A teacher's approach to raising confident teen girls

Last updated 05:00 07/09/2009
The Butterfly Effect
BORN AGAIN: Dannielle Miller's The Butterfly Effect traverses tough subjects including the sexualisation of children, substance abuse, body image and bullying.

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Mix together some mean girls, divas and "bitchface" princesses.

Add a dash of extreme dieting, several scoops of binge drinking and a large serve of self-hatred.

Pull one confused teenage girl out of the oven.

Teacher and author Dannielle Miller says teenage girls are in crisis navigating a world increasingly riddled with toxic labels and unrealistic expectations.

And her new book The Butterfly Effect doesn't stray from the darker side of being 15.

Miller has spent four years running workshops for thousands of girls in Australian and New Zealand primary and secondary schools.

She is now urging parents to avoid despair and cut through insidious marketing to raise confident, happy young women.

The resultant "how to" book came about after schools started asking Miller to run seminars for parents.

Popular culture, Miller says, can make parents feel "pretty irrelevant pretty fast".

"I started doing parents seminars and realised instantly that so much of what I was talking about that mattered for girls mattered for mums," Miller says.

"They would start talking about these body image issues or these friendship issues and I would see little tears rolling down mothers' faces.

"This isn't an us-and-them issue, this is a woman's issue."

There are "affirmations", butterfly graphics and several personal accounts of Miller's own childhood and adolescence peppering the 270 pages.

But it's not light and fluffy stuff – Miller traverses tough subjects including the sexualisation of children, substance abuse, body image and bullying.

The foreword, written by Clinical Professor David Bennett of The Children's Hospital at Westmead, declares Miller's premise hopeful and says it "asks us to capture the joyfulness that is part of being a young woman even when it's temporarily hidden from view".

Miller, sipping coffee on tour to promote her book, is concerned that young women are saturated in mixed messages.

"We like to say to girls you can do anything," she says.

"What they hear is "I must be everything"."

Growing academic pressures have not helped either, she says.

"Schools are now starting to realise that they are responsible for the whole child, not just academic potential," she says.

"If girls aren't eating properly, if girls are binge drinking, if they're self-harming, if they're engaged in girl-on-girl bullying, they're not going to be learning."

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Becoming a teen girl's "bestie" is not advisable either.

"You don't want to necessarily have to be sharing the same clothes, I think there's some real dangers in that too," Miller says.

"They need someone who will set boundaries and limits for them."

Miller wants to explore the definitions that limit teenage girls and ignore their considerable strengths.

"We never celebrate success for them, we never highlight the fact that they can be so beautifully kind and supportive, so amusing, so delightful," she says.

She hopes her book can reassure parents that they are on the right track.

"There is this stereotypical notion that mothers and daughters don't get on and that having a teenage girl's going to be hell.

"That's a self-fulfilling prophecy."

Offering practical advice and resources for parents, the book includes visualisation exercises and suggests approaches for communication and improving mother-daughter relationships.

Positive female role models, Miller believes, are ultimately essential for a happy, confident teen girl.

"I believe that our teenagers are works in progress that may not always appear extraordinary but given the right skills will fly."

The Butterfly Effect by Dannielle Miller is published by William Heinemann Australia.


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