Helping our teenage daughters through the dark times

One in in five girls will have mental-health problems that carry into their adulthood.
One in in five girls will have mental-health problems that carry into their adulthood. 

We know a lot about girls and how to make them strong and free, and it's never been more needed than today. While most girls – three out of five – turn out just fine, another one in five will have serious issues while a teenager, and her family will need to galvanise, make changes or get help so she will be OK.

But one in five girls today, according to mental-health researchers worldwide, will have problems that carry into adult life. Anxiety, unhappy sex and relationships, eating disorders and self-harm are the most common. It's important to know that, even then, at any age, our lives can heal and repair. But as any parent knows, if heartache can be avoided, that's what we would choose.

If a girl is going to struggle with her life, you will know it by 14, because that's the hardest age to be and when things come to a head. But the causes will go back sometimes to babyhood, toddlerhood or primary school. So there is plenty we can do at all these ages.

In my research for Ten Things Girls Need Most, I searched for the evidence-based practical things mums and dads can do. A secure and loving start from parents who cared for and support her so she can relax in their arms. An exploring toddlerhood where she is praised and encouraged to be physical, noisy, wild and free – not a dressed-up nice girl just wanting to please. A school where she is helped to learn to get along with people, but not just "fit in" by conforming. Where bullying is dealt with and difference celebrated.

A puberty that is gradual so she doesn't need to grow up too fast, and has the help of aunties and other older women to teach her, challenge her and ask her the big questions of life: what do you stand for? what matters to you most? And interests: a passion or spark that she makes her want to get up in the morning – with help from the adults to realise that and carry it out. Creativity, sport or cause – whatever she really loves.

If a girl is going to struggle with her life, you will know it by 14.

We've learned that girls need dads, or dad figures, in their lives. Someone for whom she knows she is unique and special, because he shows that every day. Every woman reading this knows how fathers can either wound or bless your life, and how long the effects of that last.

The final of the 10 things girls need is hard to put in words. It's spirituality. Which might be, for some, a faith tradition, ready-made and well-developed to support their children. For others (and, in fact, for all teenagers who must step outside their parents' world to grow), it means a chance to discover, in the natural world, in reading, in poetry or art, or from the lives of others, that they belong. That they are part of the whole, and need never feel lonely. On a beach one day, or a mountain top, or under a starry sky, your daughter may feel that sense, and be set free by it.

No one ever has all the 10 things; it's a life-long search. But we can pinpoint what might be missing, and go in search.

Steve Biddulph is a retired psychologist and author of Raising Boys, New Manhood and Ten Things Girls Need Most. This is the last of his weekly series for Fairfax Media.