A CONVERSATION WITH JUSTIN COULSON
“Even if I don’t show it, I love you with all my heart. And all I want is your love, support and attention, even though I’d never ever admit that …” (What your daughter wants you to know, but won’t tell you – Miss-Connection).
There has never been a better time to be a teenage girl. There has never been a harder time to be a teenage girl. Such are the contradictions and complexities parents must face when raising a teenage daughter in the 2020s! It can be a wild ride. But thankfully, there are some superbly qualified people who can help us navigate these years.
One of them is Dr Justin Coulson, author of Miss-Connection, who decided to tackle the mysteries of the teenage girl by interviewing more than 400 of them! His insights and genuine desire to understand these amazing, elusive creatures is refreshing. So we tracked him down for a chat – to learn how we can better connect with our teenage daughters …
GRAPEVINE: Okay … Miss-Connection. What inspired it, and why?
DR JUSTIN COULSON: Firstly, I’m a dad to six daughters, and I was going through a dreadful time with one of them. I’d already written a bunch of books about parenting – I had the PhD and a large family that had been pretty solid up until this point. But then, all of a sudden, this 17-year-old just blew up! And I felt totally out of my depth …
In the middle of all this, my publisher asked me to write a book about teenage girls. “After all, you’ve got such a happy family!” And in my head, I thought: We’re not that happy right now!
I’d read a couple of books about teenage girls recently, but after I put each of them down, I felt like something was missing; that there was more to the story. So I figured, maybe I could write the book – as long as I did it right! And with that, we were off!
GV: But this wasn’t going to be an ordinary book, right? You took quite a different approach …
JUSTIN: Yeah, exactly! I told the publisher I’d need some extra time. I wanted to go out and interview the girls themselves.
HEAR THEIR VOICES
I wanted to talk to their parents, their teachers, and those engaging with them on a day-to-day basis. But, mostly, I wanted the book to be full of the girls’ own voices – because I’m a middle-aged man; I’ve never been a girl, and it’s been a while since I was a teenager!
I wanted to tell the story of what it’s like to be a teenager today, so mums and dads can see the world through their eyes. Then I could say, ‘This is what she’s telling me she needs – this is what you need to give her.’
GV: What was it like speaking with more than 400 girls?
JUSTIN: It was a really delightful process, and it left me so hopeful. I mean, yeah, there are some kids really struggling – no doubt. And there were some really challenging, heart-rending moments. But for the most part, we’re dealing with a bunch of girls who are simply outstanding humans!
GV: What a great outcome! I mean, when you look around this crazy world, it’s often hard to see much hope …
JUSTIN: Well, spoiler alert! By the end of the book, they all lived happily ever after! Literally, as I was finishing the book, that daughter who’d driven me crazy for three years turned 21. And around the week that I wrote the last page of the book I walked my daughter down the aisle to marry her sweetheart!
And there’s the hope, right? That they actually do grow through it. And even when they’re having those moments, usually it’s not about YOU – it’s about THEM. They’re trying to figure themselves out … trying to find their own moral compass.
GV: So, after all those interviews and discussions … what were your most significant discoveries?
JUSTIN: The most surprising was just how GOOD these kids are! Even the challenging ones … even those who’re doing all the stuff we wish they weren’t doing! They’ve got good heads, and they’ve got good hearts.
My biggest revelation was when I saw into their hearts. (And forgive me, but I can already feel myself getting emotional!) I saw this breathtakingly deep desirethey have to feel connected to us. To know that they’re enough … that they matter … that they’re worthy.
And one of the most challenging things was so many of them don’t feel like they’re enough.
GV: Why is that?
JUSTIN: Because, as parents, we’re constantly putting pressure on them, telling them what to do, asking why they did it that way when they should’ve done it this way, complaining they only got the B+ instead of the A. They have this sense that they just can’t measure up.
Your daughters just want to hear that they’re okay … that you love them, even if they yell and shout and scream at you, and tell you that they hate you! These girls have got tender hearts. And parents need to spend some more time connecting with them, rather than correcting them …”
GV: What are the biggest issues facing teenage girls today?
JUSTIN: I expected it would be all about the dramas of our time: the self-harm, depression, suicide, anxiety, anorexia … all the stuff that makes the nightly news and gets talked about at those fancy conferences about youth today.
But what the girls wanted to talk about most wasn’t the heavy stuff! Far from it! In fact, the first thing I learnt was: FRIENDSHIP ISSUES ARE HUGE!
Anyone who’s been a parent of a teenage girl knows what they’re like, right? They’re best friends with someone one day, and the next, they’re mortal enemies. One day they’re trying to find a new friendship group, and the next, they’re crying in the toilet because somebody said something or didn’t answer their message or left them on ‘seen’ …
I can’t say this enough, but friendship issues are just staggering! They seem so mundane. I mean, if you’re a schoolteacher and a teenage girl comes in complaining about a friendship issue, the standard response is (with an accompanying eye-roll), “Oh, for goodness sake! What’s the big deal?” – but it IS a big deal for our girls going through it.
The second big issue was how terribly girls feel about themselves because of their POOR BODY-IMAGE. The reality is, most of us are pretty ordinary looking. Only a few make it to the big screen because they’re gorgeous. But, sadly, many girls are looking at themselves and judging their worth based on how they look. They don’t think they measure up. And that’s the problem.
HOT – OR NOT?
If I could summarise it in a few words, what I kept hearing was, “I’m only a person of value, a person of worth, if I’m HOT …” I had one girl who told me the thing she worried about most was her face: “Is anyone ever gonna love me, despite how grotesque my face is?”
GV: Oh, that’s heartbreaking!
JUSTIN: I tried to put myself in her shoes – and I literally wept. I thought, this girl wakes up every day feeling she’s of no value because somebody has judged her face ‘not good enough’. That is so devastingly tragic!
I called this chapter in the book ‘Pixel Perfect’. And I don’t think the Instagram age has done much to alleviate the body-image issues our girls face. It’s only got worse.
The third big issue that came up is: GIRLS CAN’T BE THEMSELVES – their parents won’t let them! There’s a great quote by Banksy (the street artist), who said, “A lot of parents will do anything for their kids, except let them be themselves!”
It’s provocative – but true.
GV: You titled one chapter in your book: ‘Is social media destroying my daughter?’ So … is it?
JUSTIN: Well, the very short answer is … it might be.
The data shows that if our kids have got a really great offline social presence – that is, they’ve got good friends, and they’re feeling good about their offline world – their online world is going to be fine. If they’re not doing so well offline, their online world can become really concerning. Not only that, the research shows that the more time they spend on social media, the greater its impact on their wellbeing.
As parents,we need to consider whether our kids are consuming … connecting … or creating. The evidence is that passive use, or consumption (like watching Netflix or scrolling through social media), is lousy for wellbeing. It’s where all the comparison and competition and ‘feeling like I can never be good enough’ happens. It’s where the displacement of real relationships, sleep, and physical activity happens …
Basically, it’s where all the bad stuff happens! And it’s unhealthy.
To be fair, the creation and connection that screens facilitate – including social media, to a small extent – is much more positive (or at the very least, neutral) in terms of our kids’ outcomes and wellbeing. So we need to encourage them to think more about what they’re actually doing online, rather than how much time they’re online.
It’s like if I asked you, “How many minutes of food-time have you had today?” It doesn’t give me any good information. Whereas if I say, “Tell me about your diet today – what have you eaten?” I’m going to get a much better picture of your health.
GV: One of your book’s more shocking revelations is about the darker side of social media. Most of us know it exists, but I didn’t realise just how pervasive it is. What did you learn from those 400 girls?
JUSTIN: I learnt that girls don’t like it, but they just accept it as part of life – and they get annoyed when we make a big deal of it!
THE DARK SIDE
Getting sent (or hassled to send) a nude picture by guys happens all the time, so in some ways teenage girls are used to it. But it IS a big deal – because they then go and hide in their room, and they don’t stop staring at the screen, wondering how to get out of this pickle!
Of course, it IS a big deal … but, to them, it’s just part of the drama of life.
The second thing I learnt is that many of our teenage girls are hiding what’s really going on. They don’t want us to know. And they’ve got all sorts of really simple ways to make sure that we don’t find out what they’re doing on screens. Whether it’s having one Instagram account that we parents follow – and a different Instagram account that everyone else follows. Or turning Messenger to ‘inactive’ so it doesn’t show they’re online late at night. Or hiding apps under a different name …
One girl said she leaves her iPhone case ‘plugged’ into the wall in the kitchen, and hides her phone under the pillow. Her parents haven’t figured out it’s not the real thing! Another uses her friend’s old phone that her parents don’t know about – she simply connects it to the home Wi-Fi and is on the phone all night!
These are all pretty low-tech ideas, but they’re getting away with it! I think parents are tired. When you’re continually battling your kids about ‘no phones in the bedroom!’ or whatever, it’s exhausting! And ultimately, the person with the most energy wins! They know you’ll be asleep soon, and that’s when they hatch their plan and get a little bit sneaky …
But, sadly, far too many girls have been affected by bullying, or by being extorted sexually, or by compromising their identity or their privacy. I was surprised at how many worrying stories there are out there – and how blasé girls are about it.
GV: So banning our girls from social media probably won’t work – right?
JUSTIN: No, it won’t! As soon as you ban something, all you do is push that unwanted behaviour underground. The kids just think, “Oh, you’re going to ban it, eh? Well, watch how sneaky I can be!”
I reckon we parents need to communicate more effectively than ever before with our teenagers. And here’s the interesting thing: THEY WANT US TO! So I talk about what I call the Three E’s of Effective Discipline: to Explore, Explain and Empower.
When our teenage girl wants to use devices or social media more than we’re comfortable with, we first of all EXPLORE what’s going on. We might ask,
• “Why’s this so important to you?”
• “What’s happening here?”
• “How come, when I ask you to get off your phone, it always causes a drama?”
• “What kind of conversation are you having with your friends when you’re on your device at 11 o’clock at night? Is it positive, or is it something that you’d probably be embarrassed about, if you’re honest?”
It’s about exploring the issue with an open mind and showing your teenager that you want to approach this differently … that you’re still thinking through what’s best here … that you’re trying to understand what it’s like to walk in their shoes.
If you can get to that level of empathy, something changes: you become your daughter’s ally rather than her enemy! And, when that happens, you have a little ‘aha’ moment. You totally forget that you’re in your 40s and your child’s in her teens – and it no longer feels like you’re both from different planets!
GV: Okay. Next, it’s time to EXPLAIN …
JUSTIN: Exactly. Now you can say, “Okay, I think I’ve explored this pretty well. So can I explain a couple of things that concern me? These aren’t rules right now. These are just my concerns.” And here you might list a couple of things …
But you’ve got to keep it short, 10 or 15 seconds. They don’t care about your explanation.
Now it’s time to EMPOWER them. You put it on them: “What do you reckon is the best solution? Because I’m not willing to just let things go. I love you too much for that! So what do you think we can do?”
Or here’s my favourite question: “Let’s imagine for a sec that you’re the parent and you’re having a conversation with your teenage daughter. What do you say to her?”
GV: So rather than a concrete list of rules around social media – you’re suggesting more of a personalised agreement?
JUSTIN: It has to be. Because every child has their own context, their own situation, their own circumstances. But I do think there are a couple of reasonable rules that matter: I always encourage parents to make sure that they include ‘no devices in bathrooms or bedrooms’ and ‘no devices at the dinner table’.
This is really important, because eating together is a time for connection. And you can’t connect properly if you’re staring at screens.
Now, some kids will be okay with that, some won’t – but the goal isn’t to just let our teenage girls have what they want. And while we don’t need to be all authoritarian – like, “My house, my rules!” – you are still the parent! And some things are worth saying.
You may have explored their viewpoint and listened to their solutions, but they may not have relieved your concerns – and this is when you need to say something like, “As your parent, since you’re not willing to make safe, healthy decisions on your own, I’m going to make this decision for you. And we’ll come back and revisit this again in a couple of weeks.”
NEARLY AN ADULT:
This explain/explore/empower process is not about surrendering to your teenager. It’s about saying, “I want to work with you, because you’re nearly an adult. So let’s try to understand each other and come up with mutually agreeable solutions. But if we can’t, I’ll have to take over.”
GV: The subtitle of your book mentions that girls need to talk. Why is this important?
JUSTIN: It’s important because they told me it’s important! The girls said to me, “I want my parents to listen. I want them to be interested in my life.” Brené Brown is probably one of the world’s most popular authors right now, and she says, “Connection is being seen, heard, and valued!”
When we listen to our kids – when they really get to talk – they feel seen, heard, and valued.
Where there is connection with your daughter, there is life in your relationship. But if there is miss-connection – or disconnection – then there is no life. Being connected is a fundamental psychological human need. We simply do not thrive, do not flourish, are not
motivated, unless our relationships are positive and strong and safe.
So that’s why talking matters. It’s where people get things off their chest. It’s how they process what’s going on in their lives, make decisions, work through their emotions, find meaning. The communication process facilitates all of those things.
GV: Okay, but here’s the hard part: how do we get them to talk?!
JUSTIN: Timing is everything!
If you’re a teenage girl and you’ve been at school all day, you’ve been navigating relationship challenges, you’ve learned stuff, you’ve been given an assignment, you’ve had to pack up and go to another class and listen to someone talk to you for an hour, write stuff down … then you have a quick bite to eat, deal with some more relationship dramas, and it’s back to another class …
You get home with all this stuff going around in your head, and your dad says to you, “How was your day?”
How do you answer that? It’s just too hard – there’s too much going on.
So, I reckon TIMING IS EVERYTHING. And after school is not a great time. But the girls all said they’re pretty happy to talk at bedtime. Why? Because they’ve had time to decompress and to slow down. My experience has been that if we really want to connect with our kids, we’ve got to let go of our agenda. We’ve got to stop racing from A to B, saying, “Quick, tell me everything that’s going on with your life before I run off to my next important thing.”
DATE WITH DAD
If I want to spend time with my daughter and catch up on what’s happening, I take her on a daddy-daughter date. We drop the agenda and spend a couple of hours enjoying each other’s company. And that’s when she starts to open up – especially when there’s a big ice cream or hot chocolate in her hand.
GV: So, to wrap things up: your last chapter is called ‘What your daughter wants you to know but won’t tell you.’ That sounds a bit scary: what exactly do they want us to know?
JUSTIN: Well, this is one of my favourite parts in the book, and I’ll probably get weepy – because it gets me every time! But these daughters talk about a bunch of things – including stuff they’re struggling with. Let me give you a couple of examples:
They’d like you to know that …
• they want some space – but they want you to stay near
• they’re fine – but they’re not really fine
• they’re sorry – but they’re not sorry!
There are these tremendous contradictions in what they want you to know! But they also want you to know that …
• “I’m really trying.”
• “I want to be close to you.”
And then there are the girls who are in such pain because their parents are separated or divorced. I’m not saying this to lay the guilt on, but I’m reporting what the girls said, and I’ve got to represent them honestly. With only a couple of exceptions (because of a toxic relationship), these girls are all saying,
• “Dad, I want you in my life … I need you in my life!”
As our daughters search for who they are, the theme of worthiness is raised time and time again. They are relying on us to help them feel worthy. Of what? Worthy of love. They need to feel our love so they can believe that they’re worth loving.
They imagine talking to their parents and saying things like:
• “Do you actually like me?”
• “Are you proud of me?”
• “Why do not many people like me?”
• “Do I disappoint you often, or even a little?”
• “Do you think I’m a good person?”
• “Have I made your life better or worse?”
But the thing I saved till the end of the chapter, the bit that really got me the most, was how these girls feel about US … and what they want their parents to know:
• “I love you, and you mean the absolute world to me!”
• “I’m so grateful for how you’ve raised me and everything you’ve done for me!”
• “Thank you for trying to protect me from things you may think are dangerous/bad.”
• “You’re doing a good job!”
You see – THEY REALLY DO LOVE US!
We started this conversation about why I felt so hopeful by the time I’d finished the book. And this is why. Because when you hear their hearts, you can’t help but be hopeful.
YOU CAN FIND OUT MORE ABOUT DR JUSTIN COULSON BY VISITING HIS WEBSITE: WWW.JUSTINCOULSON.COM. HIS BOOK ‘MISS-CONNECTION’ CAN BE FOUND AT ALL GOOD BOOKSELLERS.