This post was originally published by The Daily Telegraph 16/7/16 and online at RendezView.
Since when have the final years of school transformed into a blood sport, apropos The Hunger Games?
School days used to be traditionally lauded as the best days of our lives — but those in Year 12 preparing for their final examinations feel more like they’re in a relentless competition that only the strongest can survive.
I’ve worked in education all my career and my daughter is doing her HSC this year. When I talk to teens about how they feel about their final years of schooling, I can’t help but think something, somewhere, has gone terribly wrong.This is what some of them told me:
“I am taking antidepressants, going to counselling and drinking alcohol heavily… I’ve also recently been diagnosed with chronic fatigue.”
“The whole system has made me lose my love of learning… I used to be a chilled person but now I have anxiety and am on prescription medication for a tremor I have developed as a result.”
“I recently dropped out due to extreme stress. It got to the point where I was even trying meth to take my mind off the HSC.”
“At my school (a private boys school) because we have been exposed to alcohol for some years already, my friends have decided to medicate with drugs; weed, cocaine, caps (a form of MDMA) and during examination period, Ritalin, and other ‘smart drugs’. My friends aren’t exactly the smartest, nor do they have the same pressures as me (my brother was a high achiever and I’m a school leader). They… use it because they feel if they do, they can compete with the rest of the year, and ultimately try to increase their ranks, in an attempt to get the best possible ATAR.”
And it’s not just the stories of drinking and drugs that are deeply concerning.
There are teens who tell me they often think about dropping out — not only of school, but of life. Others who tell me they ask to be excused in class so they can lock themselves in the school toilets and cry. There are those who were made to give up sports and hobbies they loved (one girl was made to sell her beloved horse) so they’d have more time to spend on studying.
“It feels like all I am now is a brain my school and parents want to cram facts in to so I can spit them back again later. But I used to have a heart too.”
These insights might shock those who don’t know any Year 12 students. But they won’t shock educators or those who work in mental health. A 2015 UNSW study found that 42 per cent of the Year 12 students surveyed from a representative sample of Sydney schools had anxiety levels high enough to be of clinical concern.
Many of my teaching colleagues lament both the tears and panic attacks they witness, and the fact that due to the amount of content they must get through to ensure students are ready for exams, there isn’t more time allocated to stress management.
Dr Prue Salter, who works in schools teaching study skills and techniques to help students cope with the academic demands placed on them, despairs of the current system.
“All the research shows there is immense pressure placed on students in the final years and for what? It is an outdated system, measuring outdated skills such as their ability to memorise,” Salter says. “We need to reassess what we teach, and how we assess that. It’s criminal what we do to these kids.”
For now, I’ll hug my daughter often. Try to be patient when she procrastinates for days watching Gilmore Girls. And I’ll help her realise she can never be defined by a mark.
Because there has been so much (often furious and ultimately, therefore, alienating and unhelpful ) discussion on Mia Freedman’s recent post on girls and personal safety , I hesitated to post my ABC radio interview on this very topic. The topic is a minefield as passions run deep – and rightly so – it is a very serious issue. But I think we need to be open to talking and listening. When listening to the interview, keep in mind too I work with girls who are not yet of the legal drinking age; although of course many of these girls do binge drink and are damaging their health / injuring themselves / making poor choices as a result.
So I shall post – encouraged by this email just in:
I heard you interviewed yesterday on local Brisbane ABC radio in the wake of the Mia F column/blog on young women’s drinking heightening their vulnerability to sexual assault.I just wanted to express my admiration for how much you drew on relevant research – and far beyond the typical throwaway line “the research tells us” but actual results and studies – to strengthen your already compelling arguments. I’ve worked in and with the not-for-profit sector for most of my career in research-based roles and it’s always such a pleasure to hear someone walking the talk re evidence.As the Qld convenor for the Aust Research Alliance for Children & Youth (ARACY), I see one of my principal tasks as fostering more Danni Millers.
Love the whole emphasis and philosophy of Enlighten Education, esp with a beautiful 12 and a half year old daughter about to start high school next year!
Dr. Geoffrey WoolcockSenior Research Fellow – Quality and Research
You may listen here. Happy to take comments but let’s keep them respectful and keep in mind that no-one wants to see young women harmed, or shamed.
If you listen past my interview to the callers, you will see that there are still some crazy notions about women and safety that need to be addressed.
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.)
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?
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.
We are coming up to a time of celebration for girls — end of exams, school formal, schoolies week, Christmas and New Year’s — and unfortunately that means we’re also heading into the prime binge-drinking season.
Seven out of 10 teenage girls engage in binge drinking, consuming five or more alcoholic drinks on one occasion. Meanwhile, among 15-year-old girls, almost 7 in 10 are on a diet. And researchers have coined a new term, “drunkorexia”, for a disturbing phenomenon: a growing number of girls and young women, especially university students, who avoid eating all day so that they can “save” those kilojoules for a big night of drinking.
Risky teen behaviour such as binge drinking is nothing new, of course. As adults, most of us can look back and wince at some of the excessive drinking we or our friends did. But the whole “make sure you line your stomach” idea that was prevalent when I was growing up doesn’t make sense to girls now who simultaneously feel the pressure to be thin and to drink (kilojoule-laden) alcohol with their peers.
There is a huge emphasis in our culture on balancing kilojoules in and kilojoules out — and some girls are taking drastic measures to balance those numbers. The consequences of being starved of food and bingeing on alcohol are even more drastic on the body, heart and mind.
I am glad this topic is getting some media play this week, because we all need to be aware of this trend and start a dialogue going with our girls, especially as they get ready for the party and holiday season. I spoke about it this week on Kerri-anne and hope parents found it helpful:
It frightens me that many parents seemingly dismiss their teen daughters’ (and sons’) drinking as just a rite of passage. I have spoken to many mums and dads who are almost hysterical about the possibility their teen daughter might start using drugs or have her drink spiked with drugs, yet are not at all concerned when they hear that she has been drinking alcohol. Often parents are the ones who actually buy the alcohol for their teens. In Australia we do have a tradition of using alcohol in every social situation — to celebrate, to commiserate, to relax with friends and family — but here are some reasons that I believe it’s time we all came up with some new traditions (from my book The Butterfly Effect):
What every girl should know about alcohol
Please take into account that figures are available only for men and women over the legal drinking age, 18. Younger girls, with their still-developing brains and growing bodies, are at even greater risk.
Females are more vulnerable to the effects of alcohol than males. This is because males and females are physically different and so our bodies process alcohol differently. When a person drinks, alcohol enters the bloodstream and then, being water soluble, it is distributed throughout the tissues of the body that contain water. Females usually have smaller bodies than males, which means that there is less water volume to take up the alcohol, leading to a higher concentration of alcohol in the bloodstream and a greater effect. This is compounded by the fact that fatty tissues do not take up alcohol and females have a higher proportion of body fat than males. With fewer tissues in the body to take up the alcohol, a female will be more affected than a male who consumed the same amount. Additionally, the body’s ability to break down and rid itself of alcohol is limited by the size of the liver and on average females have smaller livers than males.
The culture of dieting and striving to be thin also increases the impact of alcohol on females. Dieting leads to an excessive loss of body fluid and as it is the body’s water content that takes up alcohol, there will be a higher concentration of alcohol in a dieter’s system. This has serious implications for teenage girls.
Heavy drinking is risky for both males and females, but females are more prone to the acute and chronic effects of alcohol abuse. Because of our physical differences, the risk to our health starts at lower rates of alcohol consumption than it does for males. For women, the risk of premature death increases once we start drinking more than two standard drinks of alcohol a day; at that point, the risk of death climbs to 40 per cent higher than it is for non-drinkers. For men, on the other hand, the risk begins to increase at four drinks a day.
The greater the amount of alcohol a person drinks above the guidelines, the higher their risk of premature death. Hence bingeing – consuming an excessive quantity of alcohol at once, a form of drinking adopted by most teen drinkers – is especially dangerous.
Because our livers are smaller than men’s, women are vulnerable to liver damage and cirrhosis at lower levels of alcohol consumption. Alcohol increases a woman’s risk of breast cancer and the risk rises with the level of alcohol consumed. A woman who drinks three or four standard drinks a day has a 35 per cent higher risk of breast cancer than one who drinks little or none. If a woman drinks more than four standard drinks a day, her risk is 67 per cent greater. Alcohol-related deaths in women usually take the form of strokes, injuries from falls, alcoholic liver cirrhosis, road accidents and breast cancer. Alcohol poses a further physical threat to women and girls in that it may increase the risk of being harmed by violence. Lastly, there is not only the risk of intoxication leading to unsafe sex or an unplanned pregnancy, but also the risks to the health of an unborn child.
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?
I often say that one of the best ways to connect to teen girls is to reconnect with our own teen selves and remember how intense life was at that age.
Wow did I learn that lesson myself recently. I was packing to move house and found the diary I kept when I was 14 and in Year 8 at school. Reconnecting with 14-year-old Danni was by turns funny and shocking. Most of all, it was a reminder of why girls respond so passionately to the work Enlighten Education does — and why they need it so urgently.
My 14-year-old self was a mass of contradictions: studious and ambitious and desperate to grow up, yet childlike. Super-confident but self-critical. Sound familiar?
Here are some highlights . . .(with names changed to protect the anonymity of the friends I mention).
When I was a kid, I collected novelty erasers. I always thought I was about 7 when I did this but now I’ve realised I was 14. Dear God. (I still have them and get very anxious if my children want to touch them. They are kept on a high shelf in my wardrobe and shall be my legacy to the world.)
6th — Drove up to my Aunty’s. Tops as I got some rubbers on the way!
10th — Mum bought me a $2 Instant Lotto and I won $2! I bought 4 rubbers! Then we visited my Grandpa. God I love him. (Some things never change — my Grandpa will remain the great love of my life.)
18th — Bought some very cheap but very good rubbers.
You get the picture.
I was almost as enthusiastic in my interest in the opposite sex. Always from a distance, though.
22nd — Saw a boy at the pools. He was a spunk but he swore a lot. 🙁
There were special sections at the end of each month:
January’s Daydream: To be a psychiatrist and make everyone happy!
Goal for Next Month: To loose weight!
It saddens me to read that last entry, as I was a tiny teen. I hadn’t recalled ever worrying about my weight but I obviously did, just like most teens do now. When we ask for feedback after our workshops, girls often say things like the feedback I received from a teen girl just last week: “I stress a lot thinking I’m fat. I learnt today that I’m fine how I look, I shouldn’t care what others think and I’m not actually fat, I’m a size 10 – wow. Thanks!!” (Helen, Year 8 student)
Friendship drama ahoy!
9th — A day full of fights! Everyone reckons I said Melissa was a poser when we played hide-and-seek. Leanne had the shits with me after debating too.
10th — We made up but Melissa and Marrianne had a punch-up.
I was trying to be friends with the cooler popular girls at school, who had just “discovered” me.
Big Girl (kinda)
21st — Mum bought me my first bra! I love it!
Yet just days after the getting a bra, I say this about hanging out with my friend:
26th — We played dolls all day. Fun!
In the “Secret Valentine” section of the diary I wrote:
Although I never hang around the boys — it is Sean. God I love that guy. (I loved him? I don’t think we had spoken at this point.)
It makes me sad to read this. We did end up having one awkward pash, which was my first ever kiss. But by the time he was only in his late teens, this boy had died by suicide. I recall him as being very shy and quiet. Tragically, adolescence is a time that may mark the onset of serious depression for some young people; this reminded me to be mindful to watch for the early warning signs. Clinical Professor David Bennet’s book ” I Just Want You To Be Happy” is an outstanding resource on preventing and tackling teenage mental illness.
Danni as the boss
13th — We decide to have a Club! It will be called The Aussie 4! We spent all day doing up the cubbie ready for it. I will be the Captain.
The rest of March seems to be almost a catalogue of fast food I loved (“We had Kentucky! Topso! I got the breast piece!” “We had McDonalds! Yummo!”), teachers I loved (“Miss Banting is tops! I love drama!”) and my marks (“A great school day ! I came first in every subject! Hoorah!”)
My goal for next month: To be popular.
My best friend, a neighbour and my sister and I would have periodic talent quests. Although the competition could hardly be described as fierce, I was elated at my win! I danced to “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and assembled all my cuddly toy animals as props. I performed this next to the fountain we had in our courtyard, for added jungle-realism. I set a very high standard for performance that day, I can assure you.
3rd — No one seems to care that I am dying of asthma! Had to go to my Aunty’s to eat Easter eggs.
6th — I think my drama teacher hates my acting lately. 🙁 (I was a star in the school play: I was Mole in Wind In the Willows. Yep, a mole. And yep, the boys did tease me but I didn’t care as I LOVED this role. Mr Mole is hilarity.)
13th — I crammed in the library for a test. I had to. I must do well or I will die.
15th — Worst day of my entire life. Leanne etc all wrote me a letter said they hate me plus they are now playing with my other friends so I have NO ONE! I don’t even know why this is happening to me!
18th — I am really disappointed with my English mark . . . 92/100. (Disappointed??!!)
6th — Went shopping and nearly got busted for shop-lifting. We stole breath freshener. I feel really bad now. (Breath Freshener??)
7th — Bought really large knitting needles! Will knit things! Topso!
8th — Bought Mum a spoon for Mother’s Day. Chantielle (my sister) bought her honey. (Lucky. Her!)
Favourite Daydream: To have a spunky boyfriend.
Danni as mean girl
14th — I was so slack to Jane as I said Simon Townsend’s Wonder World is going to film my rubber collection and interview me and I will be on TV. This is a lie. She was really hurt but she forgave me luckily.
26th — Went to visit Grandpa. He is very vague and sick.
Yes, this was the ’80s
1st — The rich kids all went off to the ski-weekend. I talked to the boys out the front of the school with my friends today. But I don’t really talk. I just stand there like a dag.
8th — I am getting a perm. I am very worried. I HOPE it is good. Darryl Somers also wrote to me. Exciting!
9th — My perm is tops! I’m in love with it it is so nice. Everyone at school loves it.
10th — I got my mole costume today! Love it! I’m helping Jane sell Avon. I hope we make a lot of money. A girl called Christine in our grade had sex with her boyfriend Adam. I got the top mark for maths.
19th — We had a mufti-day at school and I wore really nice pink leg warmers.
23rd — We went to a disco and I met a boy named Foxy. I kissed him. I think I am in love!
24th — I think I hate that boy now. (Fickle much?)
My goal for next month: To meet some boys and to be more popular. I love, love, love boys! But none like me! And I am scared of them! Problem!
A date with Foxy!
There are many entries in the lead up to this date about Foxy and what I will wear, do, say, etc. Then:
14th — Well it was BORING! We saw Porky’s 2 which was just rude. We went to Mcdonalds which was the best bit. I would have had more fun if I just went with my girls! I spent $8 on boringness! I am never dating again.
18th — I dropped Foxy (yahoo!).
And then, amongst all the expected teen girl stuff comes a disturbing entry about an incident with my father, a sometimes-violent alcoholic.
28th — Mum took me to the markets and bought me cute koala earrings. Dad got drunk and punched me for nothing! It hurt. I hate him.
A trip to Surfers Paradise with the family. Much discussion about rides and food.
Then much despair at the fact that my teachers all think I am not focusing and am “trying to be someone I am not” with my new friends (they were right!). Friends are having sex, smoking . . .
No mention of rubbers or school marks this month. I would soon be in Year 9, which used to be considered a notoriously problematic time when many teens went off the rails. Unfortunately, many schools tell me these problems now start in Year 8, because girls are attempting to cope with greater pressures at a younger and younger age.
15th — Pashed Jason twice but I don’t love him or really care if we don’t get together again. Louise F nearly died as she got so drunk the cops called an ambulance. (This all happened at the “alcohol-free” Blue Light Disco the police ran for youth.)
17th — The teachers reckon Marrianne is pushing drugs which is just bull!
5th — Tops party! We all got so drunk. We all went for a bush walk and I fell and hit my head which was so funny! I cried as Jazmine went to the toilet 16 times which scared me.
12th — Jane got a hickey!
18th — I wagged school with my friends and they got drunk. I didn’t. It was actually boring. I feel really bad about this (wagging). (This was the first and last time I ever truanted school.)
21st — Saw a plastic surgeon to see if now that I’ve fully grown they can fix my arm. They can’t. ;(
I was very self-conscious about scarring on my arm and neck from severe burns I received as a child. It wasn’t until I was much older, teaching in high school, that I was okay about it.
30th — School disco is dress up. I might go as a Playboy bunny. (OH. MY. LORD!!)
What can I say except that if even I was considering dressing up as a Playboy bunny, we shouldn’t let ourselves get too carried away with despair about the culture our girls are exposed to: there is hope for everyone!
A lucky escape?
15th — I am practically dying and they might even put me in hospital.
I was truly very ill all month with glandular fever. This seems to me now a stroke of luck, as it meant I stayed out of trouble.
My New Year’s Resolution?
To try VERY hard at school again and not get used by boys.
Reading back over the diary of my 14th year has truly affirmed for me the work I do now. I would have loved Enlighten. I needed Enlighten!
Think back to what life was like for you as a teen too. If you have old diaries, revisit them. What does this reflection teach you about the inner-world of teen girls? What messages do you think girls need to hear – now.
More than a quarter of students aged 12-17 had drunk alcohol in the past week. More than a quarter of the boys aged 14-17 who had drunk in the past week had done so at dangerous levels: 7 or more drinks in a day.
The figure was even worse for the girls. Nearly a third of those aged 14-17 who had drunk in the last week had reached dangerous levels: 5 or more drinks in a day (the limit is lower because of physical differences).
The greatest binge drinkers? 17-year-old girls.
These figures are heartbreaking. To me, they tell a story of the pain teen girls are seeking an escape from, and the pressures they face to be sexy, grown-up, uninhibited. They have a false belief that drinking alcohol is empowering, when in fact it’s a train crash waiting to happen. Alcohol companies continue to push “alcopops”, and hotels offer mixed drinks aimed at young women, such as champagne and Red Bull.
But retailers may not be the greatest problem: almost half of the students who drank in the past week got the alcohol from their mother or father.
From my work in schools, I believe that these WA figures are a good picture of what is going on all around the country. Lucy, a 16-year-old student in NSW, told me how obsessed the girls in her year at school were about the alcohol they were going to drink at a party one weekend.
They all made bets on who was going to out-drink who, and who was going to get drunk enough to hook up with random people.
One girl was asking for advice on what drinks she could mix together to get herself “smashed” quicker, and another was bragging about her mum buying her alcohol to take to the party.
No doubt some of the parents who supply their children with alcohol are just plain negligent, but I’m betting many are parents who show great care and concern about other aspects of their children’s lives. They probably taught them to always buckle their seat belt, never talk to strangers and always wear their bike helmet. They probably worry about their kids’ safety getting to and from school, their marks and finding the right career. It just so happens that they also believe old (and dangerous) myths about teenagers and drinking. Some of the arguments I’ve heard:
They’re going to drink alcohol anyway. It’s safer if they do it at home where I can keep an eye on them.
Kids need to learn now how to handle their alcohol so they don’t get in trouble with it later on.
Alcohol isn’t as harmful as other drugs.
If I don’t let them drink, they might do something worse.
It is my great hope that if all parents understand the truth about under-age drinking, we will finally be free of these myths.
There is no such thing as safe teen drinking. It is never okay to supply under-age kids with alcohol or tolerate under-age drinking. And this is why:
Grow a brain. The brain keeps maturing until around 20 years of age. Less alcohol is needed to cause damage to a teenager’s brain than an adult’s, and the damage takes place much faster. The damage can permanently alter the brain. A teenage drinker is more likely to suffer falling marks at school. As an adult, she may be stuck with memory problems, learning difficulties, poor verbal skills, depression and a tendency to addiction.
Have no regrets. A teenager’s brain is also not yet fully developed for reasoning or thinking about consequences; it is far more finely tuned to respond to situations emotionally. Combine this with alcohol and you truly have a worrying cocktail. Many girls regret decisions they have made and embarrassing things they have done while under the influence.
Stay safe. Drinking makes teen girls feel invincible, but they are actually far more at risk when they are intoxicated. Their judgment is compromised; their reflexes are slowed; they are physically awkward. They are at greater risk of violent and sexual assaults. I am not blaming the victim: it is never her fault. But being drunk does make girls easier targets, as predators look for vulnerability.
Stay healthy. Drugs such as amphetamines and heroin are not the only threat to the health of our kids. Each year, more than 260 young Australians die from risky drinking behaviour. Binge drinking can lead to acute toxicity that at the best requires hospitalisation and at worse leads to death. Alcohol increases the risk of injuries from falls and road accidents, and in the long term increases the risk of stroke, breast cancer and liver disease.
Delay now, or pay the price later. There is no benefit in “teaching” kids how to handle their alcohol. In fact, research shows that when parents allow their children to drink at home, it normalises drinking and lowers the children’s inhibitions to drink. Studies also show that delaying a person’s introduction to alcohol lowers their risk of developing long-term problems with drinking.
As parents, we need to take responsibility for our kids’ drinking. A study conducted by St Peter’s Collegiate Girl’s School, in Adelaide, showed that girls actually want enforced curfews and they do not want parents to turn a blind eye to teen drinking. Teenagers crave boundaries and limits, because the pressure is then taken off them to make all the decisions.
So let’s set boundaries. Let’s set good examples. Let’s talk with our teenage kids openly and honestly about alcohol. And offer them things to do on the weekend that are way more fun than getting wasted.
I discovered the following series of short films on site www.2much2lose.com. I believe they will be great catalyst for conversation.
The films are all part of a teen directive started by the Century Council, a Washington based non-profit organisation aimed at curbing youth drinking. This particular campaign aimed at encouraging girls to see that underage drinking is not worth the adverse consequences it can cause.
The Council’s “Reel Girls, Real Life” contest encouraged girls nationwide to submit concepts for television Public Service Announcements to dissuade peers from drinking. The winner, Kylee Darcy’s films feature two teen girls, “Kristen” and “Sarah,” who are shocked to discover that a video of “Sarah” drinking at a party surfaced on a social networking web site – “What You Don’t Know”. The girls explain that they felt “Alone,” were “Benched” and got “Busted.”
The following questions may be useful starting points ( thanks to my program Director for Queensland, Storm Greenhill Brown, for her help with these):
1. Australian studies have shown that as many as one in five teenage girls say they have done something they regret when drunk. Have you ever observed others acting in a way they wouldn’t normally act as they were drunk? How did this make you feel?
2. This series focuses on some of the possible social ramifications of binge drinking. What physical dangers are there in excessive drinking? How are you more vulnerable and exposed?
3. What steps could you take to minimise risks like this for yourself and your friends?
4. When you see a group of friends behaving in a way that makes you anxious what would you do? How could you take control of the situation?
5. The teenager in the clip says that she didn’t realise that she was so “out of control” – is that boundary easy to cross?
6. What, in your opinion, would be the top three reasons that teenage girls binge drink and why?
7. Do you think that this campaign on the negative effects of binge drinking is successful in getting its message across? How could it be better?
This week I want to share extracts from “Teenage Mental health: girls shout out!”, the third research report recently released by GirlGuiding UK:
Teenage mental health: Girls shout out! is an investigation into girls’ experiences of both hard-to manage and challenging feelings and recognised mental health problems. The report considers a new generation of potential triggers for mental health problems in girls – premature sexualisation, commercialisation and alcohol misuse – and also some of the more longstanding issues like bullying and family breakdown. It examines the impact of such factors on girls’ feelings and behaviour at home and in their communities, and asks young women themselves what might be done to help.”
Some of the statistics are frightening and yet they are consistent with the many other studies that have also examined the impact our toxic culture is having on young women:
• Half the girls questioned know someone who has suffered from depression (51 per cent).
• Two-fifths know someone who has self-harmed (42 per cent).
• A third have a friend who has suffered from an eating disorder (32 per cent).
• Almost two in five have a friend who has experienced panic attacks (38 per cent). • A quarter know someone who has taken illegal drugs (27 per cent).
• Two-fifths have experience of someone drinking too much alcohol (40 per cent).
It would be easy to feel overwhelmed wouldn’t it? But girls don’t need our dismay – they need us to get active.
What types of things can be done to support girls’ emotional well being? The report also offers some practical suggestions:
1. Give girls things to do: from adventure playgrounds to kung fu or street dancing.
2. Create safe places where girls can have freedom without parents worrying.
3. Boost confidence by giving girls opportunities to succeed outside school.
4. Encourage girls to try something new.
5. Make girls feel normal and accepted – whatever problems they might have.
6. Don’t overwhelm them with advice – give them space.
7. Help them understand that they can’t always help the way they feel.
8. Initiate a young mayor scheme – giving girls a say in important decisions.
9. Make information about where to turn for help easily available.
10. Use the Girlguiding UK website to offer advice and support.
I would add to this the following ideas:
1. Empathise – don’t dismiss her fears and anxities, nor think of her as a mere “drama queen.” Being a teen girl is challenging at times, and I believe this generation of girls have it even harder than we did. A great exercise that may help you reconnect with what it feels like to be a teenager was offered in one of my previous posts: Letter To My Teen Self. Do take the time to read the letters other Butterfly Effect readers contributed – they are so insightful. Add a letter of your own!
2. Help girls develop a language to describe how they are feeling; develop their emotional literacy.
3. Encourage girls to seek out a “Fairy Godmother” – a mentor who can help her navigate these tumultueous years. Enlighten’s Program Director for Victoria, Sonia Lyne, discussed this with great honesty and warmth in her previous guest post True Colours.
4. Get informed. Read books from My Library, read some of the articles on my Article of Interest page, watch some of the films in my Video Pod, visit some of the other web sites I recommend.
5. Encourage girls to critique the media messages that surround them. This blog has offered a variety of great practical activities that get girls active eg: my post on Talking Back to the Media.
The entire GirlGuiding report is so well worth reading that I am providing the PDF here for you and a “virtual treat” for you to have whilst taking 5 minutes to really think about how you can respond intelligently and compassionately to the pressing needs of the girls you care for…
Guest post written by Enlighten Eduaction’s Program Manager for South Australia, Jane Higgins.
What is really happening to our young people when they drink themselves into unconsciousness? Why do they feel the need to do this? What is missing from their lives?
According to recent media headlines, youth binge drinking has risen to epidemic proportions. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare’s Director Penny Allbon, has reported that 9% of South Australian adolescents (some 11,000 young people aged 14-19) are drinking alcohol at risky levels.
one in five 16 -17 yr olds binge drinks weekly (1)
44%, 12 yr olds have drunk alcohol in the past 12 months (2)
24% of young people have used cannabis, 9% ecstasy and 8% amphetamines (3) and
25% of deaths in this age group are related to alcohol (4).
It begs the question, what is being lost every week? Not just the many brain cells or lives, but the self esteem, the sense of self-worth, and the contributions these young people could be making to their own lives and the lives of others.
In Australia drinking is a significant part of every rite of passage. The ABC program 4 Corners (9-6-08) presented a segment called “On the Piss”. A young woman profiled articulated it beautifully when she said “What’s a wedding without booze? What’s a funeral without booze?” getting drunk is indeed a national pastime. It highlighted how young people are finding it incredibly difficult not to drink as alcohol surrounds them at every event they go to, and is a major element in the life of everyone they are connected to. The excellent new anti-drinking campaign “Drink Wise”, launched by the Australian Government, also challenges us to rethink this “booze goes with everything” approach.
While alcohol has become part of every event we celebrate, drinking also occurs even when there is no celebration, no milestone being marked. Some of today’s youth are drinking way beyond the glass of champagne or stubbie of beer at a friend’s birthday. They are regularly consuming a bottle of vodka in a session and then teaming it up with a caffeine loaded drinks such as Red Bull or V to make sure that when they are really drunk they are also really buzzed too. In a recent study of 4,271 University Students in the USA, they found mixing caffeine and alcohol resulted in the students being twice as likely to:
be hurt and require medical attention
travel with a drunk driver
be at risk of being taken advantage of sexually.
I find these statistics very, very concerning. But sadly, not surprising.
What did surprise me was another article published in The Sunday Mail (9-6-08) on how being drunk and posting the antics on My Space, Facebook or YouTube has now become an instant means of gaining celebrity status for some young people. I personally don’t find anything glamorous about having vomit all over oneself, or having to spend the night in hospital from an injury caused by drunkenness, let alone knowing that those pictures are out in cyber space for all to see! This trend has particular implications for young women for as we have seen in the media, society is generally less forgiving of vision of the fallen woman – I cannot imagine headlines screaming about a male actor getting drunk and passing out in quite the same way they do when it is a Britney or a Paris.
The Sunday Mail also visited Hindley Street to obtain a snap shot of what is really going on there on a Saturday night. Their video, Adelaide’s Binge Drinking Shame, can be viewed at http://www.news.com.au/adelaidenow/video/.
We cannot bury our heads in the sand and pretend this issue is not real. What is motivating this epidemic, and how do we protect our kids from doing so much harm to themselves and other people?
I don’t profess to have all the answers. However, my experiences as a mother, counsellor and as a senior presenter with Enlighten Education all lead me to conclude that we must strengthen our children’s sense of themselves, and educate them. We must teach them how to respond thoughtfully and authentically when they are faced with a decision about whether to bow to peer, and media, pressure. We must develop in them a deep sense of knowing what is really healthy and right for them. We must love them deeply too, and give them a strong sense of their uniqueness, beauty and purpose in the world.
Sanctions will only work up onto a point: we can limit the hours bars are open, tax alcohol, and ban alcopops, but in the end what do we really want? We want them to make safe and healthy choices for themselves and the only way of doing this is by teaching them to love themselves and showing them that they are indeed incredibly precious.
I favour a proactive appraoch. If our young people are personally fulfilled they will make better choices and limit the harm they do to themselves and others.
And binge drinking will no longer be needed to fill an empty void.
1. “Supporting Families of Young People with Problematic Drug Use”, 2008 released by the Government’s Advisory Body, The National Council On Drugs.
2. V. White, J. Hayman ‘Australian secondary school students’ use of alcohol in 2005 Report’ June 2006, Centre for Behavioural Research in Cancer at The Cancer Council Victoria
3. Teen Health, 2007 Vol 257 Issues in Society – Spinney Press
4. Professor John Toumbourou – Deakin University