Seven things our high-school daughters want us to know, and what you can do to help – ABC News

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Seven things our high-school daughters want us to know, and what you can do to help
ATAR results, COVID fallout, friendships, identity, the future – these are just a handful of things teenage girls are worrying about.
In her new book, L Platers: how to support your teen daughter on the road to adulthood, award-winning journalist Madonna King has spoken to 1,000 teenage girls, as well as parents and experts, to find out what issues are concerning them the most.
Here's what they want you to know, and how as a parent, teacher, mentor or friend, you can help. 
Seven hundred of the 1,000 young women King spoke to said their mental health is their biggest challenge.
Eating disorders, self-harm, school refusal, anxiety, depression and suicide ideation are all on the rise.
"My parent thinks mental health is an excuse or a label."
"I tell mum people have social anxiety and she says it's just made up."
King says it is important for parents to recognise what their teens are saying and not just say "don't worry about it".
And, according to the girls King spoke to, it's not just coming from parents. 
One girl said schools have their priorities wrong: "they care more about uniform, hair, makeup and things like that, rather than more important issues like bullying, mental health and general wellbeing."
"My school likes to think it handles student wellbeing well, but no one who's actually struggling thinks it does," another girl said.
"Girls want us to understand that they're not coping, and to help them," King says.
They know it's fake, but they can't help comparing themselves to those perfect images popping up on their screens.
They even know their social media addiction is toxic but struggle to know how to handle it.
"It's my escape from the world," one girl said.
"I've developed an almost co-dependency," said another.
"[Social media] makes me so insecure about my pale skin and my acne or how my hair looks disgusting or how wide and round my face is."
"I find myself hating how I look more and more."
"I would encourage parents to dive deeper, encourage critical thinking" says Carly Dober, director at the Australian Association of Psychologists Inc.
She says parents should ask questions like: "why do you think this particular photo was posted?", "who benefits?", "how much work do you think went into this image and what for?".
Ms Dober says some influencers curate their online presence with "military-like precision" and parents need to get their teenage daughters thinking about these images in a different way.
King says many girls have forgotten how to have fun, reducing their lives in the single pursuit of a top ATAR mark.
"Year 12 should have smiles. This is the last year of formal schooling and people should be able to look back at it and say it's full of wonderful memories. It's not for these girls," King says.
They attribute it to the expectation put on them. The tendency for schools to only acknowledge girls who are top of the class.
"The curriculum and the educational requirements are killing not only the fun, but also any sense of balance.
"They're not coming out as well-rounded students. They're coming out absolutely exhausted, frightened about the future and they're reducing their lives in the pursuit of one number."
King says it is a systemic problem and school exams don't test critical thinking, communication skills, listening ability or teamwork.
"The focus on ATAR is narrowing the lives of families and students," she says.
"As adults, we need to focus on graduating a whole person, not just an academic person."
Ms Dober says striving for a high ATAR score can become all consuming.
"This one year, this one score becomes all that matters. That all-or-nothing thinking can lead to mental health challenges down the track," Ms Dober says.
Ms Dober says parents need to remind their children they are more than just their ATAR score and encourage them to think longer term, as well as sharing stories about how they coped when they were students.
The pandemic has had a big impact on young people, who have suffered economically and socially.
"COVID lockdowns meant this cohort didn't get to make those calculated risks and judgements that their big sisters and brothers did," King says.
King says adults need to work out what they want young women to know and work out how to give them that experience as a lot of things that taught them life lessons were cancelled during the pandemic.
"[Young adults] are trying out new identities, taking on opportunities, challenges, making mistakes and learning from them. And that has been disrupted," Ms Dober says.
But it's not all been bad.
"It's given me time and I value that," one teen said.
"COVID let me know it's okay to work on myself and that at the end of the day it's only me who matters," another told King.
First-year university staff are seeing graduates who can't do an assignment without draft feedback, don't know how to study independently, and arrive late for morning class because they were relying on an alarm, not mum to wake them.
"We need to teach them independence slowly," King says.
In the push to help young women do well at school, parents and teachers are limiting their independence.
"My parents don't let me do anything independently, which is frustrating because I don't have the skills I need to survive in the adult world," said one young woman.
"My mother is a helicopter parent for sure. She treats me like a child even though I'm going to uni next year," another said.
Ms Dober says the "rupture and repair" that occurs in real-life experiences is important and parents need to give their daughters the skills to work through it.
King says it's important for parents to see failure as the first step towards success.
"Let them fail and learn how to do something the next time."
The introduction of parties and the push for independence often prompts big splits in friendship groups that have stuck together for years, and COVID didn't help.
"During lockdowns it couldn't be organic; they had to seek out that bond and a lot of them gave up," King says.
"I have been able to detach myself from toxic friendship groups and find somewhere I'm happier to finish off Year 12," one teen told Madonna.
"I've drifted back to an old friendship group who better share my values."
The younger generation sees success in different ways, and wealth isn't one of them.
"They want to find purpose. They want to find where they fit more than anything. They don't want the one job forever like their parents might have had," King says.
She says their parents' generation might have worked late because the boss was still there, or offered to come in on the weekend. This generation is not interested in that.
"They see work as one element of their life, not an all consuming element."
"It's not getting a lot of money or cars or houses. It's more about completing your own goals and doing what you want to make yourself happy," said one young woman.
At 13, they might be less inclined to seek out mum or dad. Now, at 16 or 17, they want you to listen in an open and non-judgemental way.
"They're becoming adults, so they're seeing their parents as adults now… a valuable source of information," Ms Dober says.
King says parents need to make sure teens know they can come to them at any time and they'll listen.
* L Platers: how to support your teen daughter on the road to adulthood, by Madonna King, is out now.
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