approaches, and encourage them to develop their own problem solving skills. Focus on praising progress, “I’m really proud of how you’re handling this”, “You’re stronger than you realised, aren’t you?”

2. A map. Speaking of charting new courses, a surprising number of students tell me one of their biggest fears when they start high school is that they will get lost and be unable to get to their classes on time. Unlike the one-stop shop of primary, high school is a movable feast. Schools will provide students with a map, but for the directionally challenged who find these hard to read (I count myself among this wandering-aimlessly tribe), arranging a visit after hours to walk your child through a few times when the playground is less busy can be really comforting.

Encourage your kids to join clubs and do activities to help find like-minded friends.

3. Invites. “Play dates” are now rebranded as “hanging out”. Providing an activity, like swimming or watching a movie, can be a valuable way of encouraging fragile new friendships to flourish. If your child is no longer with their old group of mates, they may feel some anxiety about finding a new, instant best friend. Encourage them to get involved in school activities where they are likely to meet kids with similar interests. Let them keep in touch with their old friends too; it is important they have a few different social networks they can draw on. This way, if one network collapses, they will still feel like they belong as they will have a community elsewhere.

4. A routine. As far as study habits are concerned, it’s harder to break a bad habit than start off on a good footing. At the beginning of the year young people are full of good intentions, so harness that positive energy and get them into a homework routine. Set out a specific framework that they agree on, for example: “ From 4-5pm you can unwind, but from 5 until dinner at 6pm, you need to do your homework.” If they don’t have homework, get them to block out that period of time by writing up their notes, or reading a book.

5. Reassurance. At the end of my daughter’s first week at high school, I had a huge cuddly toy chimpanzee waiting as a surprise for her on her bed. I wanted her to know that yes, she was growing up, but some things — like her mother’s love, and the thrill of finding a particularly snuggly primate — would remain a constant. He was quickly christened her “Comfort Monkey” as she’d lay all over him after school when she was overwhelmed or exhausted. He’s still there now, and only recently saw her through her first day at university.

The reality is though that the heavy sigh we hear may actually be from a tweenager impatiently counting down the days to simply get started; there are plenty of kids who will be chomping at the bit to sail into secondary school.

Whether reticent or relaxed, however, our new high-schoolers still need us to help steer the ship.

This post was originally published by The Daily Telegraph, 19/1/19 

 

There’s 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 

The High School Formal advice every girl needs

Mid-November marks the beginning of the high school formals; a time that is less a celebration, and more a season of discontent.

Because along with all the spray tans, fancy frocks and stretch limos comes a swag of advice for girls that ranges from well intentioned but misguided, to outright dangerous.

The date

What’s the one question that sends many a single girl into a panic? “Who are you taking to the formal?”

It’s 2018. Surely we’ve moved beyond pressuring young women to find an attractive man-bag to hang off their arms.

When I supervised formals back in my teaching days, I always felt sorry for the poor lads who had been dragged out for these events, and were then all but ignored once they had performed their obligatory photo duties. I felt sorry too for the girls I knew would look back at pictures from the night and cringe when they saw who they went with just because they felt pressured to pair up.

Let’s encourage more solo operators. As sassy singles, our daughters will be able to enjoy the company of their schoolmates and celebrate all their in-jokes together one last time (which is, after all, what an end-of-school formal is supposed to be about).

Teenage girls shouldn’t have to take a date to their formal. Picture: supplied

The dress

In the lead-up to formal, a girl’s list of what she needs for the big night can become the teen equivalent of a bridezilla’s: the right designer dress (actually, two dresses, one for the formal, another for the after-party), jewellery, handbag and shoes, professional hair and make-up, tanning, waxing, and sufficiently glamorous transport to get them there. The total cost is generally well over a thousand dollars.

At one high school, a girl bragged to me that her mother had flown her to Paris to buy her formal dress. I was speechless when, in the next breath, she revealed that there was a down side: as it was a Parisian label, only diehard fashionistas would know the designer, so she would have to explain to the other girls how prestigious her dress was (surely the very definition of a first world problem).

But it’s not just the finances that take a hit. For many girls, the angst over what to wear not only drives them to scrutinise their bodies, but seems to provide an open invitation for others to critique them as well.

I recently heard of a school that had teachers run a seminar for their girls on which colours might best suit them, and on which styles would prove most flattering.

Yet much of the information presented actually focused on how the girls should cover their flaws.

Some teens are spending a fortune on dresses, grooming, professional makeup, accessories and transport for their formals. Picture: Supplied.

One teen girl who swims competitively was told her shoulders would need to be disguised (she hadn’t been aware her strong arms were considered unattractive until this was pointed out in front of her peers).

Another was told that despite being larger, she could still achieve an hourglass figure with the right garment choices.

We mustn’t spend six years telling our girls they should never be defined by their looks, only to encourage them to conform to narrow standards of beauty once they reach the finish line.

The diet

The lead up to formal season is peak dieting time for teen girls with many going to extreme measures to lose weight rapidly, including starving themselves, purging and using laxatives.

Jade, 19, says her battle with anorexia began after she made the decision to drop a dress size for her formal: “But on the night of the event, I’d lost so much weight that my dress just hung off me. I spent the night anxious, scared and hungry. And I stayed that way for years afterwards.”

Let’s not ruin this milestone in our girls lives by offering them anything other than words of affirmation — and the tools they need to critique marketing messages and beauty myths that don’t serve them.

It is a big night; yet only one of the many they’ll have in their diverse, sparkling lives.

 

This post was originally published in the Daily Telegraph 17/11/18 

Thanksgiving is the holiday we really need

Australians are traditionally enthusiastic adopters of all things American.

Why then, when we are so keen to send our children off to roam the streets at Halloween begging for lollies, use z’s instead of s’ when spelling, and borrow yet another reality television show format, have we not embraced the one US tradition we need most?

Thanksgiving — I vote we make a place at the table for you.

On the fourth Thursday in November, Americans gather with their loved ones to kick off the festive season with a day devoted to eating turkey, watching football, and expressing gratitude. No presents required.

Although there are some who protest what they see this a glorification of the early settlers (the pilgrims hosted the first celebration to thank the indigenous Americans who had helped them survive through to the harvest — but far less hospitably, they also gave them syphilis and stole their lands) the vast majority of Americans, regardless of political or religious beliefs, consider Thanksgiving sacrosanct.

Sure, we Aussies already have plenty of all day-eating fests of our own. And we’ve dedicated a number of public holidays to our obsession with sport to boot.

But we rarely take the time out to reflect on what we appreciate, or remind ourselves that no matter how independent we are, we still have other people to thank for much of the good in our lives.

Surely Australians could get behind such a glorious feast, no? (Pic: supplied)

Have we perhaps fallen into the trap of viewing thankfulness as somewhat frivolous?

Cultivating gratitude, however, is important work. It has not only been linked to richer social interactions, but to everything from an increased sense of joy, reduced depression, and even physical benefits such as stronger immune systems, lower stress, less pain and better sleep. In our workplaces, thankfulness has been associated to everything from decreased absenteeism to increased productivity.

But in lieu of a day put aside for connecting and reflecting, what can we do instead to foster thankfulness? In reality, the real roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-it-done kind of love and gratitude work happens 365 days a year. It doesn’t wait for the holidays.

Like any other important value, gratitude is most effectively developed when it is introduced from an early age as a daily habit. Whether it be through keeping gratitude journals, writing letters or cards of thanks, donating to the less fortunate, giving time and effort to others through acts of service to the community, or recognising the everyday heroes that help us, thankfulness needs to be practised.

Of all the American traditions and holidays we’ve made our own, why haven’t we adopted Thanksgiving? Illustration by Terry Pontikos

The research is clear too that even during times in our lives when it feels a struggle to find the good, we should persist, for it is at these times that we benefit the most from an optimistic, grateful mindset.

In his recent comedy special Annihilation, Comedian Patton Oswald powerfully opens up abut his own struggle to feel anything other than empty in a post Trump world — particularly when his wife, Michelle McNamara, died suddenly last year.

“Beyond my wife passing away, which is horrible, there’s also really horrific evidence that I might be dead and imagining this hell, based on what the (expletive) is going on around me right now in the world,” he says. “If my mind were to create a hellscape, it would kind of look like this.”

Yet, he argues, he’s somehow stay connected to both humour and humanity by following his late wife’s sage advice; “It’s chaos, be kind.”

Life is chaos. But make no mistake, in our increasingly unpredictable, narcissistic world, the gift we need most is some time and space to increase both empathy, and kindness.

This post was originally published in the Daily Telegraph 

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

We must eradicate harassment from our schools

Were you surprised the recent Plan International survey on Sexism in the City showed that for most young women, experiences of street harassment are common?

If so, there’s a good chance you’re a bloke.

Because every woman I know has been catcalled, or followed on the street, or perhaps had a man lunge at her.

The first time I recall being sexually harassed in my community was when I was 12 years old, and just starting high school.

As I walked across a bridge with my friends, filled with nervous excitement about the new girls I might meet, and the stationery I had so carefully selected and packed in my shiny new sparkly pink pencil case, I noticed a man waiting under the bridge for us to pass.

He was masturbating in front of us.

I was so horrified that I ran straight to the local police station to report him. I’m not sure why the police never pursued this — although I do recall them laughing at me when they asked me what exactly I had seen him do and I replied, “wanking”; they hadn’t expected this ponytail-wearing schoolgirl to be quite so blunt. Their amusement only added to my feelings of powerlessness and humiliation.

But “The Wanker”, as all the girls at my school soon named him, remained waiting for us each morning for months. And eventually it became a game to run past him, yelling out our disgust. Shockingly, it no longer shocked me.

For many girls, high schools are a place of learning and harassment. (Pic: iStock)

This was by no means an isolated incident. Plan International’s Report confirms that despite all the education campaigns aimed at reducing sexual harassment, most young women first experience intimidation when in a public space between the ages of 11 and 15 (I sometimes wonder if the very same men who find it amusing to yell out “show us your tits” to school girls as they drive past them at bus stops are the same ones who rant on social media about how paedophiles should be castrated).

In my work as an educator of teen girls, I often hear stories about intimidation and harassment. And I hear the type of advice given to young women in order to help keep them safe, “walk in groups” “follow your instincts and move away if you feel unsafe …”

These offerings are not designed to make girls feel that they are somehow to blame for a culture that often doesn’t seem to like them very much, nor to limit their freedoms. But rather because short-term, while we work to help change the type of culture that allows sexual harassment to flourish, providing our girls with scripts and strategies for keeping them safe feels essential.

I’ve had emails from three different school principals in the years since we have been running our in-school courses thanking us for giving their students the information they needed when they were in a potentially dangerous situation. On all three occasions, not only had the girls known how to respond to stay safe, importantly, they also knew it was not their fault that they had been targeted. As one principal emailed: “They felt angry rather than ashamed which is just as it should be.” Any protective advice given must be carefully framed within a context of unpacking victim blaming and emphasising why violence is always the fault and responsibility of the perpetrator, and never the fault or responsibility of the victim or survivor.

But our girls are not just being harassed on the streets.

I’ve had many conversations with teen girls who feel sexually harassed in their classrooms. There are boys who flick their bra straps, they tell me. Or sniff their seats when they get up to change classes. Boys who talk loudly about porn in graphic, violent detail. What guidance do we give then, when there is no moving away? When speaking to a trusted adult may mean the aggressor is removed from class for a day or so, but is likely to return?

Our schools must make a strong stance against all forms of harassment and be safe places.

How can this be achieved?

We urgently need to do more work with boys in our classrooms on issues like combating violence against women, and helping them unpack toxic masculinity — action that not only helps create a safer environment for young women, but for other boys as we know that the type of boys who sexually harass their female classmates often target other boys they perceive as being more vulnerable too.

We must stop expecting young women to act as modifiers for male misbehaviour. So many girls have told me their teachers ask them to sit near the more disruptive boys as they think this will quieten the lads. But as one 14-year-old girl told me “these boys are just gross and it’s not fair”. And she’s right, it isn’t fair.

And our schools must realise that in the age of #MeToo, discussions around sexual harassment are not theoretical for most young women — but are part of their day-to-day experience.

This post was originally published in The Daily Telegraph, 2/6/18 

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