Imagine having access to the uncensored thoughts and feelings experienced by today’s 14-year-old girls. It would give parents a welcome insight into what’s really going on inside their minds and hearts when their own words and actions tell such a different story.

That is the gift accomplished Brisbane journalist and author Madonna King gives parents in her latest book, Being 14.

Madonna interviewed 200 14-year-old girls across the country, talked to successful school principals, psychologists, CEOs, police, guidance officers and neuroscientists to lift the lid on the social, psychological and physical challenges 14-year-old girls face today.

The Queensland Independent Schools Parents Network asked Madonna to share her inspiration for the book and what she believes are some of the light-bulb moments and life gems it holds for parents.

Why did you decide to write this book about this particular age in a girl’s life?

The only person who asks that question is someone who’s never had one! Parents often find this age challenging, and school leadership teams, knowing how difficult that Year 9 can be, have all sorts of strategies in place to assist girls go through this period. I learnt of its importance at a few events when school captains, a mum in her 40s and a grandmother all told me stories of the difficulties they had endured as a result of someone in their family turning that age.

What are the biggest take-aways for parents from your book?

Many things stand out, but a couple of them are:

  • Our daughters don’t believe we are really hearing what they are saying; they want us to listen without judgement and until they think we are, they are often taking their secrets elsewhere.
  • Our daughters think we are involved in their lives – from tuckshop to being their taxi service – and they want that – but that’s not engagement, which is what they prefer.
  • The way our teen sons and daughters relate now is presenting a real challenge. Respect seems an old-fashioned term, and in my humble opinion, we need to start teaching our sons how important it is to respect someone they like. Our daughters have to value respect too – more than the next dance!

What were the most surprising and valuable things you learnt from your interviews and research about girls at this age?

These girls are wonderful, articulate and opinionated. They want to right every wrong and volunteer for causes close to their heart – but they are also very confused and very vulnerable. Some of facts I learnt – as a parent – were these:

  • Seven in every 10 14-year-old girls get insufficient sleep. Often this is because of the number of extra-curricular activities, not just social media. They need nine hours minimum each night, and 30 minutes of missed sleep records a measurable IQ difference of up to 10 points.
  • Setting up false social media accounts, purporting to be another person, is now a common act of revenge when friends fall out. You’ll read how this is having dreadful consequences, as the victim logs on to find she has allegedly sent spiteful and abusive messages to her friends.
  • About one-third of teen girls – according to educators and police – will send a half-naked photograph of themselves to someone else. Being 14 explores the motivation behind girls doing this, but also explains why it is often the “good’’ student who falls foul of social media.
  • Frenetic home lives add to the obsession with social media. A girl, who has a disagreement with her friends, now comes home, into her room, where that argument will grow and continue into the night. More connected than ever, our teen girls can feel utterly alone. Some are sending more than 100 texts each night.
  • The ages of 12-25 are crucial in the brain’s development, with the part that provides teens with reasoning skills still developing over this period. In Being 14, science experts explain this is why your 14-year-old might appear disorganised.
  • An anxiety epidemic exists, with school refusal and self-harm, on the rise. In some cases, girls are seeking counselling because they failed to achieve A-grade marks or get into an extension class. Is this what we want from our daughters? And why have 14-year-olds made contact with Kids Helpline 22,000 times in the past four years?
  • We all worry about our teens having too many friends on social media, so think about this: a 14-year-old with 650 friends on one social media app could conceivably have 325,000 people able to contact her because of the number of followers each of her friends boasts.
  • Online porn is becoming a dominant “sex educator’’ for boys, and police and educators say this is impacting on how girls are treated, and how they see themselves. Being 14 talks to police about how they are handling this challenging new environment and educators explain what our teen girls need to know.