Sunday 23 July 2017

Helping girls get the best start in life

Depression, anxiety and self-harm are all increasing among young girls. So what can we do as parents? Psychologist Steve Biddulph has some good answers

Let girls know they're not little princesses who will be rescued by a knight in shining armour on a white horse, but are strong and capable in their own right
Let girls know they're not little princesses who will be rescued by a knight in shining armour on a white horse, but are strong and capable in their own right
10 Things Girls Need Most by Steve Biddulph

Emily Hourican

There's a bit at the start of Steve Biddulph's 10 Things Girls Need Most that asks the reader to rate how they feel about beginning the book. The options are: 'I'm stirred up already and want to get kicking', 'Hell no, I don't want to know', and 'I'm nervous but I will read on'. This is interesting, and pretty perspicacious because, actually, nervous is exactly how I feel about reading this.

Maybe as a mother, I'm always going to feel like this when obliged to dissect my parenting skills - uncomfortable; unwilling to subject my methods to close scrutiny; aware that I am failing in all sorts of ways, and reluctant to examine these up-close. Maybe that's what being a mother means.

However, the thing about mothering girls rather than boys, is that suddenly, there is a particularly intense kind of focus around how, exactly, I am doing this. These things are cyclical - a while ago we were all worried about masculinity in crisis and how boys and men were being failed by our society and systems. Well, now the spotlight is on girls, and whether or not we are bringeing them up to be strong, independent, happy women.

And there are very good reasons for this worry, because it seems we are not. Ten years ago, we didn't think we needed to make any special efforts - the way society was going in most developed nations, girls seemed to be effortlessly reaping the rewards of the struggles and take-no-prisoners demands of their mothers' generation. Except it didn't quite happen like that.

Instead, we began seeing evidence of an internalised battlefield - cutting, starving, binging. Depression and anxiety in teenage girls are both rising significantly, as is self-harming. Girls, trying to take up less space, make themselves small and pretty and neat in order to win male approval. Being sexualised at ever-younger ages, rating themselves predominantly on the way they look and how attractive they are to men. Having sex they don't want with boys they don't much like, because they think it is expected of them. The forward momentum of the feminism movement - that was supposed to make everything better for our daughters - has stalled. It has delivered many good things, but there are new, deeper reaches, where it has been chased out.

My only daughter, the youngest of three children, is six, something of a key age it seems, as this is roughly when the more intensely domestic phase of childhood seems to end, and children, girls especially, become very aware of the outside world, its hierarchies, and their place in these various pecking orders.

My daughter is an instinctive feminist. She prefers women to men and always has - men, even her uncles, have to work hard to gain her approval; women get the benefit of the doubt. She is, like so many little girls, opinionated, determined, wrathful when crossed, sassy, stubborn, funny and cute. I tell people she rules the whole house and that her two older brothers are terrified of her. I'm not kidding.

The thing is - I hear this all the time from the parents of little girls: 'She'll run the world', 'president-in-waiting', 'the boss of the family / classroom / schoolyard…' And they all mean it too, just like I do. Except that of course women don't run the world. They are too rarely president, too rarely the boss.

Something happens to these little girls as they grow up, that takes all the sass out of them. They shrink, they compromise, they don't articulate what they want, or they punish themselves for wanting anything at all.

I've seen them - magnificently confident little girls who stand their ground and demand the best, transformed - seemingly overnight, somewhere around the age of 12 or 13 - into placating, self-deprecating, indirect and insecure teenagers. All their fire is hidden, lest they offend, or seem difficult, or bossy. Because hey, boys don't like bossy, demanding girls. And so the girls duck and shimmy and stand sideways so as to seem smaller.

I could not bear to see my daughter do that. To see her cajole and flirt for what she wants rather than demand it outright (preferably politely and with consideration, of course…). I couldn't bear to see any of her friends do this either.

The question is, what happens to them? And how can we stop it? What are we parents doing that encourages these girls to see their role as being 'nice' and 'kind', ever ready to compromise, willing to accept less because they have internalised the idea that they are worth less? How can we start to root out the many small, often almost imperceptible, ways in which we groom our daughters to accept second place in the world?

Well, we can start with Steve Biddulph's book. Biddulph is the million-selling author who brought us Raising Boys and Raising Girls. Born in the UK, he emigrated to Australia when he was a child, and has worked as a psychologist for over 25 years, during which time he has had a profound effect on the way we think about and respond to boys. Now, he has turned his attention to girls, because he, along with many other psychologists and counsellors, began to notice that, "Girls who had flown up in the sunshine of a century of feminism started to go into a nosedive."

The book works "by building self-awareness, clarity and purpose … it's a mighty kit-bag of tools for liberating your girl."

First, though, it is a convincing - and damning - call to arms. Our daughters need help, because the world has conspired, through a series of converging strands including consumerism, social media and internet porn, to give them hell. And of course, because they are girls, they are particularly susceptible to external influences.

When my daughter started Montessori, aged nearly four, she was a like a mini Jane Austin, forever parsing and analysing the social scene. Each day she would come home and deliver a minute run-down of who was mean to her, nice to her, who let her play with them, who excluded her. This could be broken down into near-hourly instalments: "Sarah was nice in the morning but then she wouldn't let me sit beside her for colouring and said I couldn't play, but then she was nice again at lunch…" Every single day. Her two older brothers, who also went to Montessori at the same age, were so indifferent to the social workings of their peer group that they could have been the only kids in the class for all they noticed or cared about who did what.

This incredible sensitivity of girls is both a blessing and curse. It's what makes them intuitive and empathetic, able to notice when another child is upset and needs help, able to understand and own their emotions, but it is also what makes them prime targets for every kind of marketing ploy. If you are in the business of selling stuff, young girls are the Holy Grail. They notice, they assess who else has what, they know immediately when they 'need' something because others have it.

Which means they are hyper-aware of the way they look and what this means, of where they fit into the world around them, and the things they need to do to fit 'better.'

As parents, we need to counter this - Biddulph calls it "keeping out the hyenas". Because although out of five girls, three will be fine, one will have a major crisis but come through it, and one will go so far off the rails that there will be lasting consequences.

The statistics for self-harm, depression, anxiety, anorexia and other body dysmorphias are all on the increase, and Ireland has the fourth-highest rate of suicide in Europe among 15-24 year olds.

Interestingly, anxiety is most often seen now in the daughters of educated, affluent parents. They are the ones who chase perfection, who aspire to be 'the best', and who have absorbed harmful messages around what exactly 'the best' is - getting straight As and certificates of accomplishment, being the thinnest, the prettiest, the most materially successful, and so on. It is these girls, rather than the ones coming from damaged homes, who are now manifesting many of the symptoms and disorders Biddulph mentions.

The '10 Things' Biddulph talks about are a mix of the material and the intangible: A secure and loving start. The chance to be wild and time to be a child. Friendship skills. Dad. Spark. Aunties. A happy sexuality. Backbone. Feminism. Spirit.

Some are more easily deliverable than others. Having a loving father is sadly not always in our gift to deliver to our daughters. Unless we are willing to fashion a wholly different kind of personalised education system, alas it isn't possible for our girls to play freely in nature until the age of six. And, depending on the age of our daughters, some ships will have sailed by the time we read this.

However, Biddulph makes the comforting point throughout that it is never too late. Your daughter's 'secure and loving start' may not have been as text-book as you would have liked between the ages of zero and two, but you can always make up for this by focussing on it when she is older.

Children apparently go through a kind of 'second babyhood' around the age of 12, during which stage they are particularly receptive to a re-bonding process involving lots of affection, cuddles and one-on-one time. This idea that the past can be changed, particularly while our children are still young, is hugely comforting, and gives the book its invigorating, galvanising can-do spirit. Nothing is so distressing as being made aware of something we 'should' have done as parents, that we have failed in. Biddulph's strength is that he encourages rather than lectures, and insists constantly that it is still all to play for - that simply by increasing our awareness of the dangers, we temper them.

As far as the practical recommendations go, these are great, because they are relatively simple, a list of dos and don'ts that are easy to understand and follow through; everything from the very simple notion of spending time together, through to the possibly more complicated one of building a community around your daughter.

There is much talk of love, of course, but again this is often presented in a practical sort of way, meaning not just the importance of love, but also how to cultivate it and encourage it if we feel it to be in short supply - doing things together, slowing down, taking time to reconnect with each other free from other demands.

Biddulph acknowledges the fact that life is busy and often stressful, and that sometimes earning a living has to take precedence over almost everything else, but he puts in a word for a bit of time out; moments throughout the day or week where we make our daughters our sole focus, with no distractions (no phones!). He acknowledges that there will be times in every family when everyone is at a kind of break-point - frantic, disconnected, snappy - and then suggests owning this, and making a giant effort to step back from it.

The book is interactive in that there are boxes to tick and scales to position ourselves on that reflect our own childhood experiences. These then lead into the kind of resolutions we may need to make.

For example, through a bit of box-ticking and reflection, I come to understand that, as far as the stages of childhood are concerned, my most troubled period was age 10-14, where, according to Biddulph, I should have been "finding my own self" - and perhaps I was, but in the messiest, most troublesome way possible - and that I will need to put extra effort in when my daughter reaches that stage. Thinking about it is faintly uncomfortable, but forewarned is fore-armed and all that.

The stuff about sex isn't relevant to me yet, except in so much as even a six-year-old is learning, subconsciously, about her future self as a woman and a sexual being. And yes, something in me hates that idea in connection with my daughter, but obviously I need to grow up - man-up, even - about this. The ability to talk openly and frankly (and age-appropriately,) about sex, bodies, pleasure and respect is vital to a healthy, confident teenager who is likely to "wait longer, choose better and have far happier times".

So, now that I have finished the book, I realise there was no need to be nervous. Biddulph is not interested in blaming or making readers feel bad. He is mightily encouraging and enthusiastic about the many ways - often small and simple - in which we can begin to positively affect our children's lives.

Some things we are doing already, other things we are aware of but maybe haven't got round to, others again will not even have occurred to us. Instead of walking away feeling conscious of all the ways in which I have failed, I am ready to tick the box that says 'I am stirred up and want to get kicking'.

'10 Things Girls Need Most: To Grow Up Strong and Free' by Steve Biddulph, published by Thorsons, priced €19.99

BIDDULPH'S BIG IDEAS

There are plenty of ideas in this book that are useful, particularly the following:

healthy, supportive friendships.

* Community The idea that our children need a wider support network than just the immediate family. Girls need aunts or honorary aunts - older women who will look out for them and be involved in their lives, who will add the bits that mothers can't; who will be role models in many different ways, and will care about them and model healthy, supportive friendships.

* The Boomerang I was particularly struck by this, because I am particularly guilty of boomeranging back at my kids; they tell me something they have thought or done, and I am inclined to chip in with "I remember when I was your age…" The thing is, they don't care. Just listen to them. Ask questions, be interested. Don't always volunteer advice or your own life experiences.

* Spark I loved this; the idea that all kids will have something that really lights them up - sport, art, drama, music, whatever - and that we adults badly need to get behind this spark of theirs and support it. Because right now, far too many girls give up their spark in early adolescence, and because kids with a strong interest area are proven to do better in almost every aspect of life.

* Spirit Your daughter is not alone in the world. She is connected to things and people all around her. Encourage her to take strength and comfort in this connection with a universe of seen and unseen wonders.

* It's not too late This is the big one. Do not give up, because it is not too late. Things may have been less than ideal up to now, but change can happen, and children are adaptable enough that we can make up for the shortcomings and failures of the past.

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