Forced to grow up too fast in a society “bent on poisoning their confidence”? Or simply another generation dealing with the usual coming-of-age pitfalls? The challenges facing young women — and their parents — are in the spotlight after prominent author and psychologist Steve Biddulph declared there had never been a harder time to raise girls.
The Australian author, who 10 years ago declared boys in a state of disaster, now sees raising girls as more problematic because they are under sustained assault from a “toxic” consumer culture that causes pain and confusion. He says failing mental health of girls is exacerbated by “everything from diet ads, alcohol marketing and fashion pressures to the inroads of hard pornography into teenage bedrooms.”
“Problems such as eating disorders and self-harm, which once had been extremely rare, are now happening in every classroom and every street,” he writes in the controversial book Raising Girls. He argues that childhood has shifted so much that “14 has become the new 18 and 10 the new 14”. He says an “army of aunties” — relatives or other female role models — is needed to give advice and mentoring to young women.
Last month, Perth doctors warned of an epidemic of troubled teenagers whose self-harming was fuelled by their use of social media. In the year to December 2012, 418 children were treated at Princess Margaret Hospital’s emergency department for self-harm; more than two-thirds were girls.
But clinical psychologist and Murdoch University associate professor Pia Broderick disputes Biddulph’s bleak assessment, saying the issues are not unique to today. “There’s a big danger in seeing girls as a single homogenous group because there’s huge variability,” she said. “Is it a crisis? I don’t think so. We see these issues generation after generation but they are just more spoken about now. I talk to 50-year-old women who admit they self-harmed as teenagers, it’s just become more accepted to talk about it and seek help.” Dr Broderick said she saw high levels of anxiety and depression in teenage clients, with social media and online bullying being a huge issue.
April Welsh, 18, a Child and Adolescent Health Service counsellor, said, “Social media was the most worrying trend affecting young people because of its huge influence.”
Tips for raising girls
- Ensure toddlers are encouraged to be messy, loud and physical and allowed to play outdoors.
- Spend as much time with them as possible and help them find their identity between the ages of 10 and 14.
- Help them find their ‘spark’ and ask ‘what do you really love to do and how can I help you do that?’
- Encourage their talents.
- Ensure they have other adult role models.