Bringing up daughters: The new battlefield for parents

Boys were the problem children a decade ago, and dozens of books sought to help. Now, girls are at risk, with drinking and self-harming on the rise, and a new industry is just beginning

It's a freezing night in Bristol, and snow is forecast – but every seat at Colston Hall in the city centre was sold out weeks ago, and not only for Ronan Keating who's playing in the main auditorium. Also packing them in is a 59-year-old, softly spoken Australian psychotherapist, who will take to the stage for 90 minutes with just a whiteboard and some ideas that will keep his audience on the edge of their seats.

The psychotherapist is Steve Biddulph, and most of the people queuing up to hear him are the mothers of teenage girls. A few years ago Biddulph toured Britain warning of a crisis facing boyhood: now he is back with a similar message about girlhood. And if the audience here is anything to go by, he's definitely touched a nerve. "Parents of girls are seriously worried about their daughters," says Saffia Farr, editor of Juno magazine and the organiser of the Bristol part of Biddulph's country-wide tour. "They feel there's this overwhelming tide of advertising that's targeting their daughters, of inappropriate clothing being sold in the shops, of media messages that encourage their girls to grow up way, way before their time. And they want to know what they can do about it."

Telling them what they can do about it is Biddulph's mission. "A few years ago, boys were a disaster area – there was an epidemic of ADHD, they were underperforming in exams, they were drinking too much and getting involved in wild behaviour," he says. "Back then, girls seemed to be doing just fine. But, about five years ago, that all changed – suddenly, girls' mental health started to plummet. Everyone knew a girl, or had a girl themselves, who had an eating disorder or who was depressed or was self-harming. It was a huge change in a very short period; I started to investigate why this was happening."

Biddulph lives and works in Australia, but the crisis he sees brewing for young girls seems to be echoed across the Western world – and, in Britain, the figures suggest it's worse than in other countries. A few weeks ago, the charity Childline announced a 68 per cent increase in youngsters contacting them about self-harming, and said most of the increase was among girls. The problem also seemed to be affecting teenagers at a younger age, with 14-year-olds now likely to be among callers.

Anxiety and depression in teenage girls is also on the rise: research from the Nuffield Foundation last year found that the proportion of 15- and 16-year-olds reporting feeling frequently anxious or depressed has doubled in the last 30 years, and is more common in girls: it has jumped from one in 30 to two in 30 for boys, and from one in 10 to two in 10 for girls. Meanwhile, a report from the Department of Health found teenage girls in Britain are more likely to binge drink than teenage girls anywhere else in Europe; more than half of 15- and 16-year-olds admit they drink to excess at least once a month. A separate report in 2011 found that one in five girls in this age bracket who drink at least once a week have drunken sex and later regret it.

Anorexia and bulimia are also dramatically on the increase: official figures for hospital admissions released last October pinpointed a 16 per cent rise in hospital admissions for eating disorders, and showed that one in every 10 of these admissions was a 15-year-old girl.

"There's plenty to be concerned about," Biddulph says. "Everyone who has a teenage daughter right now sees this, in their child and among their child's friends." The people they blame, he says, are the advertising industry and the media. "They are driving girls' sensibilities and making them miserable. The corporate world has identified them as a new market for products, and is preying on them." During his talk, Biddulph describes teenage girls as being out in the wilderness, surrounded by hyenas: it's starting to get dark, he tells his audience, but they are all alone out there.

His message, though, is one of empowerment: he encourages parents to get together, to challenge the advertising industry and to lobby the Government to impose more restrictions on advertisers.

"Take the drinks industry – about 30 per cent of the market is sales to underage drinkers," he says. "Alcohol companies are extremely powerful – but parents are powerful, too, and they have to stand against this and stop the marketing of alcopops and push for a higher drinking age."

But the battle needs to be fought on a domestic as well as a policy front. "What we need to do is re-evaluate how we think of teenage girls: the current philosophy is that they're growing older, so they need us less. But I believe that teenage girls go through a kind of second babyhood, and they in fact need their parents more than ever. We have to spend time with our daughters at this age: talk to them, listen to them, keep in touch with them. Staying connected to their parents makes all the difference to how they cope with the pressures they're up against."

Case study

Lindsay Julian, 51, lives in Salisbury. She has three daughters: Emily is 24, Olivia is 14, and Amelia is 11. She also has a son, Alexander, 28

"Emily got into drinking when she was about 15, and she started taking drugs fairly soon after that. It was a real roller-coaster time for all of us: sometimes she'd drink a lot and run off, and we'd have no idea where she was. One time, she didn't come back all night, and we ended up calling the police. They were difficult times.

"There are so many pressures on young girls today – you're very aware of that as a mother of daughters. So when my younger girls got close to the age where things got difficult with Emily, I thought: we're going to do things differently this time round. I sent them to a Steiner school, where I think the pressures are lessened: the philosophy is holistic, it's not all about exam results, which I think can be very stressful for young girls.

"Some of my daughters' friends spend a lot of time on social media, texting and on Facebook – but I'm careful to limit those things for my girls, and it does make a difference. They watch TV but I monitor it – in some homes, TV seems like a third parent, and I don't want it to be like that in our house. A lot of teenage girls never switch off, they're constantly connected, and that puts them under pressure from one another as well as from advertisers.

"We've got friends where you can see that their 14-year-olds are more like adults; the wanting to drink, to go to parties all the time.

"Emily is fine now: things turned around for her eventually, and she now works as a researcher and has written a book. She's a rock for her younger sisters and I'm very proud of her. I know you could say that she was OK in the end, but I don't think it's an experience I'd want to go through with my younger daughters. I think their adolescence could be happier, and less fraught, than Emily's was."

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Tradewind Recruitment: Phase Co-ordinator for Foundation and Key Stage 1

    Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: Phase Co-ordinator for Foundation and Key S...

    Tradewind Recruitment: SEN Teacher

    Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: SEN Teacher We have a fantastic special n...

    Tradewind Recruitment: History Teacher

    Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: My client is an 11-18 all ability co-educat...

    Tradewind Recruitment: Year 6 Teacher

    £100 - £150 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Year 6 Teacher Birmingham Jan 2015...

    Day In a Page

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee