“My child is convinced they are fat/ugly but they are gorgeous and perfect and I keep telling them so”.
This is one of the statements I hear most often from parents, as I tour the UK delivering talks on mental health, body image and self-esteem in Children. I can relate totally. When teenagers sidle up to me after class to confess in hushed tones that they ‘hate’ the way they look, my instinctual response is ‘if only you knew how beautiful you are’.
This is a reflex I’ve learned to quash, since I now understand that, in reassuring a young person that they are attractive, I am reinforcing the socially-learned notion that the most important thing about them is how they look. Traditionally, this is an idea which has been foisted upon girls, but with the rise of gym-culture and pressure from social media, increasingly boys and young men are falling prey to looks-based obsessions.
As parents, teachers and mentors we have two jobs as we attempt to combat this. The first is to draw young people’s attention away from their bodies. All children and teenagers, however hard they might try to pretend otherwise, crave approval from the adults in their world. We should therefore work on the basis that whatever we praise them for most often will be the qualities they will emulate.
By shifting focus to kindness, empathy, bravery, insightfulness, team work, humour, resilience and effort, we tell children emphatically that their value to the world extends beyond the realms of their physical appearance and their grades. This, in turn, is a fundamental component of healthy self-esteem in children.
The second is to fill in the shades of grey between black and white thinking. Increasingly, the topic of body image has become binary in its scope, divided into the defiant couch potatoes and the devoted gym bunnies, the chocaholics and the ‘clean’ eaters, the insta-fitness gurus and the plus size models.
A truly healthy lifestyle actually involves balance. Health, both psychological and physical, involves the ability to exercise and rest as the body demands, to allow ourselves the treats whilst broadly adhering to the rules of healthy eating.
To instil these types of balanced attitudes, the most valuable thing parents can do is role model the behaviour they would like to see in their children. If, for example, a mother tells her daughter she is beautiful whilst simultaneously complaining about her own body and restricting her own eating, the message the daughter receives is that body dissatisfaction and dieting are part and parcel of being an adult woman.
At best, the daughter will emulate these behaviours during adolescence in a bid to appear more ‘grown up’. At worst, she will fear becoming an adult and try to offset puberty by denying herself nutrition (something which is, in retrospect, often cited by people who have experienced anorexia as being responsible for the onset of their illness).
To encourage healthy self image and self-esteem in children, the most important thing is to examine our own relationship with our own bodies.
For Dads and male carers, role-modelling of emotional literacy is incredibly important. Last year, the Self-Esteem Team (an organisation I co-founded) conducted some focus groups in schools in an attempt to discover why boys tend to bottle up their feelings and avoid seeking help when in emotional difficulty.
Our research revealed that part of the reason was that boys had not seen the men around them being open about their emotions and therefore had no blu-print for discussing their feelings ‘like a man’. Boys as young as eleven told us how helpful they found it when their Dads said simple things like ‘I’m having a bit of a down day, today’, thus effectively giving them permission to articulate their emotions in a similar way and challenging prevailing ideals about masculinity and stoicism.
In a world where young people are spending an increasing proportion of their time online, influenced by a sometimes-toxic cocktail of social media and reality TV stars, cyber bullies and advertisers, it’s sometimes easy to forget that you are the most important influencer in your child’s life.
Human beings learn through repetition, therefore by consistently role modelling positive behaviours and keeping the door open for discussions around feelings, you are providing your child with a safe haven, in an increasingly confusing world.