For most girls, writing holds enormous power. It can be the key that unlocks pent-up feelings and thoughts they’re struggling to say out loud. It can be their chance to explore ideas about who they are and who they want to be. The blank page or screen becomes the space where they can think things through, create something beautiful or just plain vent.
Many of you reading this no doubt spent hours poring over diaries and writing poems and impassioned letters as a teen. Remember the cathartic feeling you got once a big tangle of ideas and emotions suddenly became a whole lot clearer on the page? Or that high you got when you felt you’d got your point across at last (even if you would never, ever actually send that letter to the person)?
I meet a lot of parents who worry that the connection they have with their daughter is weakening as she grows up. Often they feel that they don’t know what’s going on inside her head any more. Tapping into this natural love girls have for writing can be an incredibly powerful way to deepen our connection with them.
Over the past few months, I’ve been in touch with Tricia O’Neill, the mother of 16-year-old Cameron O’Neill-Mullin, who along with her friend Paris Wilson took part in an Enlighten workshop just a few weeks before a ski-tubing accident claimed their lives. Paris’s sister, Bianca, wrote the most beautiful, touching eulogy for Paris. And writing was a big part of Tricia and Cameron’s relationship as mother and daughter.
Four years ago, Tricia convinced Cameron and her older daughter, Kylie, to stop buying her gifts for special occasions and instead write her letters. After a while, the girls didn’t always find it easy to come up with an idea to write about, so she would give them a suggestion. This had a side benefit: “It gave me a chance to see what was going on inside their heads about a specific topic,” says Tricia.
This past Christmas, Tricia asked Cameron to write down what Kylie leaving home to go to university had made Cameron realize about her family. Cameron was funny and loving and clever when she wrote about “the rabbit” (Tricia’s husband, who likes to eat salad), “the iPad” (her metaphor for Kylie’s new university friends) and “the teddy bear” (Cameron and Tricia, because a teddy bear is always there for you when you need comfort). And she opened up about so much more than just the topic she’d been given — she delved into her strengths, her gifts, how she dealt with other people’s perceptions and her gratitude for her parents.
On Mother’s Day last year, Cameron wrote Tricia a list: “57 Things I Have Learned from My Mother”, ranging from life lessons (“How to love” and “How to manage what I want and what I need”), through to funny things (“How to burp” and “How to buy really great tickets”). It blows me away how heartfelt and real and full of wisdom the list is.
“It brought me great joy that day, and now — what can I say? I cry when I think about it but they are both tears of sorrow and tears of joy,” says Tricia. “She knew herself and she knew she was loved and she knew how to love.”
Cameron and Paris were both wearing their Enlighten Education pink wristbands at the time of the accident. Tricia had some made up for family and friends with the girls’ names on them. I wore one of those bands bearing their names while I was writing my second book, which is for teen girls and is coming out early next year. As I was writing, I had the feeling that Cameron and Paris were both with me on the project, my muses, helping to guide me to write well so that I might help to heal and empower many girls.
Tricia treasures all of the letters written by her daughters, Cameron and Kylie. And she also treasures what Cameron wrote during her Enlighten workshop when our Queensland Program Manager, Storm Greenhill-Brown, asked the girls to envision their future.
I would like to follow my dreams, passions and instincts; make a difference for people; and make an impact on the world. I would find what makes me happy and stick with it; not be afraid of changes; and let myself get caught up in what I love.
Cameron O’Neill-Mullin, March 2011
I think Cameron is making a difference for people and making an impact on the world, because the writing ritual that she and her sister, Kylie, had with their mother shows us all a pathway to building strong, loving relationships with our daughters. I hope that this simple but powerful act of asking our daughters to write will catch on! We might just be amazed by what comes out when we ask our girls to put their thoughts and feelings on the page for us.
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.