My experience around young children is almost invariably the same: a precious blend of candour, light-heartedness, playfulness, and curiosity. Childhood is a beautiful thing, so much so that embracing our “inner child’ has become a buzz phrase in the wellbeing community. But that’s not the phrase I had in mind when writing this article.
How it starts
As innate as these qualities are to children, they are also influenced by the type of interactions we, caring adults, create. Now let’s be crystal clear and get this one out of the way: I know every single person reading this article cares immensely for the happiness of their child and would NEVER consciously do anything that could jeopardise their wellbeing.
And yet, a big chunk of my childhood does not exactly match my previous description. My parents showered me with love and attention; I was curious and playful but the one thing I wasn’t was carefree. I became self-conscious about my weight at the age of 5 as well intentioned grown ups in my circles started to take an interest in my weight. It would usually go like this, “she has such a pretty face, shame she is so chubby” or “she would be so beautiful if she lost weight”. In fact, I even found a baby video of me where you can clearly hear someone in the background commenting on how I was “drinking milk like a glutton” with everyone chuckling in response. They were just joking, no big deal, right? Maybe not on its own, but there was more where that came from…
I was put on my first diet when I was 8. That diet was followed by many more which eventually led to almost two decades of rock-bottom self-worth and various eating disorders. Both my teens and early twenties were marked by my desperate attempts to feel validated, especially by those closest to me. I would have done anything to feel beautiful in their eyes. I've described the experience in my book STUFFED: how to feel so good about yourself you won't have room for cake.
What to do
I wish I could tell my younger self what I know today and here is what I would say:
1. You are enough
Because their enoughness is non-negotiable. They are worthy beyond measure, regardless of how they look, how they do in school or what people think of them. Because they are beautiful and beauty is so much more than a face or a body. No “but”.
2. I believe in you
Life inevitably gets confusing, complicated, and sometimes a little scary. Cheering for children from a young age, praising both effort and achievement, is paramount to helping them build a healthy sense of self. You may think it’s obvious but with so much criticism out there, it’s not always that simple. So say it, tell them you believe in them, you can never say it too much.
3. I love you
Of course, you do. Of course, it’s unconditional. But again, they need to feel it, see it and hear it. Let them know that they are loveable, remind them as often as necessary, especially when things get rocky in their life.
Our words have an impact and while nobody is perfect, let us try our best, one day at a time, to empower the children around us by what we choose to say to them and to ourselves in their presence.
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