In a world full of pressures and stresses, how do we give children and young people the tools to build up a healthy level of self-esteem? The girls’ brigade’s Claire Rush has some ideas
It was a normal Monday night at my Girls’ Brigade (GB) group in Northern Ireland. The young women were sitting around chatting and laughing; I was enjoying doing life with them. Beauty and celebrity magazines appeared from their bags and soon the air was filled with the flicking sound of crisp pages as they chatted about who was wearing what and which celebrity was dating who. “So what’s the message that you receive about what it means to be a girl from reading that magazine?” I asked curiously.
The girls paused and pondered before writing down some thoughts on pieces of paper. “I’m not thin enough,” wrote one. “I’m not rich enough” was written on another piece of paper. Sadly I wasn’t surprised by these responses, but the words on one particular slip of paper hit me like a sucker punch: “I am not enough.”
A few years on, and those four words still resonate with me. Today, too many young people still believe that they’re not enough.
A self-esteem crisis?
Self-esteem is hard to calculate but happiness and confidence are good indicators. The Prince’s Trust Macquarie Youth Index (2017) reveals that young people’s well-being is at its lowest ever level to date. According to the research, an alarming number of young people hide their problems and lack self-confidence while at school or college.
This research corroborates a 2016 World Health Organisation survey carried out in 42 countries which found that girls and boys in the UK are among the least satisfied with their lives. The survey (which measures life satisfaction in relation to everything from relationships with family to school, mental health and drug use) showed that the highest rate of anxiety and health worries occurred among teenage girls.
Think, feel and act
In a nutshell, self-esteem is how a person feels about themselves and their abilities. Our self-esteem is very important as it affects how we think, feel and act and is an indicator of our emotional well-being.
My own youth group has young people with various levels of self-esteem. Katie will often describe herself in hyper-critical terms and puts herself down saying “I’m stupid”. When trying new activities, she often lacks confidence and compares herself to her peers in a negative way. Katie often doesn’t want to do things because she is scared of failure. On the other hand, Sarah has positive self-esteem. She is confident in herself but is also aware of her strengths and weaknesses. When she makes mistakes, she is able to learn from them and does not allow self-blaming behaviour or negative self-talk. Most importantly, Sarah is able to manage a wide range of emotions well.
One of the challenges about self-esteem is that it depends on our perception of ourselves. For many of us, our self-esteem can be rooted in what others say about us, how well we do in our school or jobs and external circumstances outside of our control. Often, our self-esteem is based on our emotions and feelings, which we know can be deceptive. It is important to recognise that our self-esteem is fluid (not static) and constantly changing depending on circumstances and life stages.
Who you are, not what you do
Sometimes self-esteem and self-worth can be used interchangeably but they are different things. Our self-worth never changes and it is not dependent on how we’re feeling. Self-worth is about who you are, not what you do. In other words, it is about valuing your inherent worth as a person not measuring yourself based on external actions.
I love speaking about self-worth as it is a Biblical concept. We all have equal worth because we’re image bearers of God (Genesis 1:27). We can build our self-esteem but we can’t build or lose our self-worth because it never alters. Although self-worth does not change, unfortunately we live in a culture which is depleting the sense of self-worth in children and young people. The enemy of self-worth is shame, which Brene Brown describes as the intensely painful feeling of believing that we are unworthy of love and belonging.
Formation and identity
Self-esteem formation is complex but it’s important to remember that each child and young person is unique and there are myriad factors which affect their self-esteem. For example, self-esteem levels are impacted by internal influences such as emotional well-being and personality traits as well as external factors including past life experiences, academic pressures and wider societal messages.
Social media is a potent vehicle for comparing our lives to others
Self-esteem formation begins in childhood. The way that we think and behave as children lays down the blueprint for our behaviour in later life. Research demonstrates that early adolescence is a time when young people’s self-esteem is in flux as they become more influenced by external factors (like employment prospects, global affairs and societal discourses). Girlguiding’s Girls’ Attitudes Survey 2016, the UK’s largest annual study into girls’ views and experiences as they grow up, discovered girls’ feelings about their own abilities and self-confidence decreases between being aged 7-10 and being aged 11-16.
Connected but alone
The internet provides us with amazing opportunities but living in a hyper-connected world can have a negative impact on children and young people. On average, children and young people in the UK, aged between 5 and 16, spend three hours online every day. Connectivity permeates their lives and has transformed how they build and sustain relationships. In a recent article in in The Guardian, Emily Cherry from the NSPCC said: “When it comes to low self-esteem, a lot of young people are putting that down to [concerns about] education, their future and the online world. Every time they switch on their phones they’re getting messages about parties they haven’t been invited to, they’re seeing photos of their friends doing things, or their whole self-worth is based on how many likes they’re getting on Facebook.”
Social media also encourages young people to present a carefully ‘curated’ view of their lives; in essence, the highlight reel. This is a potent vehicle for comparing our lives to others. This can also impact self-esteem levels by providing another outlet for peer approval and affirmation. One night in my youth group, a young girl shared in detail how to take the perfect selfie and upload it for the maximum likes. This involved taking at least 40 selfies, sending them to close friends to judge the best one, uploading it at the optimum time and reminding friends to help like it. If the photo doesn’t receive adequate likes (shameful in their opinion), it will be deleted.
A war on girlhood
The Children’s Society’s Good Childhood Report 2016 states that one in seven (14 per cent) 10-to-15-year-old girls are unhappy with their lives as a whole - up from eleven per cent five years previously. The proportion of boys of the same age who are unhappy with their lives as a whole is lower, suggesting that there is an interesting gender dynamic in the mix involving society discourses around ideals of femininity.
Girls are being bombarded by toxic media messages via magazines, TV and advertising which tells them that their value and worth is dependent on how they conform to a very narrow ideal of beauty. Psychologist Dr Steve Biddulph, author of Raising girls, argues that today’s advertising actively creates anxieties and this amounts to nothing less than a war on girlhood. Every aspect of a girl’s appearance now presents an opportunity to fail. From a very young age, the toxic mix of consumerism and liberal capitalism teaches girls that their bodies are projects to be improved upon. On the other hand, boys are taught that their bodies are vehicles to navigate the world in. In fact, girls are becoming so critical of their appearance that they are actually self-objectifying themselves and others on social media. The Girls’ Attitude survey reveals that 39 per cent of girls (aged 7-21) are unhappy about how they look and 47 per cent of girls (aged 11-21) say that the way they look holds them back most of the time. For example, they are less likely to speak up in class or participate in sports.
Gender stereotypes and everyday sexism is also impacting girls’ self-esteem levels. Girls aspire to be leaders but lack role models and feel restricted to a masculine definition of leadership. According to the Girls’ Attitude survey, girls struggle to see themselves as brave and ambitious. Perhaps this is not surprising when the gender pay gap still exists and there is a stark gender divide at the top of the corporate world - there are far more men called John leading the UK’s biggest companies than all women, according to a name check of the FTSE 100 in The Guardian.
We don’t live in a world which fosters a culture of worth. Children and young people are growing up in a society where people’s value is defined by what they look like, what they do, how much they earn, academic achievements and how many likes they achieve on social media; these are paradoxical messages that subvert their identity as image-bearers of God with unchanging value and worth. Identity theft is happening, right here, right now. How can we as parents and children’s and youth workers encourage positive self-esteem in the children and young people in our care? Nobody can give self-esteem to a young person but we can inspire it and here are some ways to start.
Cultivate identity capital
As ‘I am not enough’ is one of the negative core beliefs possessed by children and young people, particularly girls and young women, it’s not effective to aim at empowering girls with body confidence. When we’re working with young people, particularly girls, who are struggling with society’s expectation about beauty, it can be really tempting to quote verses like Psalm 139 and Ephesians 2:10. But children and young people with eating disorders will struggle to see themselves as a masterpiece in God’s eyes.
As followers of Jesus, we know that the Bible teaches us that our worth isn’t dependent on how thin we are, how rich we are or if we look a certain way. Our worth comes from being image-bearers of the king of kings. Made in his image, we have unchanging value and worth. This is what I like to call our God-identity capital and it’s at the core of our purpose and calling as Ephesians 1:11 says: “It’s in Christ that we find out who we are and what we’re living for.” (The Message). Our worth is not in what we do, but in who we are.
In our homes and groups, how are we enabling children and young people to experience and explore this counter-cultural hope-filled gospel message and build identity capital in transforming and innovative ways?
Critical not passive consumers
Children and young people need the tools to navigate this hyper-connected and visual world where they see over 100 advertisements per day - on social media, bus stops, TV and magazines. Do they have the tools to process the multitude of messages about identity, success, popularity and relationships which they are receiving consciously and unconsciously? Can they recognise fraudulent messages that are seeking to undermine their sense of self-worth? In the face of aggressive advertising and beauty industries which actively creates anxiety in young people, media literacy is a key skill for young people to have. Recently, more hope-filled media pioneered by Christian ministries have emerged for girls like Clarity magazine and koko (thekokostory.com) - a GB Ministries initiative producing films exploring issues that matter to girls such as relationships, self-harm and mental health. These are great resources to use in your groups and at home as discussion starters.
In our homes and groups, how can we equip our children and young people with media literacy skills?
Encourage self-compassion and self-care
Do you have an inner voice that can often tell you that you’re a failure, a loser or unlovable? Self-compassion is the practice of halting that critical voice and treating yourself with the same kindness and compassion when we suffer, fail or feel inadequate. Often we are harsh with ourselves because we are striving after perfectionism. Practicing self-compassion helps us remember that imperfection and suffering is part of the human experience and something we all share.
In our homes and groups, how are we modelling self-compassion and self-care? Are we intentionally scheduling time for relaxation, connection and doing things that make us joyful? As youth and children’s workers, are we guilty of overscheduling our sessions (perhaps because we’re also hustling for our worth too)? Imagine clearing the schedule one night to have no programme - but to allow children and young people to chill, talk and connect with you.
Children and young people are telling us that academic pressures and standards can be consuming. We need to ensure that children and young people can grow in other ways through creativity, sports, leadership development and opportunities to serve others through social action, as well as time to develop friendships offline. GB England and Wales has developed faith-based fun and innovative programme materials for girls. In local GB groups across the UK, women leaders are equipping girls to navigate this confusing culture as well as helping them to cultivate courage, resilience and leadership skills in fun and safe environments. As a result, girls are growing in confidence by discovering their God-given identity. There are many other parachurch organisations who are turning up the volume of hope for children and young people, and offering churches and parents the same opportunities.
I am not enough’ is one of the negative core beliefs possessed by children and young people
In our homes and groups, how are we helping children and young people develop their creative gifts, leadership skills and sporting talents to demonstrate that life is about much more than exam results?
Hope for girls
The reality is that we can be guilty of reinforcing the view that girls’ value lies in their appearance. Pamper nights in our youth group, focusing on nails and make-up, can also unconsciously reinforce the idea that a girl’s value is dependent on how she looks. When we speak to our daughters, nieces and girls in our children’s and youth groups, do we only praise them for their prettiness or their fashion sense? Let’s be intentional about praising girls for displaying other qualities as well like courage, strength, creativity and intelligence. We have the power to change the culture in our homes and families.
Girls are generation-shapers, hope-bringers and transformers of culture and we need to nurture this new generation of leaders. As a Church, we also need to continue to demonstrate by example that women and men are both called to make an important and equally valuable contribution. We can do this by equipping and releasing the God-given gifts of all the Church. By acknowledging that young women can lead and inspire us, we’re recognising that God uses all genders and people of all ages in his mission of restoration on earth.
How are you acknowledging that young women can lead and inspire us? Are you intentional about raising, mentoring and profiling women into leadership roles in your youth or children’s group?
Seek professional help
For some children and young people, poor self-esteem and emotional health may have already manifested itself in destructive behaviours like self-harm, depression and eating disorders. If you’re a parent or carer, please don’t hesitate to seek professional support for you and your family.
Each of us has equal worth and value regardless of what we look like or our gender, age, race, ability etc. This is the hopeful message that Jesus brought to us and he is calling us to follow in his footsteps today. Cultivating a culture of worth for all starts with us.