It’s complicated

WITH a waterfall of blonde hair, beautiful smile and a figure to die for, the affluent teenager seemed to have it all — until her drunken, foul-mouthed rant in a Dublin eaterie was posted on YouTube.

Taunted by male diners, the girl refers to her father as a senior partner in a top accountancy firm, calls her tormentor a “pleb” and refers to a pair of Manolo Blahniks shoes. The video went viral.

The incident points to a glaring lack of direction for teenage girls, who are grappling with the demands of a rapidly changing, media-saturated society.

The past decade has brought about huge changes in the lives of girls, says psychologist Steve Biddulph in his new book, Raising Girls. Parents must realise, he says, that their daughters’ childhoods bear no comparison to theirs — our 18 is their 14 and our 14 is their 10 in terms of behaviours dictated by peer norms.

“What you are experiencing in Ireland is worldwide. There’s been a sudden drop-off in the mental health of girls, showing up as a combination of things — eating disorders, anxiety and depression, binge drinking, risky sex, self-harm — all things that were always around, but nowhere near as common,” he says.

One in five girls has one or more of these experiences before adulthood. “These girls are not happy. There’s a self-destructive feeling to it all.”

What parents are hearing from their daughters, he says, is, ‘I hate my body’, or ‘I hate my life.’ “And not just occasionally — these girls mean it, which amounts to massive anxiety.”

Why? “The answer is clear — the flood of media messages from the outside tells girls ‘you’re not good enough’ from the moment they can sit up and watch TV. The message is that your looks are the most important thing about you. Not character — loyalty, kindness, friendliness, stickability or being creative or fun. Just looking hot. They see pictures everywhere of girls they can’t possibly compare with. And they feel bad,” he says.

Adults also play a part in this looks culture. “It turns out that adults — especially mums, aunties, and others — spend only one fifth as much time with girls as they did 50 years ago.” Dads matter, too, Biddulph says — being interested in their daughter is protective of self-esteem.

Adolescent girls struggle with a variety of pressures, says teenager, Mary O’Connor.

“Physical appearance is a big issue for girls — how you look is a massive problem and many girls are left feeling very insecure about themselves,” says the 16-year-old, from Borrisoleigh, Co Tipperary. “There’s this idea in the media that girls have to be tall, skinny and blonde and with great cheekbones. A lot of girls end up with eating disorders because they’re trying to match this ideal.”

Vivienne Barry, 15, a transition-year student, says, “Appearance is everything to girls today. In the past, girls might have been admired for their prowess in sports or music or for academic achievement, but now it’s all based on looks. We’re pressured into wearing things we don’t necessarily want to wear and that don’t suit us.

“You might feel comfortable going out in your skinny jeans and a nice top, but what is expected of you is to wear short skirts and revealing tops. This makes life difficult — if you don’t do it, you won’t fit in and everyone wants to fit in,” says the student from Colaiste na Toirbhirte, Bandon, Co Cork.

It’s not just clothes, says 16-year-old Emily Lordan, from Bandon. “It’s not enough for a girl to go out and play football — a lot of my friends are members of gyms and that’s about toning up and looking good, so it’s back to body image. You have to have good skin — it’s almost unacceptable to have a spot. You’re also supposed to have good teeth.

“Orthodontics is almost a necessity these days, so braces are almost part of our uniform. But orthodontics used to be a luxury. Everything has changed from the way it was for my mother’s generation.”

“There’s also pressure on girls to drink and smoke, more than before —when you’re 16, there’s this pressure to go out at weekends and get seriously drunk,” says O’Connor. “It’s very much a peer-pressure thing. You’re not considered one of the gang if you don’t.”

The statistics bear out her assertions — half of Irish 15-16-year-olds reported being drunk in the past year, and three quarters consumed alcohol, according to the European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs. Ireland has one of the highest rates of drunkenness among school students.

“There’s also pressure on girls to have sex — it can come from older girls, sometimes it comes from boys their own age. Sometimes it’s just about appearing cool and popular,” says O’Connor.

While many girls don’t succumb, she says, the pressure’s there. The research backs this up — a 2011 report by UNICEF found that Irish girls are more likely than boys to have lost their virginity by their mid-teens. Twenty two per cent of Irish girls who had lost their virginity had sex at the age of 15, or younger.

Social-networking sites are another concern, says Barry. “You’re nearly an outcast if you’re not socially active on them,” she says.

The problem, says O’Connor, is that many teenage girls feel they must reply to texts or Facebook messages immediately. If they don’t, they feel guilty.

Child-and-adolescent psychologist, Dr Kate Byrne, meets more troubled teenage girls than boys: “The pressures for girls are very different, and the issues about appearance, and the clothes they wear, are much more severe for girls than for boys. I wouldn’t have even gone to a hairdresser’s until I was in my late teens, and when I was young there was none of this fake tan, highlights, nails, etc — but, now, girls grow up at a very young age, because from their early teens they have the pressure to look stunning,” she says.

“It’s not about who you are, but what you look like. In my practice, I see girls of eight with issues about their figures and who want to go on diets.”

Parents must counteract this by developing self-belief and esteem in children from a young age, she says — but the way parents perceive and present themselves is crucial:

“If parents have low self-esteem it impacts on their child’s self-esteem — if you have a mother who is constantly dieting and moaning about her figure, the child will pick it up,” Dr Byrne says.

The problems of parenting adolescents today are legion, says psychologist Patricia Murray — and they have unexpected effects. “Often, in the workplace, there’s a peak with work-related stress in people in their mid- to late-40s,” says Murray, and it’s rooted in domestic conflict with teenage children: “Child minders fill the gap for many dual-career couples, but with teenagers you cannot buy in a support system that is nearly as good as having mum and dad. You’ve nobody to pass on the stresses to, because you cannot buy teen care.

“Lots of mothers are not acting as gatekeepers. They don’t want their daughter to be the odd one out. Some mothers live vicariously through their daughters,” she says. “What’s a 12-year-old doing with nail polish and make-up? Giving them nail polish and make-up and perfume, at 11 or 12, is giving the wrong message.

“Parents need to be strong. The challenge for parents is to inculcate values — Celtic Tiger society was about power and money and it seems to have been a very strong driver in Irish society.”

Being a good role model is crucial, says Murray. “I see parents getting drunk in front of teenagers and having loads of bottles in the house, there’s a very liberal attitude at play. What you do is 90% more influential than what you say,” she says.

With daughters, parents have to go the ‘long way around’, Murray says. This means teaching girls resilience, how to be different, how to be stronger mentally, and not to obsess about being part of a group — let them suffer a little; it’ll stand to them later.

Don’t feel defeated, says Dr Patrick Ryan, author, child-and-adolescent psychologist and director of the doctoral programme in clinical psychology at the University of Limerick.

“Sometimes parents can become discouraged and think they’re not being listened to, but if parents talk to their teenagers, provide good role models and give their views on things, kids are willing to listen. With the teenage girls I work with, I have consistently received the message that they really want to be able to talk about their issues, to some degree, at home. Girls know that the stuff about sex and drink is being fuelled by people who don’t have their best interests at heart. ”

Most girls retain the messages their parents give them. “They may not want to give you the impression that they are listening, but if they trust you at all, they will listen and hold on to it. If it’s reasonable, fair and coming from a nurturing, caring place, they’ll hold it,” he says.

One of the best things an adolescent can do, says Ryan, is to find a mentor, or other responsible adult, such as a football or swimming coach, or a teacher. He points to the My World survey, 2012, the national survey of youth mental health in Ireland, which found that the single biggest positive influence on teenagers’ development is access to one good adult.

“This would be somebody who is authoritative, loving, firm, honest and open,” he says. Teenagers have the opportunity to meet such a person through the family network, sports, school or charity events.

“I’ve worked with adults who have mental health problems and they will tell you they still hold on to a message they got from someone who was really good and important to them — that experience lasts for a lifetime.”

Teenagers need their parents to be there — but in the background, he says. “You’re a bit like a lighthouse coming on at dusk. The lighthouse is still there during the day, but at dusk it comes on in a blaze of light just when it’s needed.”

The different stages of a girl’s life

“Today’s girls have lost four years of childhood,” says psychologist and author, Steve Biddulp.

“We need to slow that down. It takes time to raise a strong, wise woman, but what an amazing thing that is to do?

“The problems, if there are any, come out in the teen years but they can be prevented earlier,” he says

“What I’ve tried to do, in my book Raising Girls, is give a clear map for the whole journey through girlhood.”

* First two years: To be loved and secure.

* From two to five: Be curious and brave. Not dressing her in frilly clothes, but rough, tough clothes she can have adventures in, sharing enthusiasm about everything from making and doing, to animals and the outdoors — teaching her to be adventurous.

* From five to ten: It’s learning to be friendly. Not being too selfish, or too easily led.

* Ten to 14: These years are about finding your soul.

* 14 to 18: Practising to be adult. Not being adult, but learning how.

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