A precious fifteen year old girl tried to take her life today. The number of pills tell us this was no ‘cry for help’, she meant it; for those hours leading up to her suicide attempt she must have felt that she could no longer bear to live. 100,000 adolescents take their lives every year. Suicide is a leading cause of death in teens. What is making life so painful for our young people?
Teenage girls are under a lot of pressure. The degree to which they are running into mental health difficulties suggest that it is worse for them than it was for us when we were their age. More girls are cutting themselves, starving themselves, stuffing themselves, drinking too much, having undesirable sex, and attempting suicide.
Girls often internalize their worries
- rather than thinking there is something wrong with the world,
they think there must be something wrong with me.
Girls feel immense pressure to do well at school, and to be popular, and to look great.
School: Gone are the childhoods where children are encouraged to explore and question and dream. Instead we channel children from a very young age, to follow a prescribed curriculum that has nothing to do with their individual talents or interests. Then we test them on what we have decided they need to know, as if life success depends on being able to differentiate quadratic equations, or explain tectonic plate movements, or decline the French verb être. We rank them by their grade, which is never good enough – there is always pressure to do better. Then they hear in the news that there is still no guarantee of a job at the end, and further training leads to student debt, and many young adults get stuck living at home with their parents. We are not educating our young people for what lies ahead.
Popularity: Teenagers orient themselves strongly towards their peers – at some level knowing that they are moving towards a time when they will be leaving their parents and siblings, and making their own way in the world. With the internet there can be no downtime, no excuse to be unavailable. With Facebook, Snapchat, Ask.fm, What’sApp and many more, friends are forever awaiting a response – it cannot be put down. And your popularity is there for all to see – how many friends, likes, tweets, messages do you have?
Body Image: We surround our girls with images of idealized female perfection. Teens become more conscious of their bodies as they enter a period of rapid physical change. Just as they become more curvaceous, and hair is growing in new places, and they are contending with spots, greasy hair, and mood swings, they are bombarded with messages that they must work to get their bodies looking a certain way. Hair must be removed, coloured, straightened, styled. Skin must be clear, tanned, soft. Tummies flat, hips narrow, thigh gap, waist trim, legs long. With images now digitally altered, girls strive for a female beauty that is impossible to attain.
How do we protect girls from these pressures? Or strengthen them to withstand them?
There are no simple or swift answers. We need our teens to have a strong sense of self-worth and inner confidence, exactly at a stage when their confidence is often wobbling. They need our love and understanding right at a time when their behaviour might be harder to love or to understand. Think of small, daily ways in which you can help your teenager to feel your love and acceptance. Ask yourself how you can encourage them to question and challenge the accepted norms. Don’t wait, do it now, whatever your daughter’s age. Help your daughter to know that good qualifications are not paramount, many friends are not better than a select few really good friendships, and beauty is not found on the weighing scales or in the dressing room. Notice what you do in everyday life which gives credence to these beliefs.
Parenting a teenager can be a challenge, so get the support that you need.
Our girls need more than just us too. Call in the support of your friends, their friend’s mothers, aunties, older cousins, favoured grandparents, godparents, neighbours, trusted teachers, anyone who would be willing to share their time, wisdom and support. Building inner confidence takes time and comes with age. Teens need older women to befriend them, to mentor them in a time when they may not want to turn to their parents, but still need adult guidance. We all need people who care.
And to my fifteen year old friend, I want to tell you:
I am so immeasurably glad that you are still alive. And I am so sorry that life became too much to bear that day. And I want you to know that I want to do anything that I can to help you on days like that, or any other day. But I also know how hard it is to reach out, especially when feeling low; so I hope that you can find a range of things, and people, that help you to survive the times when it all feels unbearable.
You are a sensitive, bright, sparky, funny, wise, sensitive, insightful, generous, strong-willed, smart, sensitive person. I want you to live. I want you to feel like you want to live. With my heartfelt love, Kim