Thinking about the day their daughter blows out 13 candles on her birthday cake fills many parents with a sense of impending doom.
From sweet little angels with pigtails to screaming and hormonal drama queens with lashings of black mascara, girls can change in the blink of an eye and many parents are left clueless as to what is really going on inside their teenager’s mind.
The author of What Teenage Girls Don’t Tell Their Parents, 37-year-old mum-of-two Michelle Mitchell, is a primary school teacher and founder of the Brisbane-based charity Youth Excel. She is dedicated to helping both girls and their parents break down the barriers of communication and develop better relationships and wrote the book to help guide adults through the minefield of screaming matches, death stares and teary tantrums with insider information about the feelings and actions of teen girls.
“There are so many things I’ve wanted to be able to tell parents but haven’t been able to because of the confidentiality clauses,” Mitchell says. “This is my way of being able to say what I really wanted to say, free from all that, and my chance to talk to parents directly.”
Mitchell says she saw a need to focus on girl-specific issues. “Girls have such a need for approval, acceptance and affirmation and their search to find themselves is far different from boys,” she says.
Mitchell sees herself not as a counsellor, but as a mentor or coach; a confidante to young girls too scared or angry to talk to their own parents. And, from her own experience, Mitchell knows first-hand the dramas that can unfold. In fact, the book’s origins date back to her own teenage years when she started writing a manuscript with similar concepts and ideas to the newly published text.
All of her experiences and ambitions finally propelled her into starting Youth Excel in 2000. The charity organisation originally began with Mitchell speaking to teens at school assemblies with minimal personal contact; however, in the last five years Youth Excel has introduced more interactive programs – schools, as well as youth and religious groups, can undertake either day courses or eight to 16-week programs, which focus on smaller groups of all boys, girls or mixed classes. Mitchell says these changes have given her and the Youth Excel staff more time and individual contact to help sort through basic teen issues and difficult topics.
Youth Excel operates in Brisbane, on the Gold and Sunshine Coasts and helps around 250 kids a year. During the sessions, troubled teens take part in group activities and discussions where they talk about issues like peer pressure, appearances, family problems and sex.
“I’ll spend six months over the course of the year with them to help them just stay connected and get through those tough patches,” Mitchell says.
But it is not only Youth Excel which has changed over the last 10 years: technologically-savvy, celebrity-obsessed, independence-seeking teens are less likely to tell their parents exactly what is going on in their lives, leaving mums and dads hurt and confused, unsure of how to handle the situation.
In particular, the rise in popularity of Facebook, social networking sites and mobile phones has led the way for cyber-bullying and peer pressure to run rife among teens, something which Mitchell says families are struggling to manage and understand. “They’re never away from their friends, and I really think this has had an impact on their family relationships,” she says.
Other stresses causing tension are family finances and fighting at home. With one or both parents often having to work full-time, teenagers can begin to adopt some of the financial pressures themselves. As well as this, poor family dynamics, fears of divorce or even squabbling between other siblings has a huge impact on feelings of helplessness and behavioural problems.
One of the biggest sore points between girls and their adult caregivers discussed in What Teenage Girls Don’t Tell Their Parents is trust. “Kids always tend to want more freedom than their parents are comfortable giving them,” Mitchell says. “My message is for parents to really err on the side of caution and know where their kids are and who they’re with.”
Five things teenage girls don’t tell their parents
These are just some of the taboo topics Michelle Mitchell covers:
1. Toxic friends
“Teenagers often tolerate a lot of teasing, backstabbing, mood swings and aggression from their friends. Your teenager will rarely tell you exactly how horrible their friends are to them.”
“As long as a teenager is connected to a computer or mobile phone, they can be bullied. Teenagers tend to hide this form of bullying from parents because it can be so graphic.”
3. Body image
“It is very common for teenagers to define beauty as the one thing they can’t have or be. Parents should keep a close eye on the intensity of their teenager’s negative feelings about themselves.”
“They are exposed to explicit conversations and imagery about sex, even if they are not directly involved in sexual activity…Some parents prefer to turn a blind eye and convince themselves it isn’t happening.”
5. “I love you”
“They aren’t going to sing your praises voluntarily, so you have to know it rather than rely on being told it. Remind yourself that they love you, even when they are fighting with you.”
What Teenage Girls Don’t Tell Their Parents, RRP $24.95, published by Australian Academic Press. Available online from www.aapbooks.com.au. For more information about the Youth Excel program or to participate see www.youthexcel.com.au or call 3857 5007.