Kristyl Neho is a woman on a mission. 

The mother, performer, director, drama teacher and now turned founder of a self-empowerment programme for young people has the kind of energy most of us only dream about. A whirlwind of passion, positive energy and enthusiasm, Neho has set her sights on inspiring the next generation to work through challenges and follow their dreams. 

The biggest of those challenges? The relentless pressure to be someone other than themselves. “Our children are in crisis, with the increase of mental health, high suicide rates and more than 15,000 young people prescribed anti-depressants nationally. These statistics are increasing, so there is a huge need for preventative programmes,” says Neho. 

Through her previous roles teaching and working with young people, Neho recognised an urgent need for building their confidence and self-worth. So, 12 years ago she started developing a programme called Confident Me, which she launched in Hawke’s Bay in 2015. It aims to empower students by equipping them with tools and strategies for dealing with whatever life throws at them. 

Over time, the programme has evolved to meet the changing needs of our young people who face very different struggles from previous generations. Lives are busier, fractured families have become commonplace, behavioural needs have grown and unrealistic expectations of beauty constantly surround them. On top of this, today’s children are navigating the powerful online world, which invites strangers, pervasive social media, an invasion of privacy and cyberbullying into their lives. 

Neho tackles it all through her programme, as she fights to turn around what has been described by health experts as ‘‘the silent pandemic of psychological distress’’ among youth.

Growing need

Statistics from 2017 show 15,000 children aged between five and 18 are prescribed anti-depressants. That figure is estimated now to be more than 30,000. Post Covid, it is set to potentially double yet again as young people struggle to cope with the ongoing effects of the pandemic on their lives. 

For most of us these figures are confronting, but perhaps what’s most shocking is Neho isn’t surprised at all. “I wasn’t shocked in some ways … I don’t think we should be putting children on such a heavy drug.” There has to be a better way of helping children who need support, she says.

The National Mental Health Commission’s recent review of mental health programmes and services backs up her view. It identified a critical gap in early prevention resources, support and services for children from birth to 12 years old. Investing in this area will go a long way towards preventing mental health conditions later in life, says Neho. “We really want to be part of the solution.” Confident Me has predominantly worked with children within this age group and we continue to see a huge need, she says.

The children who come through Neho’s programme often suffer from social anxiety and behavioural problems. Many don’t talk at first, won’t look anyone in the eye, and struggle to concentrate or work as part of a group. During their time in the programme she’s watched children gain the confidence to lift their heads, look others in the eye, talk to adults and even step on stage to perform. For some these might seem like minor changes, but it’s these small steps that are the true measure of success, Neho says. For the children and their families, this progress is life changing.

Learning strategies for life

Confident Me is delivered to up to 600 children each year through a number of Hawke’s Bay schools and as part of collaborations with the Aumangea Project and Inspire in Education. Since it started, more than 5,000 students have benefitted from Confident Me, gaining increased resilience, confidence and self-assurance. 

So far, the programme has been or is currently being delivered to students at Peterhead School, Irongate School, Camberley School, Ebbett Park, Bridge Pa School, Mangateretere School, Kimiora School, Havelock North intermediate, Otane School, Pukehou School, Hastings Central School and Flaxmere Primary. Neho hopes she can continue to extend its reach so more children can benefit. 

Neho and co-facilitator Sarah Tawhai deliver the programme, focusing on three areas: tikanga Māori, performing arts and personal development. However, each programme is adapted to meet the specific needs of the group. 

The nine tikanga Māori values emphasised are: whanaungatanga (relationship, kinship and family connection, manaakitanga (extending aroha), kotahitanga (oneness), rangatiratanga (self governance), mohiotanga (sharing information), maramatanga (understanding), wairua (spiritual wellbeing), tikanga (putting into practice what is correct) and mauri (individual uniqueness). 

Performing arts offer a number of benefits, particularly for those who are shy or lack confidence. Instead of only gaining knowledge about the world around them, they gain knowledge about who they are, says Neho. 

This includes learning how to stand, use their bodies and voice, engaging with an audience, articulating their thoughts and sharing their own stories. “It is also important to remember that the arts build cultural bridges, bring greater understanding and communication in our diverse society.” Throughout the programme students create a short act which they perform for their peers, schools and parents. Many students also have the opportunity to take part in local festivals and events. 

Personal development techniques aim to improve students’ interactions with themselves and the world and can be easily implemented into their lives. Areas of learning include: mirror work (looking in a mirror and saying positive affirmations), reading body language, learning to filter thoughts, and intentional direction. These help students take responsibility for their thoughts, feelings and emotions and through this, to take ownership of their lives, says Neho. 

A new online programme called Confident Mini Me, will also be launched later this year so more children and families can access the tools. 

Covid and other challenges 

The pandemic has had a profound impact on young people, which extends far beyond physical health, says Neho. Children’s mental health, social development, safety, privacy, and economic security are just some of the ways they are continuing to suffer as a direct result of Covid. 

Like their children, parents have also struggled with the impact of the pandemic which has thrown up stressful living conditions, financial hardship and emotional suffering. “There’s a lot of anxiety and parents didn’t have the tools to navigate through that,” says Neho. When participating children returned to the Confident Me programme after lockdown, Neho could see the toll it had taken on their confidence and self-esteem. It took 6-7 sessions to get them back to where they were. The pandemic has highlighted the importance of their role, she says. “We see the need for programmes like Confident Me and that’s why I am excited to also be a part of other collaborations similar to this work.”

Covid isn’t the only significant challenge this generation is facing, says former principal of Hastings Girls’ High School for 19 years, Geraldine Travers. 

Now a Hastings District Councillor, Travers previously held various roles in education. Compared to previous generations, many young people now inhabit a “staggering number of worlds”, including home, school, church, sport, cultural, work and often the biggest — the cyber world, says Travers. Each world has its own set of rules and pressures, all of which young people are trying to navigate. It’s conflicted, difficult and exhausting.

School and home used to be normalised and regulating environments, but they no longer provide the protection to young people that they used to, says Travers. “That’s been eroded by what they’re seeing and reading in a darkened room, after they’re supposed to have gone to bed. It’s relentless, confusing and muddled, so it’s very hard for them to find a way through that.” During Covid, almost everything stopped for young people except the cyber world, thrusting them into unpredictable and risky territory. 

Role models for young people have also changed significantly. These used to be people who were worthy and had achieved something, says Travers. Many of the role models children look up to now, are famous for being famous or influential. Women are often famous for who they’ve married and how they look rather than what they’ve achieved, says Travers. Role models like Marie Curie and Jean Batten have been replaced with the Kardashians and Katie Price. This shift has had a detrimental effect on self-esteem. “Girls particularly are subjected to this because there’s a ‘desirable’ standard that we’re trying to achieve.” 

Seeing results

Confident Me fights these unrealistic standards and the expectation is children leave the programme feeling more confident, resilient and self-assured. Most importantly, Neho wants them to understand they are the boss of their own emotions and can choose how they think, feel and ultimately, act. This is the foundation for creating a positive future for themselves.

Watching children’s progress throughout the programme, supported by parent and teacher feedback, show Neho is achieving what she has set out to do. The programme is having a direct impact on enhancing children’s interpersonal, problem solving and cognitive competences, relations with adults and peers, school achievement, and reducing problem behaviour. 

Testimonials from teachers say they have noticed more positive interactions with other children, are more settled in class and willing to take part in activities like standing up in front of others. Parents say their children have come out of their shell, are excited to go to school and there’s been a change in academic performance. “Her confidence has grown so much since being in Confident Me,” says one parent. “You wouldn’t think she was the little shy girl who wouldn’t even say ‘yes’ when her name got called in the roll when she first started.”

How can parents help?

Our children are a reflection of how we’ve raised them and this has the most significant impact from birth until the age of seven, says Neho. After this age, it can take some behavioural reprogramming to shift negative habits. 

The overriding message from Neho, however, is society needs to change how it treats young people. “Parents need to be more hands on and they need to be fully engaged.” Putting down your phone and having positive, consistent interaction with your children should be a priority, says Neho. This will have a huge impact on their emotional and social wellbeing. 

It’s a sentiment shared by Travers. “Be there, listen, make them feel important and that they’re worth listening to,” she says. Face-to-face contact and giving them the message that you’re interested in what they have to say will speak volumes to your children, she says. Children face relentless pressures. The family unit and the way we interact with our children will have the greatest impact of their sense of self belief and confidence, says Travers. If we can make these changes, everyone will benefit.

Case study

Katrina Biscoe can’t believe the difference in her daughter Emma, since she started the Confident Me programme three years ago, aged 10.

Back then, Emma suffered from social anxiety and lacked confidence. She didn’t like going out, talking to people or even looking anyone in the eye. 

“This was a kid who walked into a room, dropped her head and would barely lift her head to say hello,” says Briscoe. Emma’s quiet, shy, withdrawn and unsociable nature was a cause of concern for her mum, who worried about how it would affect her in the long term and didn’t know how to help. 

Yet it was Emma who was the driving force for change. After learning about the programme being held at school, Emma accompanied a friend one day and hasn’t looked back since. 

Her mum still can’t quite believe the “drastic change” she’s seen since then. Now 13, Emma faces the world in a completely different way, says Briscoe. “The Confident Me programme has brought Emma out of her shell and made her realise she can be her own person. She’s a different kid now.”

Emma now ranks taking part in productions as one of her favourite things to do — something the chronically shy teen would previously never have even considered trying. “I like performing now. I never used to be able to get on stage,” she tells me.

“To see my daughter stand in front of a crowd and talk into a microphone as clear as day. It’s a magical feeling,” says Briscoe.

The programme has been a significant turning point for Emma, by giving her the tools she needs for coping with life, whatever happens. Briscoe only wishes it was available to all children. “If more kids had access to this programme I think we’d be raising a whole different generation.” 

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