Protecting Our Daughters’ Happiness

Having two girls, today’s headline ‘UK Girls Are Becoming More Miserable’ grabbed my attention. It turns out that this ‘misery’ stems from issues with body image and poor self-esteem. The Children’s Society ‘Good Childhood Report’ gives evidence that girls as young as five worry about their size and appearance, and hearing parents talk about ‘dieting’ really doesn’t help.

I have a huge issue with my body image. Although I don’t disclose the true depth of my feelings I, like anyone will chat to friends about ‘feeling fat’ and ‘needing to go on a diet’. This is part of the social dance that we women play. But, understanding the complexity of body image (from personal and professional experience) I’m so careful to steer conversation away from even ‘light-hearted banter’ when little ears are listening.

While body image has been an issue for women across time, in our supposedly advanced and equal world these problems are exacerbated by one prevalent source – mass media.

Research carried out by Dr. Anne Becker, a Professor at Harvard Medical School, studied a population of young Fijian girls who had never been exposed to media. She compared their attitudes to body image before and after Western media was introduced. The results: the key factors associated with eating disorders increased significantly and the girls reported a much greater interest in losing weight and modeling themselves on celebrities. Broader research confirms that children and adolescents are particularly vulnerable to messages and images conveyed through media.

Mass media affects us all, but as adults we have the knowledge and experience to step back from information rather than let it saturate our thinking. Social media isn’t something we learnt to interact on as teenagers; it’s something we just ‘use’. For young people today it is part of their social infrastructure, it is intertwined with who they are and how they operate. They are in effect drowning in it.

MP Caroline Nokes, who fronts a campaign called ‘Be Real’ says young girls “can make decisions not to look at magazines and TV, but social media networks are the primary way they communicate and their main channel to the outside world.”

It’s a tall order protecting youngsters from the distorted world we live in. At only 9, I find that simply ‘watching what I say’ isn’t enough to protect my eldest. For example:

  1. People Compliment Her – why is this a problem? –I certainly don’t want people to stop telling her she’s beautiful (it makes me feel good too) but it worries me that outer beauty will become something she depends on. Looks are so fleeting and their judgement so subjective. It’s like watching my child balancing on a knife’s edge and I don’t want to see her fall.
  1. Peer Group Pressure – we’ve just been on holiday and she’s worrying that she hasn’t ‘got enough of a tan’. The girls at school will be sharing tan lines and comparing who got the most sun. I slather her in SPF50 but consequently have to reassure her that ‘getting a tan’ is dangerous for her skin, not something to be proud of. I fear this is just a slippery slope of judgments, evaluations and comparisons.

When these two ancient psychological drivers, looks and a need to belong, become entangled with social and mass media the results are toxic and potentially lethal.

What Can We Do?

Given the reality of our world, there are some pragmatic interventions (I ultimately believe a larger scale solution to this problem needs to be sought which I talk about in my book, but for now):

  • We can encourage schools to run media literacy programs – research shows that these enable youngsters to evaluate the content of programs and advertising more objectively rather than being drawn into it.
  • We can expose our youngsters to positive campaigns – such as ‘Be Real’ which aims to ‘change attitudes to body image and help all of us put health above appearance and be confident in our bodies.’
  • We should urge schools to empower young girls – providing them with realistic role-models and helping them understand how to appreciate their individuality, their unique talents and their contribution to the world.
  • We need to watch what we say – ‘praising children for acts of kindness rather than for their looks’, not talking about our own body woes or commenting on the appearance of other people carelessly. This may sound too ‘nanny state’, but whilst we have mass media to contend with our comments carry more weight than they have in any other generation.

Last but not least, it’s important to remember that while girls are more likely to be affected boys are also impacted, particularly given the increasing prevalence of mass media.

What are your thoughts on this – I’d be really interested to hear?


Links and References:

Becker AE, Burwell RA, Gilman SE, Herzog DB, Hamburg P. Eating behaviours and attitudes following exposure to television among ethnic Fijian adolescent girls. The British Journal of Psychiatry. 2002;180:509–14.

American Academy of Pediatrics, Committee on Public Education Media Education (RE9911) Policy Statement. Pediatrics. 1999;104:341–3

Going For ‘Non’ Olympic Gold

Watching the Olympics pricks a motivational itch to do something active. After Wimbledon it’s inevitable that tennis courts up and down the country are booked up, the Tour de France encourages the Mamils (Middle Aged Men In Lycra) to crowd country roads and the New Year sees a spat of people out running. But it generally doesn’t last. The Fitness Industry Association report that 22% of people who join the gym in January will have stopped going at all after 24 weeks and 50% after 6 months.

We know we need to exercise but it can be incredibly hard to get going without some big inspirational push and harder still to keep going. Why is that? Why aren’t we all like Olympians?

Aside from the obvious (e.g. natural capability and extreme drive), practical factors get in the way: a late night at work, a last minute call to go out with a friend, a weekend filled with kids activities and well, just life in general – jam packed with things that have to get done. All of this dramatically interferes with habit formation in the brain, which is something that Olympians don’t have to contend with.

Habit Forming And Exercise

When we first perform a behaviour, say restart a gym routine, it takes considerable conscious effort. Once we have repeated the behaviour over and over it’s triggered and performed in a subconscious area of the brain called the basal ganglia making it automatic, it takes far less mental effort. The problem when we stop and start our exercise all the time is that it rarely becomes a deeply engrained habit. And it’s habit that we need to keep it going regardless of how busy life gets.

Habit Forming Obstacles

  1. Our Ancient Brain

From an evolutionary perspective we are driven to conserve energy until we really need it (e.g. running away from an enemy), so while exercise gives us a buzz, the initial thought of doing any is overlaid by the survival driven part of our brain telling us to sit down for a bit longer. When exercise isn’t a habit, this leads to the internal dialogue between our rational and survival driven brain:

‘I should go to the gym but it’s getting late now, maybe I’ll go tomorrow, I did a good work out yesterday, I should really get on with my ‘to do list’, I’m tired, I don’t feel too well, it’s too cold outside, etc.’

For Olympians, activity is such a strongly engrained habit that the debate doesn’t happen. For us mere mortals, not allowing ourselves to even question whether or not to do exercise is a really helpful approach. I put exercise in the diary then do it before I can start debating the pros and cons.

  1. Lack of Identification

Olympians ‘are’ the sport they do (there’s no question over whether Mo Farah is a runner). While for non-Olympians hours of daily physical activity is not a practicality, incorporating exercise into how we see ourselves removes another barrier. This is why athletes tend to so effortless switch from one sport to another, they have an implicit belief that sport is who they are e.g. Victoria Pendleton from cyclist to jockey, Chris Hoy from cyclist to racing car driver.

I’ve always been physically active so see myself as sporty, but I’ve always hated running. For the past year I’ve been running at least 3 times a week, which has taken a huge mental effort and has definitely not felt like a habit. But, recently I was in a sports shop looking at the running stuff and this sudden realization came over me – I am a runner (obviously not like Mo Farah, but as far as a local running group is concerned). I’ve shifted my mindset from running being something other people do, to something I do. This mental shift makes forming a habit much easier.

  1. Working Against Our Preferences

Although the media made a big thing about Gold Medalist Adam Peaty not liking water when he was tiny, ultimately it was him who decided he wanted to train as a swimmer. You can’t force a child to dedicate hours of practice to something they really don’t want to do, and the same principle is true of adults.

Starting a running regime if you hate running is going to be far harder than finding something you really enjoy and making that your exercise of choice (I realise I’m contradicting myself, but I’m extremely stubborn so not a great example.)

  1. Feeling Like a Failure

 It may sound obvious but taking small steps to reach a goal is much more effective than aiming to be as fast a runner as Jessica Ennis in your first 4 weeks then giving up because you can’t do it. Setting realistic sub-goals, stretching but not beyond our reach is critical.

This also links to Emotional Resilience because even taking smaller steps it’s inevitable that we’ll fail: we’ll do a slower run, we’ll have a busy week where we don’t manage to exercise, we may get injured, all putting a spanner in the works for habit formation. This is when we need to get back up and try again.

Murray had so many near misses at Wimbledon in the years leading up to his success. If he hadn’t believed that ultimately he would make it he could of retired, but he didn’t, he kept going.

  1. Doing it Alone

Although an introvert may prefer a solitary exercise schedule, we are all in some way social by our very make-up, and even if we are introverts we need encouragement and feedback from other people. Trying to do something alone creates obstacles because it works against our natural make-up. Olympic athletes are surrounded by teams of coaches which plays to a need to belong. They are also consistently competing, which not only provides feedback on their own performance but plays to another deeply embedded driver to compare ourselves to other group members. Being with someone else also provides a distraction which is incredibly helpful in getting on with something we may otherwise give up.

Overall it’s about finding what works best for you and what your personal derailers are, the things that prevent you from getting into good exercise habits. Do it and you too could be winning Non Olympic Gold.


Links and References:

The Power of Habit, Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, by Charles Duhigg

Yin, H.H., Knowlton, B.J. (2006)The role of the basal ganglia in habit formation, Nature Reviews Neuroscience 7, 464-476

‘Bounce-Back-Ability’ Part 2 – Building Emotional Resilience

“How to Build Bounce-Back-Ability aka Emotional Resilience”

“Resilience is important because it is the human capacity to face, overcome and be strengthened by or even transformed by the adversities of life. Everyone faces adversities; no one is exempt.” The International Resilience Project

While some people are born more Emotionally Resilient than others, it is something we’re able to learn and I’ll use the same headings as the last blog to discuss how. A number of people have contacted me asking how this can be developed in children, so this blog has a bent toward that. It does however apply to anyone, of any age.


  1. Positive Self Concept & Outlook – a belief that whatever is going on, you’re still in control of the situation rather than it being something that is ‘done to you’.

Having a positive self-concept isn’t something you can suddenly acquire but it can be nurtured. The elements involved are complex but can be broken down as follows:

Self Talk

The way we talk to ourselves is critical, yet we don’t often notice what we’re saying or how we’re saying it.

Just out of interest try observing the words you use to speak to yourself. Are you kind? Probably not, we tend to talk to ourselves in a way we would never dream of speaking to anyone else e.g. “You idiot, why did you do that?”

We put effort into thinking through ways of positioning things more gently with others e.g. “That’s OK it just didn’t work out this time.”

When we’re stressed or annoyed it takes effort to step back and think through how we’re saying things, but it’s worth it. The stories we tell ourselves become our reality, and the words we say to our children become their own internal dialogue for life.

Mindfulness can be very helpful for nurturing a kinder form of self-talk. For kids over 7 years try this free app:

View of the Future

If you or your children are pessimistic about the future, gently challenge the thinking. Is it really going to be that bad? Are there really no other solutions?

Ask children how they’d like things to turn out and what they can do to make that happen (to divert thinking away from worrying about what they fear most). Encourage them to paint a picture with words or in a drawing of what they want things to look like.

Taking Responsibility

We tend to want to go in and ‘rescue’ children or people we love when things go wrong but that doesn’t help build their tolerance and capability for coping. Children, in particular, need to know what they are responsible for. Learning to accept the consequences of their behaviour helps them to understand the limit of their control and enables them to see that they can make a difference, whether good or bad, to the outcome. In turn this builds a sense of self-efficacy, a belief that they are in control of outcomes rather than things being ‘done to them’.

Problem Solving

It’s all too easy to become passive when things are tough but it’s important to help children, or whoever is struggling, to take decisive action. This prevents them from feeling that something is being ‘done to them’.

Encourage them to talk to people: to bounce ideas around, to ask a person who’s been in the same situation what they did. Help them understand how to get information on the situation.

Enabling someone to make a decision on what to do is empowering and builds a more positive self-concept.

Celebrate Success

Make a point of recognizing when your children have done a good job. Celebrate it. We all, grown ups included, need to feel like we’re important, that we can be proud of what we’ve achieved. It helps us keep going when things aren’t so great.


  1. Growth Mindset – a flexibility and openness, adjusting personal expectations depending on what is thrown your way and constantly being willing to learn and develop.

 Learning is key. Keep encouraging your children to learn and explore the world around them, to read, to try different activities, to meet new people and generally be observant, curious and questioning about everything. This is something we should continue throughout life.

As well as taking proactive steps to learn, reflecting on bad experiences is also a helpful aid to growth. When something goes really wrong, writing down what’s happened can help an understanding of how it might be approached differently next time.

 Research has shown that writing about an experience can help us to assign meaning to what has happened and why. Writing actually helps us to create new understandings and insights simply through the ‘act of writing’ (Jackson, 2007).


  1. Persistence – the ability to keep on going whatever is thrown at you.

 Whatever a child is trying to do, encourage patience, explain things take time and persistence. Help them to understand the baby steps that need to be taken to get to a bigger target.

Sport is a great learning ground for both nurturing persistence and watching it in action. For example when Andrew Murray was playing Juan Martin del Potro in the Olympic final he refused to give up. Watch that game with a child (or on your own) and get them to notice what’s happening, how fed up Murray looked at times, how hard he had to work to win. When the going gets tough it’s all too easy to say I’ve had enough, but the rewards are much greater if we don’t.

N.B. Regardless of whether they are winning or losing, remember to always praise children for not giving up. The same is of course true for adults.


  1. Strong Social Network – having strong interpersonal relationships and being willing to ask for help.

A broad social network is critical for everyone. Research has time and again shown how this helps bolster emotional well-being and even physiological health (Ozbay et al, 2008).

 Having trusting relationships, adults and friends who will offer care and emotional support, is critical for children.

Encourage children to form relationships with different people. Support contact with people who really care about them (and do the same for yourself) and help them work through who is best to talk to about a particular problem. Foster the notion that ‘asking for help’ is a real strength (not a weakness).

But if nothing else simply offer a child love. Being responsive to a child can help to actually “reverse the physiological changes that are activated by stress” helping to protect the child’s brain, body and immune system. The same applies to a friend or relative who you know who is distressed.


  1. Emotional Awareness – an ability to understand and accept emotions, to manage rather than deny, suppress or give in to them. This may mean being sad, but not letting the sadness linger.

It’s not always easy to put what we are feeling into words, especially when we’re little, so we need to help children to learn how to express their thoughts and feelings. Comparing the emotion to something else can help e.g. ‘it feels like a brick on my head’ or ‘I feel like I’m a big balloon waiting to explode’. Or giving the emotions names e.g. ‘sad’ may take on the name of a cartoon character such as ‘Eeyore’ from Winnie the Pooh.

One of my favourite ways of explaining emotions to kids is creating a mindful glitter jar:

Letting children know that it’s OK to feel anxious, upset or angry at times is really important. Research shows that encouraging children to be gentle with themselves helps to nurture emotional resilience (Bright, 1997).

Encouraging children to notice what other people are feeling is also very helpful. It not only dramatically improves the ability to relate to others but also helps self-development, which improves emotional resilience (Giordano, 1997).


Is that it?

Like all these things it’s not that easy, nor is it black and white. This only scratches the surface of a very complex behavioural concept. If nothing else, remember: to take care of yourself and those you love, be gentle with your mind (even if you are aiming to achieve great things your journey there will be a lot easier if you are) and that the most emotionally resilient people of all will always ask for help.


Links and References:

Bright J. (1997) Turning the Tide. Demos Publishers, London.

Giordano B. (1997) Resilience: a survival tool for the nineties. Association of Perioperative Registered Nurses Journal 65, 1032– 1036.

Jackson, D., Firtko, A. and Edenborough, M. (2007) Personal resilience as a strategy for surviving and thriving in the face of workplace adversity: A literature review. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 60; 1-9

Ozbay F, Johnson D.C, Dimoulas E, Morgan C.A, Charney D, Southwick S. Social support and resilience to stress: From neurobiology to clinical practice. Psychiatry (Edgmont) 2007;4(5):35–40




‘Bounce-Back-Ability’ aka Emotional Resilience

Bounce 1

Part of my job is carrying out in-depth psychological profiling to ‘check out’ the fit of leaders for roles. One client requested that I include an assessment of Emotional Resilience for every leader I saw, and I was more than happy to oblige. I’ll explain why later, but for now….

What does Emotional Resilience mean?

The word resilience comes from the Latin ‘resilio’, which means to jump (or bounce). Adding emotional refers to our ability to bounce back from stressful life events. It’s our ‘bounce-back-ability’.

We can’t avoid stress, it’s there everyday, for everyone. While the spectrum ranges from minor hiccups, like being stuck in traffic to major events, such as loss of a loved one, we all experience it. Leaders arguably encounter higher levels of stress than ‘Your Average Joe’, but it’s critical for everyone’s emotional health to manage stress.

Are some people born with more Emotional Resilience than others?

‘Yes’ there are some people who are ‘naturally’ more resilient. We all know people who glide through life without a care in the world and those who are pulled down by every minor glitch. BUT there’s also a major environmental component. So we can learn to be more resilient, and it’s definitely worth doing.

 Does our environment support us?

Unfortunately not, the International Resilience Project, which sought to understand how ‘youth’ from around the world cope with adversities found that “Only about 38 per cent of the thousands of responses….indicate that resilience is being promoted.” Sadly we’re just not set up to understand let alone promote positive psychological constructs.

Taking a personal example, a good friend died a few weeks ago, followed by my Granny. With the best intentions I was told to ‘be strong’, ‘don’t be sad’, ‘keep your chin up’. These are the typical phrases we offer to help. But what these comments unintentionally infer (and therefore what runs as an undercurrent across society) is that we shouldn’t experience the feelings, we should suppress them or avoid them. What’s more if we can’t or don’t, we’re doing something wrong or we’re weak. But this isn’t what emotional resilience is. In fact it’s a very unhealthy way to approach things.

So what does Emotional Resilience look like?

As I opened on the theme of leadership, I’ll use Nelson Mandela to illustrate the factors involved, a man who encountered extreme adversity yet came out stronger the other side.

  • Positive Self Concept & Outlook – a belief that whatever is going on, you’re still in control of the situation rather than it being something that is ‘done to you’.

Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for 27 years, without a strong belief that things were going to ultimately turn out OK it is unlikely he would have emerged the man who then became President e.g. “I am highly optimistic, even behind prison walls I can see the heavy clouds and the blue sky over the horizon.”

  • Growth Mindset – a flexibility and openness, adjusting personal expectations depending on what is thrown your way and constantly being willing to learn and develop.

Throughout his life Mandela questioned, observed, reflected, learnt and adjusted his mindset. Rather than leave prison a bitter person, he emerged a wiser and more rounded individual e.g. “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

  • Persistence – the ability to keep on going whatever is thrown at you.

Mandela kept focused on his mission throughout his life. He had an utter belief in his vision of creating a better South Africa e.g. “Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.”

  • Strong Social Network – having strong interpersonal relationships and being willing to ask for help.

Mandela formed deep bonds with a range of people, even one of his prison guards from Robben Island, Christo Brand. Such was the depth of their friendship that Brand describes feeling like “He’d lost a father” when Mandela died.

  • Emotional Awareness – an ability to understand and accept emotions, to manage rather than deny, suppress or give in to them. This may mean being sad, but not letting the sadness linger.

Mandela faced negative emotions but he didn’t let them overcome him e.g. “The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”

A leader who has Emotional Resilience can perform even when the going gets tough, they can shoulder the responsibilities that they take on with the role. But we all need it, and in my next blog I’ll talk about how we can get more ‘bounce-back-ability’.

N.B. It’s important to understand that someone who is mentally ill won’t simply be able to ‘snap out of’ his or her condition by thinking differently. There may be a genetic or chemical component to their illness that needs to be addressed, alongside learning to approach their thoughts in an alternative way. This does not make them weak. e.g. successful people from every walk of life may be emotionally resilient yet still suffer from bouts of depression.


Links and References

Conversations with Myself, Nelson Mandela

Stein MB, Campbell-Sills L, Gelernter J (2009) Genetic Variation in 5HTTLPR is Associated with Emotional Resilience. American Journal of Medical Genetics, Oct 5; 150B(7): 900–906.