As the founder of The Shona Project, Tammy Darcy has talked to thousands of young women about the problems they face today. Here, she explains why she started the organisation, and offers some advice for parents of teens
It’s hard to define when exactly The Shona Project became a whole and defined idea in my mind, although there are some key moments that stand out.
Like the Friday night in November 2016 when I started a website from my kitchen table. Or the time I first delivered a workshop to a group of 20 students in a school in Kilkenny. Or the day I walked out of my beloved office job for the last time, to pursue my work with Shona full-time.
For me, the story starts in the 1990s when my sister, Shona, was diagnosed with an acquired brain injury and her personality, potential and endless possibilities were snatched from her, and from all of us who loved her. She now has severe mental and physical difficulties and has lived ever since in full-time nursing care.
Her illness, combined with a perfect storm of other quite significant challenges, including family breakdown and horrendous bullying, had a profound effect on me, and unfortunately, not only was Shona’s potential not realised, but mine was lost too.
My grades slipped and I began hanging out with people who weren’t good for me. I made some poor decisions, and ended up in unhealthy and risky situations. How different things might have been if someone had recognised that I was in a cycle of grief and despair, and if I’d been given the space, language, encouragement and time to work through it in a healthy way.
As sisters, our beds had been two metres apart for 14 years, and hers had been the first and last face I saw every day, and all at once she was gone.
Over the years, I thought so much about what I needed during that time that I didn’t get. The answer is simple: To feel seen, heard, understood and connected. To have a platform to share my story. To know that I was not powerless, and that it was up to me, and me alone, to write the next chapter.
That’s why I created The Shona Project.
Since that Friday night in 2016, I’ve travelled all over Ireland, speaking with 13,000 girls in schools about kindness, compassion and the importance of mindset. Our workshops have been delivered in three continents. We have featured in TV shows, met royalty, won awards and built a team of almost 50 volunteers who passionately value our message and share our vision.
Last month, we delivered an online festival with over 100 female speakers on topics such as mental health, mindset, careers, diversity, sports, the arts and social issues. Our videos had over one million combined views in one week. While The Shona Project is inspired by my family story, it aims to give young women a platform to share theirs.
My proudest achievement to date has been writing You’ve Got This!. It was something that I’ve wanted to do since I was a little girl. A dream that got lost in all the teenage drama.
I really struggled with figuring out where to start, and what I wanted to say. And then I pictured myself at 14, and remembered some of the conversations I’ve had with girls I’ve met through my work, and I wrote just for them. When it came to topics I hadn’t experienced myself, like coming out, or depression, or disordered eating, I asked members of our community to contribute. For me, there is nothing more powerful than sharing our stories, in a real, raw and authentic way.
So many young people, boys and girls, are struggling, and I fear that the effects of Covid on their mental health will be unprecedented. Girls are struggling with the pressure to have a perfect life, and to curate a public story that is flawless. They are bombarded with messages from society that they will be valued on how they look above all else; that their flaws will be viewed as failures, and their mistakes will be documented and rehashed for the rest of their lives.
I’m not a perfect parent by any means; none of us get it right every time. Someone once said, ‘You’re only ever as happy as your unhappiest child’. I believe that to be true. When our kids suffer, we suffer. Our instinct is to fix it, and it’s incredibly frustrating to not have the answers and solutions at our fingertips.
But I do have some points that I can share when it comes to teenage girls, ones I try to instil in the girls I meet, and my own kids too.
1 . Make peace with the fact that not everyone will like or understand you
I’ve met so many girls who have twisted into countless versions of themselves to try to fit in with others. So much so that they lose all sense of self. People are like flavours of ice cream: you might like chocolate, I prefer honeycomb. But all ice cream is wonderful! It’s just a matter of taste.
It’s heart-breaking when you haven’t found your “people” yet. But if we hold firm, and stay true to ourselves, our people will find us.
Similarly, we need to make peace with the fact that we won’t like or understand everyone.
But it is not our right, or our place, to expect them to be anything other than who they are. Everyone is worthy of kindness and it costs nothing.
2. If you label a child, they will adopt and live that label
Take it from a ‘problem child’. If we don’t know how to channel our anger, frustration or sadness in a positive way, that’s when we “act out”. As people’s expectations of me diminished, so did my expectations of myself. And those labels can grow deep roots that are hard to outgrow.
3. All worries are valid…
Even if they don’t appear that way. While I dealt with huge trauma in my teenage years, I also lost sleep over the acne that dotted my hairline, or the boy who didn’t love me back. And even when that boy band breaks up (for me it was New Kids on the Block). Yes, there are bigger, more important issues in the world, but it doesn’t make ours less valid or upsetting. Saying “at least” is rarely helpful.
4. When it comes to struggle and failure, show and tell
It’s all very well us teaching our kids that it’s OK not to be OK whilst we go through life pretending that we’ve got our acts together and our lives figured out. Our kids need to see us worry, cry, fail, and make mistakes. And they need to see us get back up and try again, learn through the hard times, and ask for help when we need it.
5. Don’t rush to remove obstacles
We’ve all done it, watched our toddlers wobble across the living room floor, and rush to remove things from their path. Hold up a second and give them a chance to figure it out for themselves. They might go around, or climb over, or do a complete 180 and go the other way. Take a beat before stepping in, and allow kids to use the skills you’ve taught them. How else will they know what they’re capable of?
6. Reward the effort, not the result
Some teens get As and score goals without breaking a sweat, and some try incredibly hard just to pass. These are the kids who develop a rock-solid work ethic, based on determination and positive attitude. Don’t forget to recognise that mindset, it will get them further in their life than might be reflected by the points system.
And don’t forget to give them encouragement along the way. Somewhere between the age of 11 and 18, many young women lose sight of those big dreams they had to be astronauts, ballerinas, presidents and brain surgeons. Sometimes all they need is for someone to say, “I believe in you, you’ve got this”.
Tammy Darcy’s debut book, You’ve Got This!, is in bookshops now. Also see shona.ie