As a Foster Mum, Mother of four children in their late teens and a youth advocate, much of my time is spent delving in to the issues which affect today’s young people. Regularly, I hear about drug and alcohol abuse, self-harm, depression, bullying, sexualised behaviour and social media addiction. Increasingly, I’m more interested about the cause as opposed to the symptoms. If we can adequately address the cause we have a greater impact on alleviating the symptoms.
A few days ago I read a beautiful review written by Elizabeth Kesses on ‘About Amy’, the recent documentary on the late singer Amy Winehouses. She poignantly describes Winehouse as “Greatly talented [and] tragically misunderstood”.
And there it was, in a simple statement; the summation of my guilt and narrow mindedness. I, like many others had admired Winehouse’s talent but wrote her off as, yet another, celebrity hell-bent on destruction at the hands of drug and alcohol abuse. I sympathized with her as I have an empathy for the trappings of addiction but I never bothered to look beyond this. Did it ever cross my mind to ask ‘Why was she so desperate to escape reality?’
The documentary is an expose of a young girl, like so many, fraught with an inability to accept who she was. She suffered depression, bulimia, anorexia, drug and alcohol abuse and the full gammit of issues that stem from the underlying cause; low self-esteem and lack of acceptance of self. This is defined as a “thinking disorder in which an individual views him/herself as inadequate, unlovable and/or incompetent.”*
Recent studies have shown that five out of six girls are not happy with the way they look and are scared of getting fat.* Needless to say, the increase in boys with self-esteem/self perception issues is drastically on the rise. These findings are terrifying and if we don’t address this we are wasting our time trying to address the myriad of issues that are a consequence of this exact thinking.
There are a plethora of influencing factors in a young person’s perception of themselves. As parents, however, we need not be in denial about the fact that we are the greatest contributing factor -by far. At this point it may be worth keeping in mind that the bulk of a child’s development takes place before the age of nine. Much of their thinking is becoming cemented by this point. So, what are we doing?
As I see it,there are two defining elements:
1.What we say to our child and
2. How we present ‘ourselves’ to the world and how we tackle our own insecurities about image.
The latter is not to be underestimated. Children begin mirroring our behaviour at a very young age. If they are witness to your ongoing obsession with altering your presentation to the world because you are simply not good enough, these very ideals will permeate the structure of their being. Managing our own insecurities in adulthood can be challenging enough but recognizing that they are directly affecting our young ones should not be overwhelming, but more viewed as the necessary catalyst for change.
I remember, many years ago, making a conscious decision that I would do my utmost to not contribute to my children’s negative perceptions of self in regards to image. I had struggled throughout my teens with image and had, at times, suffered greatly with the adverse side effects of this. Needless to say and as confronting as it was, the first thing I had to address was me. This took time and a lot of diligence but it was imperative if they were to not adopt my insecurities.
Furthermore, I decided that I would never comment on their weight, whether it be good or bad. I have such clear memories of a friend saying to me when I was 18, ‘Have you lost weight? You look amazing!’ In my head that translated to “If I look good having lost a little bit of weight, imagine how good I will look if I lost a lot of weight”. The outcome of this thinking was not good and took a long time to recover from.
I am, not for a minute saying that you have to give up any or all aspirations to look good. It’s the thinking and the presentation of this thinking that must be healthy, positive and congruent. For me, I had always had a passion for good food, fitness and good health. This provided the perfect alternative for my motivation. If this takes a little while to grasp, I highly recommend the ‘fact it till you make it’ approach.
As a consequence, both my girls and boys, grew up with the perception that looking good was a result of feeling good, inside and out and the reward of a conscientious approach to life. Never once, even through their teens did I ever hear them refer to the need to lose weight. Instead there was, at times, reference made to the fact that they felt they wanted to get healthier, eat better or exercise more.
These may seem like fairly inconsequential actions to be taking, but in my experience, and after 18 years of working with young people with self image issues, these, seemingly small steps and the impacts they have are beyond measure. Needless to say, your teen may take their fair share of hits from their peers but if the language is not familiar or consistent with their, already established thinking, it will hold far less weight.
All of our children are incredibly talented and it is our job to help alleviate the obstacles that keep them from embracing and bringing these talents to the world. It is the expression of the things that they love that bring them a sense of purpose and worth in this world. If them achieving this means changing or addressing our own insecurities so we can better help them overcome theirs, then so be it!