Girlhood in crisis - best-selling psychologist heads to Bristol
Ahead of his visit to Bristol, Steve Biddulph – the world's best-selling teen psychologist – talks to David Clensy about his concerns for girls growing up in 21st century Britain
AS the author of the top-selling book on raising boys, psychologist Steve Biddulph has long been concerned for the way young lads are molded by society.
But as he prepares to come to Bristol later this month, to give a talk at the Colston Hall, it's the lives of young girls that are giving him cause for concern.
"The talk I'll be giving at the Colston Hall will be covering issues facing girls growing up right from babyhood to adulthood," he says.
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"The core message is that girlhood has five big stages, at each of which important life lessons are learned. It's a journey of gathering the experiences that equip her for a happy and strong adult life.
"If mothers and fathers have this map, they know what to aim for at each age. For babies – it's being loved and secure. So we need to calm down our lives a lot, which often people don't – they panic and try to renovate or earn more, and it all goes wrong.
"For toddler girls, it's all about learning to explore – to be confident and see the world as an adventure. So wearing rough clothes instead of fragile girly things, and being allowed and encouraged to be messy, out in nature, loud and physical, curious and making things.
"Five to 10 is all about learning how to do friendship – and especially to be yourself while also being kind to others – it's a balance. Girls often lose themselves trying to be too nice."
But Steve says the real problems come when girls hit their teenage years.
"The teens are turning into a disaster area for many girls," Steve says. "At the heart of this is that we have lost four years of girlhood. Our 18 is their 14.
"They are having to deal with choices and pressures four years too young, and they can't do it. We have to especially protect the 10 to 14 age group, which is the age when a girl explores who she really is, what she believes in."
So what has gone wrong with the way girls are raised?
"As parents raising a girl, we were shocked at the horror stories among our daughter's friends," Steve says. "Girlhood seemed to be much more anxious and unhappy compared with our own time.
"Of course as a psychologist, I was seeing even worse. Girls who were raped at parties, through trusting people and having drinks spiked, or simply drinking too much.
"Girls whose parents allowed them to have boyfriends – and sex – at 14 or 15 – who lost heart for their studies, became depressed, misused drugs.
"Every parent knows these nightmares – it's just that they have increased dramatically. About one in five girls now develops serious psychological problems in the course of her adolescence. When I was young, it was only about one in 20.
"This has galvanised psychologists all over the world. We really want to wake up parents and counterattack against the forces in society that harm girls.
"The alcohol industry, just as big tobacco has always done, seems to have no conscience at all. Teenage girls are a huge market that they actively seek with sweetened and dangerous products.
"Girls now drink more than boys, and in unhealthy ways. Girls' brains are more vulnerable, and even occasional drinks now have been found to alter the brain, let alone the lowering of judgement and choice.
"There is a whole suite of disorders – eating disorders affect about one in 15 girls, self harm is soaring, anxiety and depression are on the increase. But for just the average girl – it's self hatred, 'I hate my body' and 'I hate my life', that is the biggest concern.
"Parents flood into all the talks I give around the world, often in total despair. They can't understand the misery their daughter feels."
So how has society changed?
"It's changed a great deal," Steve says. "There are two converging forces for this kind of 'perfect storm'. One is that the advertising industry and corporations of many kinds realised that the pre-teen girl was the softest target in the world.
"Her natural traits – to be concerned and aware of the feelings of others – normally a real strength, could be turned into anxiety about belonging, fitting in, and needing to grow up faster.
"They directly attacked girls' mental health as a way of selling her more things. Clothes, makeup, fast food, alcohol of course – as some kind of badge of sophistication. Even girls' toys became obsessed with appearance, fashion, figure and weight. And of course TV teaches you very directly – your looks are the most important thing about you.
"But these outer forces meet an at-home vulnerability that has arisen also in this generation. We spend less time with girls than we ever did. In my new Raising Girls book, I have begun a campaign to rediscover Aunties. I even spell it with a capital A.
"Family specialists all over the world now think that Aunties play a lifesaving role at the age when daughters and mums often don't get along so well. In the mid-teens, an Auntie can be a person you can talk to. She is tougher, she asks big questions – like what do you want to do with your life?
"She is also realistic and straight about boys. They can tell a girl that looks are nothing – character is everything – yours and theirs.
"Anyone with a niece needs to start having her come to stay overnight, or meet monthly for lunch, and really talk. So this girl knows you are on her team, and on her case. Remember that suicide, destructive drinking, self harm, bad choices, can all come from feeling unloved. We have to bolster the sense that people care.
"The good thing about girls is that they usually don't hide it. If they are unhappy, you will usually know. But certainly a mum should stay close and very connected in the mid to early teens. We often make the mistake of backing off, but the brain melts down in the early teens to rebuild itself, and a 13-year-old can be terribly confused, and need our help.
"Dads who spend Saturday mornings or go walking the dog after dinner with their daughter also give her a sense of self-worth, and get to listen to her concerns. All these bonds keep a girl safe and make her strong at the same time. She carries them inside her when you are not around too."
The 59-year-old Australian is a professor of psychology, and trains counsellors and therapists. But he had plenty of problems in his own teenage years. Steve admits that becoming a psychologist helped him with his own family relationships.
"I wrote the world's top selling book on boys, Raising Boys, and trained teachers and parents all over the world," he says. " I really thought my life's work was done. But the girl crisis caused so much alarm, and my friends and colleagues asked me to use my storytelling and my profile to reach ordinary parents.
"We worked on the new book for three years, just to get it right, but the feeling to get it out was very urgent."
Raising Girls begins with the story of a girl, Kaycee, aged 14 who has sex with a 17-year-old boy at a party. She mistakes his interest for real affection, has a bit too much to drink, and then realises he was just winning a bet with his friends.
It's not an uncommon story, made worse by her inability to tell her parents.
Her life progressively goes off the rails. How the family comes to grow and help her, only years later when they find out, is a moving tale.
"We worry about the sexualisation of girls. But boys who are not supervised well in computer and phone use can become immersed in porn, and it changes their view of girls," he says.
"Fathers who don't show an interest and involvement in their daughters' lives, or equally badly, just want to be friends, not actively setting boundaries in a kind but firm way, leave their daughters exposed to the predators who are all around."
Steve Biddulph's Raising Girls is out now, priced £12.99. Steve will be talking at Colston Hall on Thursday, January 17. Tickets £15. To book, call 0117 922 3686.