A CONVERSATION WITH STEVE BIDDULPH
“PICTURE A CLASSROOM FULL OF 15-YEAR-OLD GIRLS. Some are noisy, some are quiet, but compared with us – their parents – at that age, they’re amazingly confident and can speak their mind on any subject. They’ve grown up in the sunshine of a century of feminism, and it shows. They seem ready to take on the world …”
With these words, best-selling author, counsellor and psychologist Steve Biddulph introduces his latest book, Ten Things Girls Need Most. Yet, despite the heartening introduction, Steve claims that not all is rosy in the world of girls. There are problems and pressures – greater, perhaps, than those faced by any earlier generation.
We tracked Steve down (he’s no stranger to Grapevine’s pages) and asked him what form these threats might take.
STEVE: For many years I was known for my work on helping boys to grow up safe and kind and connected. Boys had been in lots of trouble since the late 20th century, with three times the death-rate of girls and nine times the imprisonment-rate … doing much worse in school than they were capable of. Boys – and men – were my message.
But in the early 2000s, girls’ mental health went into a decline in Australia, America and the UK, where I work a lot. I had a teenage daughter at that time, and I saw what many of her friends were going through. And colleagues urged me: could I do something about girls’ mental health? I didn’t need much urging.
Now, it’s important to say here that I wasn’t talking about New Zealand. I’ve never commented on the mental health of NZ girls (as has been claimed recently in the NZ press). I haven’t been to your country for ages and don’t know the
situation. It may be that girls in New Zealand are doing fine. But in Australia, the UK and America we have large increases in self-harm, massive levels of anxiety and depression in girls (about one in five), and eating disorders affecting one in 12 young women. Bullying has got worse, and suicide has ticked upwards slightly.
Schools and health authorities are very worried about girls. It seems to be that one-in-five group … for instance, most girls are drinking less, but one-in-five are drinking more. Most girls are okay, but there are a lot we’re worried about.
A Kiwi academic, Dr Pani Farvid of AUT, told the NZ Herald that New Zealand girls are fine, and there’s nothing to worry about. I so hope that’s true …
GV: Well, I can tell you that we recently had a big fuss when a group of teenage boys calling themselves the ‘Roast Busters’ bragged online about targeting under-age girls, getting them drunk and virtually raping them. So I think most Kiwi parents will be keen to hear what you have to say. I also noticed that your new book has interactive sections, so New Zealand readers can evaluate how their own girls are doing and what help they might need. How is this approach doing so far?
STEVE: Most parents really love it. They’re even creating study groups with friends to work through it together and help each other with their daughters. So this is kind of ‘therapy-in-a-book’, and it asks the questions that a family therapist would ask. For example: How did your parents handle sex education? How warm and kind was your father? And readers can examine whether their own family life is fun, or whether it’s rather stressed and busy.
Some people tell me they burst into tears filling in the quizzes and making the connections between their own childhood and that of their daughter.
GV: So what do you see as the most critical need for girls in today’s world? Or is the problem more of a toxic blend of many factors?
STEVE: Whenever things go this badly wrong, then it has to be down to multiple factors. The one everyone names is social media, and that’s certainly a part of it. Social media can be good, but it can also be mean. It focusses on a shallow kind of popularity, and can make girls anxious or depressed. But there’s another simpler problem – it keeps them awake. And many have sleep problems.
We had a massive response on our Raising Girls Facebook page as parents realised they could simply hang up – or turn off everyone’s mobile phones and devices at, say, 7.00 pm, so everyone could relax. Girls told us, “We couldn’t do it by ourselves, we needed our parents to enforce it.” Parents told us the same thing, adding, “She’s a different girl! She wakes up bright and cheerful. She bounces out of bed. We’ve got our old daughter back again!”
So, yes, social media needs boundaries. And night-times need to be a respite from the schoolyard.
The second reason for the decline in girls’ mental health may surprise you – it’s the disappearance of older women: aunties, mum’s friends, grandmas … from the lives of girls. They’re still there, but not often. Girls used to spend hours a day with those women. All that emotional support – for wisdom and calm guidance – just disappeared. Today, girls turn more to their peers for that support, and peers just can’t deliver. (Hence, checking their Instagram or Facebook at 2:00am.) One-in-three teens are doing that after midnight, according to some surveys.
In short, girlhood has become a stressed, lonely place. Girls have often become meaner to each other too – perhaps as they compete for the attention they crave. There are horrendous stories of bullying happening younger and younger – not just during that little burst in year five, but from kindergarten. Girls have become frightened and conformist, even suicidal, all over the world, trying to ‘blend in’ and not attract notice.
GV: You identify five stages girls go through at ages 0-2 years, 2-5 years, 5-10 years, 10-14 years and 14-18 years. I guess most parents would see the last two as the ‘white-knuckle’ stages, but you believe they’re all important, right?
STEVE: Yes, absolutely. If a girl’s going to have trouble, it’ll nearly always surface around 14. (A terrific book called ‘14’ by Poppy King addresses this.) But the causes of her problems may go way back, related to how secure and relaxed her family was when she was a baby … how much she was encouraged to explore, be noisy and messy and out in nature when she was a toddler. Research now links time in nature, with animals and the open air, as a very strong protective factor for children. They feel at peace and not rushed. They start to feel that they belong, in a way that has nothing to do with looks or conformity.
If you ask adult women to recall their happiest time, it’s often in the outdoors, somewhere wild and free. And, often, with their dad.
Dads can be so important to girls. Women reading this will remember with intense emotions if their dad was kind and caring – or cold and judgmental, unable to show love. Men in my seminars are astounded to see the women around them crying when we talk about their memories of their dads.
Dads matter in the toddler years, and also in the teen years. Dads should stay close and engaged and not regretting that their daughter’s growing up. She still needs your interest and affirmation … to know she’s special and matters more to you than anything.
GV: Is it helpful for parents to recall how they managed those ages-and-stages in their own childhood – and compare that with how their daughters are handling them today?
STEVE: It is, yes. Very helpful. If you list those five stages and then award ‘stars’ to each stage in your own growing up, you can quickly see which stages were a bit hard for you. Chances are, these are the stages you’ll need extra time, care, and perhaps even some help to get your daughter through.
For example, I have Asperger’s Syndrome, and my teenage years were horrendous as I didn’t know how to talk to people. I was friendly and good-hearted, but I couldn’t ‘do’ conversation well. So when I became a parent, I had to be really careful, and get a lot of help from my wife Shaaron to not mess up with our kids when they were teens. It was a huge learning curve!
We all have ‘potholes’ in our development. But knowing that means we can experience fantastic growth and healing. If we had a terrible babyhood, we can slow right down and really care for the baby-we-once-were, and so heal ourselves. Shaaron came from a violent family, and so doing motherhood well was wonderful for her. That’s part of why we both became so interested in helping parents.
GV: You suggest that the first thing needed, and perhaps the most basic of all, is to give our girls a sense that they’re secure and loved … that they are precious and really belong. How can we make sure we get this right?
STEVE: Well, there’s an important thing to know (perhaps my most important contribution to parenting in the modern world), and it’s this: HURRY IS THE ENEMY OF LOVE!
When we’re rushed, then all our connections get weakened and start to go wrong … parent-to-child, husband-to-wife. For children to feel secure, we have to slow down. Now, you can do this at any time – you can repair the stages that went badly – but it’s great to start as early as you can. Anxiety is a horrible thing – finding your mid-teen daughter sobbing on the cold bathroom tiles in the middle of the night is something you’d do anything to prevent. So we have to slow our whole culture down.
The myth says ‘success’ makes us happy – and that means making life a rat-race. Hopefully New Zealand parents are more sensible and don’t do that. We need to reclaim the old sense of community, of taking things slow – those things really matter!
GV: Something you say really surprises me: that parents get two chances to help their daughter through those growth stages. Two chances? Tell us more about that.
STEVE: Well, one of the things that happens with adolescence is that it repeats the childhood stages. So, if you subtract 12 from your teenager’s age, you get a rough idea what is happening again. It’s due to the neural pruning that comes with puberty, so 13-year-olds are like new-borns – soft and needy and rather disorganised. It’s a great time to get close and help them feel loved and secure (especially if their babyhood was hard and stressful). Fourteen-year-olds repeat the ‘terrible-twos’ – so you need a sense of humour, and the ability not to take things too personally. Because their brains are so impulsive and uncontrolled, you really need to stay close and have boundaries.
The good thing is that by 15 or 16 they’ll usually improve. In fact, we go on repeating the stages, and get many chances to heal, all through our lives. But adolescence is a very special time. Try not to be too busy when it’s happening to your daughter. This is also the age when aunties and other helpful adults can be terrifically important, talking sense to her, showing her she matters with their interest and time. We encourage aunties to invite nieces to come and stay at their house sometimes (from about 8 onwards) and in the teen years to take them out for lunch once a month, to keep up with their lives.
GV: There’s another thing that surprises me: you suggest all girls need time to be a child … plus the chance to be ‘wild’. Wild? Really? Sounds a bit risky!
STEVE: Really! If you think about it, your girl is a wild creature. She needs the rhythms and sensory richness and the freedom of being in nature. Today we raise girls (especially in cities) to be neat and pretty, and worry about how they look. Animals and nature don’t care how you look. And if she can be noisy, confident, messy and exploring, then she begins to see that the world is hers.
GV: Okay. But go back to this ‘time to be a child’. Are you suggesting that our girls are being forced into looking, talking and thinking in an adult way before they’re psychologically ready?
STEVE: This is what I hear everywhere in the world: That girls have lost four years of girlhood – that 14 is the new 18. And if we recall our own time at 18, it was hard enough then. Developmentally, this isn’t good, as her brain isn’t ready for sexual pressure, or risky decision making without adults being close by. We all made terrible missteps in our teens, and no other culture withdraws support and guidance as much as ours does for kids at this crucial age.
But the worst influence comes from the corporate world – the standards of Instagram, the idea that your looks are the single most important thing about you. ‘Hotness’ matters more than kindness. Compliance to male needs matters more than independence. But it’s often dressed up otherwise – remember the Spice Girls talking about girl-power?
GV: One of the dangers you claim girls need protecting from is ‘consumer predators’. What do you mean by that?
STEVE: I have a friend who was a leading marketer in London, and he quit in disgust. (Quite a lot of people have quit that world in disgust!) They were targeting girls, making them anxious about fitting in. There was a seminar called ‘KidPower’ that charged companies tens of thousands of dollars to learn how to manipulate girls into feeling insecure so they would NEED the products they wanted them to buy. These are the same people who market tobacco to children in Africa, using other children in fancy clothes and trainers. One-in-eight of all people alive today will die from tobacco, and mostly that’s third world people. The evil in the world today is mostly corporate. It’s organised and it doesn’t give a damn about our children.
When I was a teenager, my sister would take about five minutes getting ready to go downtown on a Saturday … brush her hair and put on a clean t-shirt. How many teens are ready in five minutes today? Yes, we can have fun with fashion, designing our own clothes, expressing ourselves! But too often it’s just anxious-making. Will I fit in? Will I be good enough?
If I could get just one thing across to every girl, to set her free, it’d be: “You don’t have to fit in! You are already precious and valued, and you already belong!” For her to really believe that, however, her parents have to feel it too. Mums and dads have to quit the race, that desperation about figure and face and hair and looks. How can our daughters be free if we’ve already caught that disease ourselves?
GV: We’d all agree, I’m sure, that the media (TV in particular) has a huge effect on our girls and their image of what a ‘desirable’ and ‘successful’ woman looks like. What are your strategies for managing how much media our girls are exposed to and how to handle its hidden messages?
STEVE: For starters, we have to teach our kids how the media manipulates – how it’s done, the photoshopping of images, and so on. But the manipulation is also quite subliminal, and it affects adults too. So dose-size and frequency are important. You just need to have less TV playing – never just leave the thing on. And never have it in kids’ bedrooms. The research is very clear on that.
GV: How important is it for our girls to be able to make and keep friends? And do parents need to keep track of the kinds of friends our girls have?
STEVE: Friends become crucial in the primary-school years. She’ll often come home after school bothered by something in her social circle. Marlene will have said something to Charlene about Darlene! And we need to be available to talk that over with her. In the book, we draw on Michael Thompson’s friendship skills, which you can actually teach girls. Things like: You can be a friend and still disagree! … You don’t have to ‘go along’ with what others are doing! (That’s quite important.) … Some people haven’t yet learned to be trustworthy, so be careful! And other skills of friendship – like apologising, and being able to admit you were wrong …
GV: If our daughter starts hanging out with the wrong crowd … at best, say, shallow and catty girls, at worst, drug-users or even dealers – how should parents handle that?
STEVE: Let me stress one thing from family therapy: that a kid’s relationship with their same-sex parent predicts the influence of the peer group. So a girl who is not close to her mum looks to her girlfriends for belonging. And a boy not close to his dad follows gang-leaders more. That might give readers some idea of what to do to prevent that.
It’s also good to remember, when things start getting a bit pear-shaped: we need to stay calm and keep perspective. Also, it’s fine to tell kids – “I’m lost. I don’t know what to say. What do you need from me?” If they demand more money, or no curfew, then of course, don’t do that! But it’s a powerful thing to ask your kids: “What do you want or need more from your dad? From your mum?” And be willing to consider that.
Often, it’s more family time … to do more fun things … to be less busy.
GV: Where does bullying fit in to all this?
STEVE: That’s a HUGE topic – an article all on its own. But almost all childhood problems are anxiety-driven. Childhood, for some kids, is immensely stressful – and aggression is common at home, even just verbal aggression like sarcasm and scorn. Some kids learn to hit out to relieve their own inner-stress. And it makes them feel better to hurt someone else. A young woman just recently in the U.S. talked a boy into killing himself! She was a friend, but when he considered suicide she encouraged him and was on the phone with him when he died.
By hurting or harming someone else, they briefly feel a bit better about themselves. In control. It’s horrible, but we have to stay close to our kids to help them deal with it.
GV: Sorry to keep hitting you with Big Questions, but let’s have a quick look at dads and their role – and about ‘Dad Dates’.
STEVE: A very good friend of mine, a fathering specialist, Professor Bruce Robinson, believes that dad-dates are very important – regular, one-to-one times of going out together. He says: take your daughter out – regularly – a nice meal (not fast food), a movie, or an activity she enjoys. Make time to talk and hang out.
Bruce was the one who taught me about girls needing to feel absolutely precious and special to their dads.
GV: Many dads today (in view of all the sexual abuse stories we hear) are nervous about touching their daughters in any way, especially as they approach or pass through puberty. But are we risking throwing out the baby with the bathwater here by being oversensitive?
STEVE: Again, we look to the experience of adult women. Many women remember their dads getting awkward and distant when puberty arrived. They worried there was something wrong with them. Girls do need privacy, but they need affection too, and so we mustn’t back off or get gruff or distant. They’re still our daughters.
GV: You say that lots of things are getting better for girls these days, but sex and sexuality isn’t one of them. What do you mean by this?
STEVE: Kids are having terrible sex these days. All across the world they’re consulting doctors or counsellors and saying that it hurts, it’s horrible and that boys are abusive and mean, inconsiderate and ugly in their actions and words. The cause is not hard to find – pornography is doing the sex education today.
In the book, we’ve drawn on very good sex educators to help parents explain to kids that porn is not like real lovemaking, and explain how it differs. For one thing, in lovemaking people treat each other kindly, and enjoy the contact. They smile, talk, laugh, and go slowly. They connect. It’s not “get-’er-done”.
Boys especially need help with this, or they’ll be complete failures around girls.
GV: You say that human character comes down to having two qualities: ‘heart’ and ‘backbone’. Heart, I get – what about backbone?
STEVE: Well, if we show backbone with our kids, then they’ll have backbone.
GV: And by ‘backbone you mean?
STEVE: Keeping on with a task because we promised we would, even though we don’t feel like it. Being trustworthy. Listening to your own insides. And, if something doesn’t feel right, not doing it, even if our friends are.
Boys need to see their dads being reliable, safe, reigning-in their emotions so that nobody is hurt. You can have feelings – cry, be afraid or vulnerable – and still act kindly. Oddly, it takes backbone to be vulnerable. To not throw a tantrum, when you’re out of your comfort-zone.
Backbone is hugely important. Sadly, many adults have very little …
GV: At the end of the book you say the final thing girls need is ‘spirit’. Is this what we used to call ‘spirituality’ – something over and above ourselves to believe in?
STEVE: That chapter on spirituality was the hardest to write. It’s the tenth of the 10 Things Girls Need Most, and it’s kind of the keystone. Eventually, for all we do as parents, the day comes when our child is grown and alone in the universe.
So it’s important they know they are NOT alone!
While we have faith traditions that help many of us, and that inherited wisdom which I would always want to draw on personally, we each must find that out for ourselves from experience. At the core, it’s knowing we are part of everything valuable, and that we have a role to play. It’s an odd mixture of being guided, but also thinking for ourselves. We were given a brain … and a heart … and a soul. We need to listen to all three.
When that day comes, you want your grown-up daughter to feel totally part of the universe … safe and at home … whatever life may bring.
You want her to know she has a vital reason for being in this world, an essential part to play.
STEVE BIDDULPH’S BOOK, 10 THINGS GIRLS NEED MOST, IS AVAILABLE AT ALL GOOD BOOKSHOPS. VISIT WWW.STEVEBIDDULPH.COM FOR MORE INFORMATION.