- Our daughters want to connect with us—and we with them—but while we are not usually suffering a disconnection, we often experience mis-connection. Tweet This
- Every conversation I had [with teen girls] was awash with the theme of connection. Every survey highlighted this burning and basic need. Tweet This
Editor’s Note: This essay is excerpted with permission from the introduction to Dr. Justin Coulson’s new book, Miss-Connection: Why Your Teenage Daughter Hates You, Expects the World, and Needs to Talk (Harper Collins, February 2020).
In 1999, Kylie (my wife) and I sat in the office of a Rockhampton obstetrician for our first appointment. He propped up Kylie on the bed, rubbed some goo on his ultrasound machine and placed it on Kylie’s pregnant belly. A blurry image appeared on the screen. Dr Khoo pointed out our baby’s head, arms, legs, fingers, toes, and more. We were in awe. As our eyes absorbed every detail on the screen before us, a song came on the radio that was playing softly somewhere outside the room: “A Little Ray of Sunshine.” Kylie looked at me, eyes wide, and proclaimed, “We’re having a girl!”
Later that year, we were so excited to welcome Chanel into our lives. But we worried, a lot. Could we give our daughter the opportunities we felt were important? Would she be healthy and happy? Would she have good friends? Would she be a good friend? Could we teach her well? Would she be a great student? A world leader? Could we raise her with the love she deserved? Would she love us like we loved her? Could we raise a daughter who would become a wonderful person?
As our family grew—with five more daughters—so too did my interest in raising children well, particularly in raising strong, caring daughters. As I have watched them grow and mature, my concern for the well-being of girls in our society has increased tremendously.
Endeavoring to guide our teenage daughters through a complex adolescent world is ... complicated. As our girls grow, the often-thorny challenges we experience in our families require delicate and skillful labor.
I regularly speak at conferences for professionals who work with young people. You might say that the topics presented at those conferences are spicy. Teenage girls are implicated in most of them: depression, anxiety and other mental illness, sexting, self-harm, bullying and cyber-bullying, issues around sexual attitudes and experiences, pornography, unhealthy attitudes, and use of alcohol and other drugs.
It’s heavy stuff.
At times, the speakers leave the audience with the impression that all of our girls (and boys) are racing towards unsafe, unhealthy choices like seagulls rushing towards a cold, soggy chip thrown by an excited toddler at the beach.
As I prepared to write this book, I surveyed hundreds of adolescent girls around Australia. Teenage girls (aged 13 to 19) from a number of schools nationwide completed a questionnaire that asked them about their challenges, their well-being, their friends, and their experiences with substances, sex, and screens. I wanted all the nitty-gritty info.
I also interviewed a lot of teenage girls and women, usually mums, to understand the challenges faced by girls and their parents, and the questions each are asking. I probed and dug, endeavoring to uncover the big issues that parents are wrestling with, and that our teenage girls are distressed by or worried about. I tried to be sensitive, but I was also clear that I wanted to know the issues so I could help parents grappling with big concerns.
l had anticipated that this book would be about the moral scourges of our time—and by moral scourges I mean anything that the media gets crazy about in relation to our youth: screens, bullying, eating disorders, self-harm, sex, and so on. It’s true that I address several of these issues throughout this book. But that’s not what this book is about. And that surprised me. This is not the book I thought I was going to write.
Those big, serious issues barely factored in the interviews. They were highlighted in the data I collected, but not in large quantities. Very few people—parents or teenagers—were wringing their hands over them.
That doesn’t mean these concerns are not significant. They certainly are, and they must be taken seriously. Nor does it mean that parents and teenagers aren’t worried about these things. A small percentage are very worried.
Of course, I recognize that, perhaps, people felt uncomfortable discussing these “big” issues. But when I pressed, I was rebuffed. Those significant issues were usually not difficulties for the girls and adults I spoke with, even when I tried to make them issues. It may also be that those who were willing to be interviewed didn’t fall into the cohorts experiencing those sorts of challenges. Regardless, I can only report on what people tell me. My findings were consistent with what larger studies have shown, particularly the Australian Government’s Child and Adolescent Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing.
And what my findings suggest is that most parents and teenagers are worried about more mundane, everyday challenges. Things like motivation at school and for learning, well-being matters such as body image and identity crises, or dramas with their friends.
It would be easy to assume that the title of my book is referring to our daughters as “Miss Connection,” alluding to the time they spend connected to Wi-Fi. That can be one meaning. Perhaps a deeper meaning is the idea that our daughters want to connect with us—and we with them—but while we are not usually suffering a disconnection, we often experience mis-connection.
Connection, according to Brene Brown, is “the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.”
Every conversation I had was awash with the theme of connection. Every survey highlighted this burning and basic need. Girls said things such as:
I need to be loved and understood. And sometimes, I just want you to listen to me and not say anything. Just listen.
Even though I’d never admit to it, all I want is my parents’ love, support and attention.
Tahlula, a 16-year-old I interviewed, confirmed this need for connection: "Lots of my friends, their parents don’t speak to them. Some of the girls seem to make it hard, but all girls want their parents to spend time talking with them."
When I asked the girls, “If there was one thing about your life that you could change, what would it be?” they overwhelmingly responded with statements such as:
My relationship with my parents.
I would have more of an emotional connection to my family. I want a close family and support from them.
This desire for deep connection carried across strongly to friendship groups, but the primary emphasis was repeatedly on family and parents. I could almost feel them pleading.
And it’s this kind of connection that is at the heart of well-being. Connection predicts positivity, motivation, and growth—now and in the long term—more effectively than anything else. Some of the most important studies in psychology, globally, have highlighted this. At its simplest, the research in this book underscores this idea that “other people matter,” and that “happiness is love. Full stop.”
Connection is the question. Connection is also the answer.
Dr. Justin Coulson is a bestselling author, husband, and father of six. Read more about his work on his Happy Families blog.