In this episode, Jo works with the families of two young girls, Kiran and Bronwyn. Here’s what Jo had to say about working with each girl and their families:
Kiran & her mom, Sophia
When I first met this family I knew I was meeting a mother who was desperately in need of help. If it’s not flippant to say, she was completely at the end of her tether.
Kiran’s Mum, Sophia, was feeling really helpless because her four-year-old daughter, Kiran, had been refusing to eat. But I think there was also an underlying feeling of resentment because Sophia knew Kiran was using food as a way to get her mother to do what she wanted, and this was affecting the way Sophia behaved around her daughter.
I could see that Kiran was very underweight for her age. She has beautiful big brown eyes but they lacked a spark. She should have been running around, laughing, showing her character like four year olds do, but she wasn’t. She just wasn’t eating enough and didn’t have enough energy and goodness on board to actually express her personality. Her speech was delayed and she was held back in her development because of her refusal to eat.
When I saw footage of Sophia trying to force feed Kiran, it actually brought tears to my eyes. It was really hard to watch because what I was seeing was behaviour that looked hostile. I knew that I wasn’t watching someone who wanted to be unkind, it was just someone who was utterly desperate to get her child to eat. In the past Kiran has been sent to hospital with dehydration and I could see that every meal time Sophia was scared that Kiran would have to go to hospital if she didn’t force her to eat something. Sophia was desperate but I knew that the number one priority was to make her realise that the force feed had to stop.
Looking at the pattern of Kiran’s behaviour at meal times I was convinced that her behaviour had been taught. She had learned that if she refused healthy food at meal times, she would be given sugary snacks later. Meal times had become a place for Kiran to get attention from her mother by refusing to eat and for her to assert control over her parents.
I felt it was important to talk to Sophia about her attitude and to explain to her how she would need to change. Meal times had become a battle of wills and Sophia needed to break that cycle. She needed more patience, to be more relaxed and positive about eating and to not get angry.
I had to put the basics in place:
- Routine meal times
- A rule that meals that would only last for a half and hour and that anything Kiran hadn’t eaten would stay on the side for half an hour but of she still hadn’t eaten it, it would go in the bin.
- A total withdrawal of all sugary snacks and sugary drinks
- Mum and Dad to lead by example and eat together around a meal table
Taking Sophia to the park with Kiran was a really important step. I needed Sophia to relax around Kiran and around Kiran’s meals, but I also needed to put something fun and positive in place counterbalance all the new rules around meal times and to rebuild their relationship.
Going out and hanging out in the park, looking at the animals was a really nice experience. It also helped Sophia to relax and eat a picnic lunch with Kiran without fussing her and panicking her. It was good for her to learn that when you’re having a meal you can just be quiet; you don’t have to talk and fuss about food all the time. In this newly relaxed environment, Kiran just got on with it and ate her lunch.
Bronwyn and her mom, Emma
For me the key issue at the heart of Bronwyn’s story is that children do come to talk to you about what’s on their minds but they all do it when mums and dads are busy doing something else. And that’s a real challenge for all parents.
Kids growing up get worried about things. They worry about school, they worry about how they’re getting on with their friends, they worry about their appearance. But they don’t choose to share those worries with their mum or dad when their parent is sitting down and saying to them “well dear, is there anything on your mind that you’d like to talk about”. Sitting down face to face like that kids feel tool exposed. Too on the spot. They feel much more comfortable to raise things with their Mum when she’s distracted, when she’s not looking them straight in the eye – like when she’s cooking dinner or got her hands in the sink.
To mums and dads this can feel as if they are trying to talk at the most inconvenient times possible, but these are the times that kids feel comfortable to air their worries. And the key thing to do is to make time when they want to talk – whatever you are doing.
Bronwyn had questions on her mind that were perfectly normal for a girl of her age, but in her family there is a big age gap between her and her half sister, and Bronwyn was feeling that her Mum was to busy looking after a toddler to listen to what she was saying.
Girls at Bronwyn’s age are looking for approval and reassurance; they are comparing themselves to kids their age. They are comparing themselves to older people who they know or too celebrities they have seen on TV or in magazines. They are looking to their Mums for reassurance and in Bronwyn’s case she didn’t feel that she was getting this enough. She was really worried about her birth mark and about her appearance and just needed to be reassured that she was just fine as she was and for who she was.
For kids growing up today the natural insecurities and worries about can be made more difficult to deal with because of the images they see in the media.
Bronwyn was spending time flicking through magazines about pop stars and celebrities. There is nothing wrong with this at all. That pre-teen age is a time when kids are getting interested in music and fashion. Or wanting to learn about clothes and make up. All of which perfectly fine.
But the issue is that as adults as we look at these pictures we know that they have been airbrushed and retouched. The models are pretty girls but they have been reworked and reworked so that the images are no longer real. If you are comparing yourself to an image that isn’t real then it could start you feel like you don’t measure up.
It’s up to parents to give kids a bit of perspective when they see these images. And most of all loving parents have got to give their kids confidence in their own looks and their own personalities and qualities. And making time to talk to them, on their terms, is key.
First of all what I did was given Bronwyn time. She needed to talk to an adult about the things that were on her mind, and for an adult to tell her that she’s fine as she is. To tell her that she didn’t need to worry about her birth mark or her arms.
Then I wanted to chat with Bronwyn’s Mum Emma to remind her that Bronwyn needed her reassurance. Like all mums Emma had noticed that Bronwyn only ever seemed to start conversations about her worries, when Emma was busy to doing something else. I wanted Emma to know that’s what all kids do and they do it because it’s easier for them to get things off their chest that way. The important thing is to make time to listen to kids when they want to talk, not just when you want to talk.
I knew that there was a real loving relationship between Emma and Bronwyn, but I wanted to get them reconnecting about the things that were worrying Bronwyn. Using speech bubbles is a great way of taking the anxiety out of telling an adult what you want them to hear. It really helps to break the ice and makes it less awkward for a child to say things that they find difficult. It must have been really hard from Mum Emma to hear Bronwyn say “ tell me that you love me more”, but the message really got through and it brought them closer.
Once Mum and daughter were talking more, I wanted to take things one step further and show Bronwyn the truth about the images in magazines that she had been comparing herself too – using myself as the model. I wanted to expose how those images are just a fantasy created by airbrushing. So we all went together to a studio where I had my photo taken and then worked on in the way that images in magazines and adverts are.
When I showed the photos of me before and after airbrushing to Bronwyn, she told me she preferred the one that wasn’t airbrushed because that was the one that showed me as I really am and captured my personality.
For all parents worried about whether magazines might be having an impact on their kids I would say:
- Stay up to speed with what they are into. It’s a great way to stay connected with your preteens if you look at their magazines too.
- Have a flick through with them, then you can provide a bit of adult perspective on what they are seeing. I don’t mean pulling a photo apart. I do mean giving kids the tools to interpret what they are seeing – that the lighting makes the model’s hair shiny
- It’s not a problem that kids like a bit of the glamour of celebrity, but make sure they know that what they’re seeing isn’t the real world
- If pre teenage girls start to get interested in make up and things they have seen in magazines, that’s only natural. It’s fine to let them experiment, but don’t let them think they need a full face of make up on before they can face the world.
- And the best way to do that is to make sure that they know you recognize their good qualities and love them the way they are.