Times have changed for sure. Especially with the advent of picture sharing via social media, and the ease at which just about any keyboard warrior can comment at will with malice or otherwise. I understand why many people reach out to into the virtual world hoping for a lifeline of reassurance and validation in a time of need.

But posting a picture of oneself and yearning for a certain response, is playing with fire. Because even if you receive honest feedback, there’s no guarantee it’s going to be what you want to hear. If you give it power, then negative feedback can shake your self-belief right to the core. I’m not against posting pictures. What I’m saying is that you have to have enough self-belief in the first place, and be comfortable enough in your own skin, so as to not be affected by any comments that follow.

Part of the problem is the false image of physical perfection that’s presented by a constant stream of celebrities, self-declared fitness gurus, and so-called experts. They all want our money, and aren’t afraid to play fast and loose with reality, or indeed the truth, in order to sell their product. Let me be clear I’m not against enterprise. That would be hypocritical. But I can’t bear it when ethics are thrown out of the window, and people are being manipulated into believing that ‘this or that’ new product or method is the answer to their dreams, and all they have to do is click ‘order now’ and it can be theirs in three easy (and colossal) payments.

This practice is rife within the fitness industry. A place where steroid use is increasingly commonplace among both genders, and unrealistic ideals are propagated with camera trickery, photo-shopping, extreme dieting and water level manipulation. Trust me, when you a see a picture of a muscular athlete or model, with abs bulging and non-existent fat levels; they can usually only maintain this condition (at least naturally) for a very short period of time. But the implied message is that they’re in that condition all the time, and you can be too if you do what they do etc, etc.

Of course having a negative self-image isn’t exclusively reserved for the younger generation. It can and does hit many of us whatever our age. I had serious body issues for many a year. It started when I was very young, and didn’t fully disappear until my forties. Although if I’m honest, I doubt I’ll ever be fully free of this harmful way of thinking. But it no longer rules me because I’m aware when the thoughts start building inside my mind, and can easily rationalise them away. In a sense it’s like an alcoholic who has to work everyday not to take a drink.

I would look in the mirror and only see imperfection. I was incapable of seeing what was clearly in front of me, and therefore objective self-assessment. In my mind I was ugly, short, skinny, and fat, all at once. I decided to do something about it, and hit the gym. Yet despite a physical transformation, I still couldn’t acknowledge any improvement. My mind hadn’t yet developed the capacity to see reality, at least in regard to myself.

These days we’re bombarded non-stop with ‘click-bait’ articles, advertising, and news-feeds that make astounding claims simply to get our attention. You and I know it’s largely bullshit, but many youngsters aren’t savvy enough yet to see through it. Many of the messages they receive are misleading at best, and potentially seriously damaging if they subsequently lead to a faulty way of thinking. When you consistently feel vulnerable, then it’s easy to be seduced by quick-fix solutions that are literally too good to be true.

When your kids have so many mixed messages to contend with, and popularity appears to be linked to ‘physical perfection’ (whatever the hell that’s supposed to be this week), how do you safeguard them against this type of messed up thinking?

For starters you can help them to become their own unique person, and support their quest for self-discovery. Encourage them to become critical thinkers, individuals in their own right who don’t make lightning fast emotionally based decisions without having done a little research first. Most advertising is based on fear. A fear of what life will be like if you don’t have the latest product. Fear that you’re currently not good enough in some way. Fear that you won’t fit in with your peers. Divisive advertising of this sort rarely stands up to scrutiny, and relies on reeling people in on a false narrative. Teach your kids to take a step back, and look for corroboration before parting with any cash, or accepting something as reality.

Following the crowd without question is a weakness. If your views align with others then fine, but I do believe it’s beneficial to form them as an individual and resist external pressure to conform. Help them to value their beliefs, while not creating their entire identity around them. Beliefs can change as we gain more information over time and thereby a different perspective; whereas a strong core identity can survive a shifting belief system, and even become stronger because of it.

You can also point out that the term ‘expert’ is thrown round to validate someone’s opinion. We’re all experts at one thing or another. It doesn’t mean that we all have something valuable or beneficial to say. The title of ‘expert’ is typically assigned by one’s peers. Check out who they are if you can. It matters.

Also, if your kids have a tendency to be overly self-critical, ask them what they’d say if they were addressing a best friend rather than themselves. Don’t be surprised if they begin using an entirely different narrative. They’d probably never be as harsh with a friend, and this introduces an element of dissociation that allows them to explore a different set of words for the same circumstance. It begins to expose the cracks in their faulty thinking that otherwise keeps them trapped in a self-depreciating cycle.

Do some research yourself. On nutrition, exercise, physiology, and anything else that may help you to insert some counter position to an opinion they may hold. Knowledge is power, and you don’t have to know everything to make an impact, only enough to widen their thought process and stimulate discussion. It’s all about challenging those preconceptions that are formed without substance. This also shows that you have a genuine interest in what they’re doing, which makes it far easier to stimulate a discussion. Don’t forget, it’s not about winning an argument. This is about helping them to see a bigger picture and make sound decisions that serve them well.

Don’t be negatively critical of other people simply because they look a certain way, or don’t conform to a certain standard. You need to be a safe haven where they can come and discuss anything. Don’t be a part of the problem with a careless judgemental comment. It may not seem like much to you, but this kind of language can put you in the same category as those who exacerbate the issue with narrow-minded opinions shared far to freely.

Set a good example, and if you aren’t eating wisely, or otherwise looking after your health, then it’s very difficult to be taken seriously by a loved one who is body conscious. Again it’s not about achieving physical perfection, it’s a case of establishing a degree of common ground. It gives you a genuine reason to engage in conversation about personal health.

I remember my mother constantly saying that I shouldn’t lift weights as it was bad for me. But she could never articulate a reason. It was simply something she believed was bad, without ever making the slightest effort to educate herself on the subject. This ensured that I never discussed it with her, and therefore all my unhealthy thoughts about how I looked were kept bottled up inside. I was never able to talk about the joy I felt as my body slowly transformed.

But this experience did teach me that being judgemental is a barrier to communication, and when my son showed signs of developing a body related issue, we were able to talk about it openly and honestly. He told me abut the pressures he felt as a young man, and the opinions that circulated amongst his peers and throughout social media. I first listened to make sure I heard everything he needed to get off his chest. Then, coming from a position of knowledge, I was able to show him which parts of his thinking were becoming unhealthy for him, and which ‘facts’ he was taking as true, were actually wrong.

I backed up everything I said, either with examples of personal experience, or by directing him to sources of information that expanded his knowledge. Equipped with a wider perspective, and the knowledge that he had my support, he was able to change his thinking and avoided further upset. We discussed how he was feeling on a regular basis, and his confidence soared.

Did I mention there were hugs? Lots of hugs.

At the end of the day, your kids are entitled to their own thoughts, and we can’t protect them indefinitely from the outside world. What we can do however, is always show an interest in what’s going on in their life. We can show them that focussing on people’s positives, rather than the negatives, is a far more healthy way to think; because when you only see the negatives in others, it’s not a big step to aim that critical eye back upon oneself. Most importantly, we can foster a relationship based on open communication, in which harmful thoughts have less room to fester unattended.

Don’t forget those hugs!