Wednesday Wisdom

Dear Aoife

- Reflect -

Last week, I was invited to a prize-giving ceremony at my alma mater, a large, single-sex Girls’ Grammar school in Northern Ireland. The occasion was hosted by the school to mark academic achievement and an array of sporting and musical successes.

Knowing that I had to address both teenage pupils and their parents meant careful consideration of the message. I was briefed to broadly touch on topics like my own school days, success, failure, emotional and academic resilience, and any relevant life lessons picked up along the way. I would be talking to them as a middle-aged woman who used to be in their shoes. What should I say? 

I ended up writing to the daughter I never had (life having blessed me with boys) and included messages about life, love, growing up and sharing what I consider (and research suggests) the essential psychological tools required in one’s ‘toolbox’ as we journey through life. Sometimes, when giving talks in girls’ schools, I get asked what I would do if I had a daughter, in a particular circumstance, so I end up referring to my imaginary daughter, Aoife (pronounced “Eefa”). I describe how I would parent her, given what I know about contemporary challenges that girls and young women may face, teen mental health, how the digital world shapes sense of self and wider societal and cultural contexts. 

I am often asked if I think it is harder growing up as a teenage girl in 2022, than it was back in the late 80s or early 90s, for example. I think the answer is: undoubtedly so! There are many reasons for this. An obvious difference between my teen-hood and that experienced by teens today is holistic access to technology. The rapid proliferation of technology over the last decade has sped everything up: learning, socialising, growing up, interacting and the exchange of information. 

At least half of the UK’s 10 year olds possess their own smartphone. Like most young people, by the time a girl turns 14 in this country, it is highly likely she will have been online, using a variety of digital devices for both education and social purposes, for several years. It is also highly likely that she will be using a selection of social media apps.

As tweens and teens enjoy a digital diet, they will also face puberty: a time of marked body and brain metamorphoses. This period of time can entail mental and physical changes that, whilst normal, can feel troubling and physically uncomfortable. They also entail practical challenges around self-care and hygiene that require time and support to adjust to. For girls in particular, the onset of menstruation (a topic of choice in recent Wednesday Wisdoms) can create challenges that often directly affect the extent to which girls and young women wish to actively participate in many of the activities that are integral to sustaining or protecting their mental health and wellbeing.

It is also exactly at this stage in development when most teens experience a concomitant, piercing sense of self-consciousness and a powerful urge to belong and to locate their social tribe. Consider sport: the onset of menstruation and fears about being seen to ‘mess up’ on the pitch, the threat of public embarrassment are all known factors in inhibiting participation. Imagine if boys had to worry about leaking blood every month during sports’ matches, or dealing with stomach cramping in lessons! It can be hard to ‘give it your all’ if you aren’t feeling 100%. 

Puberty now starts earlier than it used to, which means we may need to bring forward conversations with our children about body changes and menstruation, before they even turn double digits. When you take into account the mental health statistics, which state that “half of all psychiatric conditions start before the age of 14”, you can see that the real labour for parents is during the primary years and early transitional stage of entry into secondary school. When examining the data on teen mental health, worries about looks, and even the risk of sexual exploitation online, one age-band stands out: 11-13 years. 

Cambridge researcher, Dr Amy Orben, recently described this as a “window of developmental sensitivity” when exploring the detrimental impact of high social media use. In a review of disturbing content involving children which has been removed from the internet over the last two years, The Internet Watch Foundation found that sexual predators are encouraging 11-13 year old girls to self-generate content. This change in modus operandi is facilitated by increased access to digital devices, as well as increased independence and the growing pattern of creating social media content from the ‘safe space’ of bedrooms and bathrooms. Often, access to digital devices increases on entry to secondary or senior school. This can coincide with less parental scrutiny and a young teen’s desire for greater privacy and independence. This might be one explanation for the increased digital risks and vulnerability seen across that particular age band. 

- Motivate -

So, what should I tell Aoife? How would I parent her? What messages would I give her? How could I help her develop the self-worth, resilience and grit that will mean she is able to, not just survive, but thrive, through her teen years. What tools should I give her so that she is able to navigate the emotional and physical challenges that come her way, with aplomb?

Firstly, I would really work on cultivating as much trust and transparency in my relationship with Aoife as possible. As my colleague, Professor Fiona Brooks (Professor Of Adolescence) once told me over a coffee, “ If we aren’t the source of information, the internet will be”. Being close to her, but not ‘her best-friend’, would be a parenting goal.

Growing up in my home, Aoife would be co-parented with my husband. Knowing the positive impact of paternal warmth and communication on girls’ body image and self-esteem, I would hope that this father-daughter relationship would be a close one too. Knowing he would be the first man in the world to love and respect her, I would encourage my husband to think about his role in nurturing her body positivity and self-worth. When he watches her play sport, for example, he might comment on her strength when passing the ball, or how motivating she was when cheering on her teammates. My husband would gently convey how he loves seeing her grow and his pride in her ‘can do’ attitude. He would take her to a café from time to time and actively listen to what she has to say; what is going on in her life, show an interest in friendships and stay calm and positive when she says she fancies someone! 

When addressing a large hall of teen girls, I found myself dwelling initially on how circuitous ‘finding oneself and one’s life purpose’ has been for me. None of us (definitely not me), could have imagined during those school days how life would pan out; how tastes, hobbies, interests and social circles change and shift over time. In short, our children have time, and no one should expect them to know exactly what they want to do with their entire life.

As parents, we wouldn’t be asking Aoife what she wants to be when she grows up. Instead, we would help facilitate her getting to know herself, understanding what makes her tick, attuning to things that spike her interest and exposing her to as many diverse experiences as humanely and financially possible. 

Why? Because self-discovery is a process that takes time, but which can be facilitated through exposure to an array of people and places. The more Aoife interacts with others (in day to day and school life), the more she will receive feedback on who she is and what she is capable of. The more she will begin to feel ‘like Aoife’! We can’t impose ‘our ideal teen’ onto any child and it would be wrong to do so. We can and should create the architecture within family life which enables our children to find the emotional space where (although it sounds corny), their authentic self can gently unfurl. We need to be patient with that process. Experimentation, innovation, rejection of social norms, the desire to ‘stand out’, ‘fit in’ and question (just about everything, including gender) are integral to the contemporary experience of adolescence. We can be patient, understanding and curious in response. 

The ‘architecture’ within family life that I referred to above, is the same scaffolding, structure, consistency and stability that anything requires to grow optimally. Parents and carers maintain the frame, the boundaries, the expectations, the nudges, the food and sustenance and ultimately need to trust the process. Mindful of the existing data on teen girls’ mental health, I would be extremely careful when choosing to give her access to a smartphone and, in particular, social media. I would try to hold off until she turns 13 for both. Before downloading and using any apps, we would research, discuss and talk about the benefits and risks together. Taking the research of Professor Tracy Wade on board (expert on body image and social media), I would actively discourage the use of appearance-focused social media and encourage her to be both discerning about what she reads or views and aware of her own power to unfollow. 

That brings me to toxic and harmful messages that she may read about girls’ bodies in digital media: that they should be thin, a particular shape, manicured from eyelashes to feet, preferably symmetrical and dipped through a filter on social media to guarantee perfection. I would raise her to be critical of  what she sees and reads; a ‘digital detective’ from an early age, able to distinguish between what is fake and what’s real. 

In a general sense, as a family, we would reiterate the motto that ‘comparison is the thief of joy’. We would encourage her to ‘lead’ rather than ‘follow’ and to ‘unsubscribe’ from anything or anyone that is undermining her self-confidence, esteem or body confidence. 

I wouldn’t do everything for Aoife. I would want her to know that I have confidence in her ability to problem-solve. Fallen out with a friend? I would try not to overreact and would gently coach her to think it through, to identify different perspectives and take actions that feel kind, appropriate and which align with her own and our family values. Not everyone will get along with Aoife and that’s ok. I will talk to her about valuing quality rather than quantity when it comes to friendships, and that, as a general rule, we should aim to stick close to life’s radiators or those that make us feel warm inside and joyful (perhaps avoid the ‘drains’?). 

Life will feel uncertain for Aoife, like it can for all teens, but I would reiterate and model how there will always be things we can control; our attitude, actions, responses and the extent to which we work hard. I would tell Aoife that it is very important to recognise and name the whole range of emotions that we all experience on a daily basis. It is good to reflect on how we feel and to name it, as well as being aware of the choices we have at our disposal to shift ourselves proactively into a resilient mindset. As she moves into her mid to late teens, I would like to sit down and show her the app, How We Feel and encourage her to use it as a tool for self-regulation. 

I wouldn’t overreact to her stories about fallouts, perceived injustices at school or self-criticism. I would certainly validate how she feels and give her time to take a deep breath, before coaching her into creating some small achievable actions. I would avoid mollycoddling (unhelpful) and instead coach (empowering). I would nudge her into intellectual and physical experiences that challenge her, whilst giving her the internal and social scripts for working through the discomfort. I would ensure she knows our family mottoes when it comes to persevering and make sure that she values courage over perfection. 

You might think I want to shield Aoife, but that is not the case. Knowing that overprotective parenting can lead to worse mental health in early adulthood (Professor Siobhan O’Neill), I would want her to experience the full array of success, failure, winning and losing in life and in love. It is only through messing up, making mistakes or feeling disappointed that we learn and that we grow. We have to move through vulnerability to experience courage and those experiences, whilst undoubtedly difficult, do shape us. 

Great parenting is about doing what is the most counter-intuitive in the world: letting go as they gradually individuate and emancipate. The onset of teen dating marks a new era for all parents. Early discussion about what makes a good and healthy loving relationship matters. Sadly, Aoife would be growing up in a world where violence against women and girls is endemic, sexism and misogyny rife, and many stereotypes about women continually perpetuated. But, Aoife will know how to recognise what love is, what it looks like and how it feels. The first time a partner criticises her body or asks her to do something that doesn’t align with her own level of comfort or values, she will be able to ‘be her own bestie’ and respond in a way that empowers her. 

- Support -

How I might want Aoife to feel at 40 would likely shape the parenting strategies that I would put in place for her. I would hope that ‘middle-aged Aoife’ would find a career where she feels that she exercises her skills and finds herself in a culture where she is valued. I would want her to have a set of close friends who are there for her, a love relationship that brings her joy and companionship and a partner who holds equivalent aspirations and values.

I would share my own imperfections, professional failures and regrets with Aoife and, critically, what I learned from those experiences. She should know that I am not perfect, nor do I expect her to be. I would also share, in time, my personal strategies for coping, managing disappointment, anxiety and those ‘gremlin thoughts’ that say you can’t do something or that you aren’t good enough. I would tell her to give herself advice as though she were talking to a friend.

I would hopefully inspire her to be fearless when it comes to knocking on doors professionally and to know that she belongs in the environment that she aspires to be in. To encourage proactivity, I would tell her: ‘you will never know if that job was yours, if you don’t apply for it’, You never know what that they would have said, if you don’t ask them’. The worst thing that people can say is ‘no’. However, I would remind her that most people ‘love a trier’, and that luck tends to flow for those who try and those who ask. Aoife would have a CV on our home computer that she keeps up to date with her successes, but also all the things she has overcome in her life. I will tell her that future employers will undoubtedly quiz her about the latter. I would tell her the world is waiting for her and reassure her that, despite all that she reads or hears in the news, her future is undoubtedly positive, as yet unwritten, and that she has the power to author each exciting chapter.

- Is Your School Tooled Up? -

Tooled Up subscribers will already know that our library is packed full of resources designed to help us raise resilient children. Many of the strategies and tools that I’d use with imaginary Aoife are already there, ready for you to use too. Download the Family Digital Values template, check out our CV for primary-aged children, nudge them to try our Body Gratitude activity, or open up conversations about healthy romantic relationships with our prompts . We have whole sections of resources on body image, on friendships, on navigating social media, on self-esteem, and on the importance of sport and physical activity.  Inspire them with strong female characters and role models, work hard to reduce gender stereotypes and help them to set small, achievable goals. Teach them to be kind to themselves and others, and never underestimate the value of fun

On a completely different note, if you’ve enjoyed any of our webinars with Dr Jo Van Herwegen on neuromyths, she’s asked if you might take a couple of minutes to fill out a short survey about the NeuroSENse resources that she and the rest of the team at the Centre for Educational Neuroscience have created. The survey can be found here – Dr Van Herwegen would really appreciate your feedback. 

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Have a great week.