Those of you who follow my blog know that I am not a HUGE fan of parenting books, but every once in a while one will come along which will make me sit up and have a huge lightbulb moment. And that happened recently when I read Raising Girls by Steve Biddulph.
Anyone with a pair of eyes can see that being a girl growing up in today’a world is hard work these days, and as a mother to a two and a half year old, I am already – quite frankly – worried about the challenges to come as she grows up. Steve Biddulph’s book spoke to my very soul about concerns I had deep inside about the pressures girls these days face, and what we need to do as parents to build our daughters up to be strong enough to deal with them. I knew within the first couple of chapters I just had to interview Steve for this series. Obviously, you can imagine my overwhelming delight and gratitude when he said yes…
It seems all around us, girls seem more vulnerable than ever before – why do you think this is?
Almost every parent is noticing this. There is a mental health epidemic taking place across the developed world among girls and young women. It was first written about by psychologist Mary Pipher in a book called Reviving Ophelia, and it did seem to arise first in the United States but is now almost as severe in the UK, Australia, and elsewhere.
You would normally expect about one in twenty girls to have psychological problems serious enough to need help, but that figure is now one in five! Anxiety and depression, bad enough to need medication affect one in five. Eating disorders affect about one in twelve. Self harm has rocketed. And having sexual experiences far too young, without really wanting to, out of compliance with boys pressure or peer pressure – often as young as twelve. These are all making girls pretty miserable.
In my Raising Girls book, and in the talks I give around the world, I argue that there is a twofold causation to this. One is in the culture around us – the messages girls get about how to think, feel, and behave. And the changes in our families and communities. In essence, “looksism” has become the core message of a very visual and overwhelming media culture. Girls (and boys too now) think their value lies in how they look. We have become such a consumer culture, that we have made ourselves into consumer items too.
The second cause is the change in community and family life – that girls no longer spend time around older women. So the wisdom, emotional support, perspective, and feisty advice and scorn older women have for immature manhood, is not available to girls. Aunties, mums friends, neighbours, even mothers themselves, have reduced their contact with girls in their teens by almost 80%. Girls only get a fraction of what they need. So they default to the peer group – including online – for emotional support, values, and information. The peer group are competitors, and they don’t have what girls need. They are equally lost. So the anxiety grows.
I have a picture of girlhood that I paint for my audiences – its like each girl is on a wasteland, cold and darkening, and alone. And predators are circling in the shadows around her. We have to ask both questions – who are the predators, and – why is she alone? The predation is both corporate – from the people who want her to feel insecure and so buy cosmetics, clothes, diets, junk food, magazines, and of course boys too, who are being taught by online pornography to see girls as less than people.
Apart from this – my message is a POSITIVE ONE – laughs. But we need to reactivate feminism and help our daughters, we forgot what they need, and teens are the age when they need it the most.
When do we need to start putting in place the building blocks to make sure our girls are on the right track?
The map that I give in my books is a simple one that is easy to use. There are five stages of girlhood, and often its what we do early on that gives the strength for later. If a girl is going to go off the rails, it will usually happen when she is about 14. But the harm will have happened when she is one, or three, much younger.
So we have to proactively help our girls.
In a nutshell, when they are zero to 2 – its all about making them secure. Slowing life down. Loving them and delighting in them. Calming ourselves down so they feel safe and loved.2-5 its all about exploration. Encouraging her to play in the mud and the paint, be in nature, be physical, try and do things, be with animals, explore. Dads are good at this age, they naturally do more active stuff with children as a rule. Don’t dress her in pretty (and therefore fragile) clothes. She needs to be dressed for action.
5-10 is the social learning age. its all about friends. And so the skills and concerns of friendship, which means lots of talking with mum or dad when she comes home from school, learning to navigate other people, stand your ground, be kind, choose friends well. Hundreds of conversations about what is going on, and again being taught to not take it too seriously, yet be thoughtful and aware. 10- 14 is the “finding your soul” stage. We explain that in more detail in the book. But it also means having other role models than just mum, and finding the focus or activity – the “spark” that expresses yourself, and being helped to develop that. Music, animals, creativity, science, the environment, sport – something that takes her into the world of purposeful and interesting adults, and joins her with the world. So that TV, fashion, friends ups and downs, and boys, are not centre stage. There are better things to do.
What would you say to parents who are concerned about their daughter growing up too much, too soon?
You are right. We have lost four years of girlhood. 14 is the new 18. And so dads, and mums, have to help their girls stay playful, free, and happy. Do things with her – even just walking the dog. Have holidays. Don’t take schoolwork too seriously. Don’t use shopping as a recreation. Don’t be interested in clothes, weight or fashion.
What are – in your view – the key building blocks we need to put in place to make strong young woman out of girls?
Have a look at those stages above. Give yourself a rating out of five on how much you have achieved each one with your daughter. If there are scores of three and under, aim to repair those gaps. If your family has been too busy and stressed, slow it all down. Kids stress rides on the family’s stress level as a baseline. There is no way a child can be more relaxed than their parents. So that might mean lifestyle changes for you.
The power of peer pressure is probably one of the biggest concerns a parents can do – what can we do to address it?
In family therapy practice, we have a guideline… Peer group pressure becoming too strong in its effect on a boy or a girl is an indicator of the “same sex parent” relationship. So a girl who is not close to her mum (or a boy not close to his dad) will default to the peer group for their emotional support and identity. All young people care about the peer group, thats healthy in early to mid teens, for individuation. But if its pathological – the peer group is making them really unhappy or leading them into bad things – then its up to the same sex parent to get closer, build a stronger relationship.
Also, with teen girls, but also even younger girls, AUNTIES really matter. An auntie is often seen as very cool because she is NOT MUM! She is less embarrassing to talk to sometimes. If you have nieces, then I would really encourage you to get into their lives – have them come and stay overnight sometimes, and when they get into their teens, take them for lunch and a long chat. Again, NO SHOPPING, or not a lot.
Its about the conversation – ask them their values, what they think is important in life, what they want, where they are going. And of course, their worries or concerns.
How much to blame is the influence of advertising and media on the troubles we are seeing in girls, and what can we do about it?
It totally to blame. There is a very deliberate marketing effort aimed at girls, because marketers know that girls are wired to be more socially aware, and therefore can be made more socially insecure. Hooking clothes or looks or consumption to belonging and being cool means that a girl can be manipulated into “having to have” those items. So, damaging the mental health of girls is worth billions of dollars. These are the hyenas circling round our girls.
In our generation, it was tobacco, its still of course alcohol, but now its much more about appearance, dieting, clothes, brands, and shopping as identity. And since nobody, even supermodels, can keep up, its a misery industry. When I was a kid, my sister would put on jeans, a clean t shirt, and brush her hair. Then we would go together down the high street on a saturday morning. Today’s thirteen year old spends an hour with make up and choosing an outfit.
The main thing you must do is stop the tidal wave of media input. Stop having TV on all the time. Don’t have TV in bedrooms, ever. If you have to have smartphones (and kids really don’t need them until they are old enough to earn the money for one – mid-late teens) then please, everyone put them on chargers in the kitchen at dinner time, and leave them there. No internet in bedrooms. (Even more important for boys).
Your teenage daughter seems to be going completely off the rails…what do you do?
Thats what we psychologists call a World Peace question. It would need ten years to answer. But all of the above. To start with, go for a long walk with your spouse, and talk about
a) How is our family life? is it calm, or crazy.
b) Who can our daughter talk to? If not us, is there a family member or friend? She needs someone outside of just the household to be her ally.
c) Does she feel loved? If life is all about achievement, hurry, getting approval,
you might have to prove to her she is ALREADY fine as she is.
What looks like anger, rebellion, etc., is often just stress or overload. But also, its calming to have boundaries too. Everyone should have jobs to do, rules that can be discussed but not ignored. Everyone should keep agreements.
And fathers are a big part of girls’ self confidence, so check if dad is spending enough time with his daughter, daily, and weekly, so she believes she is interesting and worthwhile.
If there was only one piece of advice you could give to parents of girls it would be…
In our current way of life – SLOW DOWN. She will need to talk to you, hundreds of times in her growing up. But she will only do so if she sees that you really have time – to listen, to care, to change direction. To play and be close. Hurry is the enemy of love.
Anything else you would like to add?
Yes! Remember that its not just you – girlhood is under attack everywhere. In Raising Girls we tell the stories of girls experiences that will make you very angry to read. That anger is appropriate. The feminist effort has barely begun and both in the developing world where its all about schooling, and sexual safety, and dignity, or in the developed world. where its about regaining control of our lives and valuing people above things, we have to fight the exploitation.
Your daughter needs to know about this fight, her troubles are part of the worldwide battle to make women equal and free. You feel a lot better when you know you are not alone.
Steve Biddulph’s books are in four million homes around the world. He is an Adjunct Professor of Psychology and lives in the Tamar Valley, Tasmania.
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