*First published in Youth and Children’s Work Magazine December 2017 edition*
Have you ever noticed that the mainstream media is obsessed? Headlines scream at us day in day out, forming the ‘wallpaper’ to our daily lives, and the New Year brings all of that into sharp relief. As if it’s not bad enough that our newspapers, magazines, timelines & advertising feeds are full of messages about our image or body shape or fashion sense all year round; in January this goes into overdrive. For weeks before Christmas we’ve been exhorted to fill our kitchen cupboards with enough food to feed a small army for a month, we’ve been given recipes for the perfect Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day meals and walked down supermarket aisles groaning with chocolates, sweets and other Christmas related food items. And then, a few days after that, BAM – we are suddenly bombarded with calls to lose weight; get fit; detox our bodies; to create a ‘new you’ all in the name of self-improvement. Our media tempts us to view the New Year as a time to create all sorts of goals for ourselves that are completely unrealistic at best and borderline legalistic at their most extreme.
Now, none of these exhortations are bad in and of themselves, but, for a moment put yourself in the shoes of a ‘tween’ or young person who is struggling with their relationship with food, or has a growing obsession with body image or fitness levels. Maybe one of the young people you work with is already in the grip of an eating disorder, or one of the children you see regularly in school is being neglected by their care-givers which can lead to Anxiety and/or Self-Harm and/or an eating disorder, in a bid to find a way to control the environment around them. How might that young person or child feel about all these ‘Do this one thing and be a better person/belong to this elite group/live a happy life’ messages?
What if our children and young people were able to live free of the power these media messages hold over many of us, even as adults? If we could do something to turn the tide against these pervasive and potentially damaging messages, why wouldn’t we?
How do we develop this idea further?
I firmly believe that each child and young person should have the support of a trusted adult outside the family unit to guide them through the pitfalls of life. This might be an Auntie or Uncle, it could be a youth or children’s worker, it might be a school counsellor or schools worker. Of course with the current way society is this is becoming less and less of a thing – a combination of political-societal factors like austerity and the pressure to earn enough money, the 24hr news cycle, an increased ability to create and distribute sexualised imagery, cyber-bullying, and the pressure to conform being higher than ever before have created a ‘perfect storm’ scenario which our young people and children are struggling to negotiate life with what feels like an ever diminishing number of adults who have the capacity to get involved. 1 in 4 of us are now thought to suffer from a mental health condition, many of these conditions begin in adolescence with some being traced back to childhood patterns or traumatic events.
But enough of the doom & gloom – here’s the hopeful thing:
We can all make a difference in the lives of the young people and children we work with! And many of you will be able to testify to that yourselves. We don’t need a huge team of volunteers or staff in order to make a difference but we do need to be present, not just showing up but fully attentive to the lives of the children or young people in front of us. This is what Jesus did in his ministry, through the calling of the disciples, signs and wonders, and even his death and resurrection he shows us that the life of following him is best practiced with the emphasis on relationship rather than rules; that no-one has to look, behave or act a certain way in order to be loved by our heavenly Father; and that life is for living rather than wrestling with or simply existing!
I should add that I don’t think the following of Jesus is a cure for all mental ill-health. I do advocate the use of appropriate medication and other treatments where they are recommended by experts. I also think that if we did something to bolster the self-esteem and relationship building capacity of our children and young people we might have fewer adults in the future struggling with self harm and eating disorders because some of those very destructive thought patterns and behaviours might have been broken or stopped.
I would suggest that if we are fully present with our young people in whatever activity we are doing, then we will already be giving them tools to overcome the pressure of the media especially at New Year. However, on these pages we like to give you some very useable ideas to take to your next schools work session, so here it comes!
How do we do something about this?
I currently go into local schools with our local YMCA schools work project and we use material from the Shine and Strength courses published by Hillsong [Edit: This project has evolved into the Unique Project, some of the materials used now are similar but I no longer work for them] Some of these suggestions come from the ShineGirl sessions on self-esteem and building resilience. These will be best carried out in a group where there is trust and a culture of supportiveness between members.
Compliment Slips – give each member of the group a sheet of A4 paper and a pen. Use masking tape to attach the paper to their backs and then play some music for 5 mins while they go round the room and write a compliment on each other’s paper. This of course relies on each participant being positive about the others in the group – it’s a great exercise to do in this type of group. Encourage each member of the group to take their sheets home and put it somewhere they can look at it again when they’re feeling less certain of themselves.
What is Beauty – There are lots of articles or videos you can use about the power of Photoshop – many celebrities have recently protested the use of airbrushing or touching up in images and you can find these articles with a quick internet search. The one that’s most intriguing is the journalist Esther Honig who sent a photo of herself to different Photoshop artists in 25 different countries with the request to make her beautiful. The results are pretty dramatic and available on Buzzfeed.com (search ‘Esther Honig’). You could print out the article, cut out the photos and get the group members to guess which countries each image came from – then discuss why the Photoshopped images are so dramatically different from the original or each other.
Colbie Caillat is a singer who has taken on the culture of ‘perfection’ in her video – Try https://www.youtube.com/user/ColbieCaillatVEVO
Nick Vujicic is an incredible guy with an amazing story of hope and positivity in a world where he didn’t feel he fit in. If you haven’t heard this guy speak before be prepared to be blown away! His ‘No Arms, No Legs, No Worries!’ Video is available on Youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SjbX6mDnMwM
SelfharmUK have produced a set of playing cards based on the theme of Talking About Emotions – these can be used as a conversation starter. Buy a pack at Youthscape.co.uk/store. You could play a card game with the group, something simple like Memory Game (place cards face down in a grid, each player takes it in turns to flip two over. If the numbers match they ‘win’ that round and keep that pair of cards), but it could be something else if preferred. Get the members of the group to ask and answer the questions on the cards they turn over. Encourage them to be honest themselves and respectful of each other’s answers.
If you run a lunchtime club with 30 or so under 11s then these activities may need some tweaking to work for that number. If you have two adults in the room then perhaps one of them could take 4 or 5 of the students to one corner and do some of this material.
Other organisations with Self-Esteem material or resources for work with children and young people include: