Self-doubt drove Jody Bennett to pursue romantic relationships in her early teens but with three girls of her own today, she is determined to prevent them from making the same mistakes she did.
"I wish now that I could go back to that unhappy 13-year-old and tell her what I know now," Jody says.
It all began when Jody's father, wanting to avoid anything inappropriate, withdrew physical affection and distanced himself from her as she entered adolescence.
"Desperate to know that I was attractive to the opposite sex and valuable as a person, this was very hard and led me to start dating at age 13," she shares.
When that first "true love" relationship did not work out, Jody became suicidal and tried to overdose.
"This was the beginning of several years of wrestling with my sense of belonging and self-worth," she says.
"I made myself throw up after meals because I felt fat and continued to be tempted by suicidal thoughts. I withdrew into morbid music and fantasy 'zoning out' for hours at a time."
Her mother could not understand why she was so "angry" all the time but from Jody's perspective she was just crying out for help.
Not knowing how to respond, her parents punished or ignored her "attention getting behaviour", leaving her feeling even more miserable and misunderstood.
"Through those years, at the back of my mind, I somehow knew the truth that the answer to my need for acceptance and love was to give all my brokenness and hurt to Jesus. It just took me some time to believe it," she says.
She recalls attending a church family camp at age six, where she knelt with her mother beside her bed and prayed for Jesus to become Lord of her life.
"Even at that young age I knew that every inclination of my heart was to do wrong and I needed Jesus' help, and wanted to go to heaven to be with Him when I died," she explains.
Later, at age 11, Jody was baptised as a public declaration of her faith in Jesus.
"In high school I learnt a Bible verse that became a lifeline to me and the basis for developing a new, healthy self-image grounded in what God says," she shares.
"It reads: You have looked deep into my heart, LORD, and you know all about me. You know when I am resting or when I am working, and from heaven you discover my thoughts. You notice everything I do and everywhere I go. Before I even speak a word, you know what I will say, and with your powerful arm you protect me from every side ... You are the one who put me together inside my mother's body, and I praise you because of the wonderful way you created me. Everything you do is marvellous! Of this I have no doubt. Nothing about me is hidden from you! ... Even before I was born, you had written in your book everything I would do." (See Psalm 139:1-6; 13-16.)
However, it was only at 27, and after several boyfriends, that Jody finally let go of the lie that only being part of a couple proved that she was loveable or valuable.
"That was when I fully embraced God as the only source of my identity and self-worth. I found true release from the need to make myself into what others wanted."
Shortly after that Jody met her husband, and she says she was able to enter into marriage "not needy or wanting my husband to fulfil me".
Now with three girls entering their teens she says she encourages them and others to see that the best foundation to build your identity on is written in God's Word, the Bible.
"Listen to and believe what God says about you and not what society is pressuring you to be," she exhorts.
"You have intrinsic worth, God made you the way you are for a reason, you don't have to try to be someone else and God's plans and timing are always the best."•