By Jessie Laughlin, LSW – February 23, 2022 –
Body image and self-awareness begin at a young age, even before kindergarten. As children transition into teenagers, they become more aware of themselves and who they are becoming, which includes their body that is drastically changing due to normal development.
Body image can be influenced by family and peer relationships, cultural norms, societal pressures, and media. Youth with a positive body image are more successful, happier, and more comfortable with themselves. Those with negative body image are at risk for developing low self-esteem and mental health concerns including depression, anxiety, substance use, and eating disorders.
As caregivers, we have the opportunity and responsibility to help young people shape a healthy self-image. Here are some ways to do just that.
- Be a safe space. Create an environment that feels comfortable and allows freedom to express concerns and feelings. Listen, be honest, use empathy, and refrain from judgement.
- Lift them up. Compliment your child’s achievements, hard work, and resiliency. Praise their unique qualities and positive personality traits. Focus on attributes not related to their size, shape or weight, such as their eyes, their smile, or their hair.
- Limit media exposure. Comparison is an easy trap to fall into and can cause feelings of insufficiency and envy. Seeking “likes” becomes a reward system that can turn into an obsession and a measurement of someone’s value. Limit screen time, monitor social media, and talk about the unrealistic features of filters, photoshop, and aesthetic curation. Encourage them to follow people and causes that make them feel good about themselves. Keep in mind that even media that encourages health and athleticism can have negative messages.
- Focus on health. Health has different shapes and sizes. Prioritize a healthy sleep schedule, nutrition, and hydration. Explore and offer a variety of foods and cook together, encourage a balanced diet, and talk about nutrition in terms of how food fuels our body, not with labels of “good” and “bad” foods. Encourage healthy movement that makes them feel good and improves strength, rather than achieving a figure.
- Embrace diversity. Have conversations about diversity in bodies. Educate your child about normal changes that occur throughout life, especially during puberty. Have routine conversations about prejudice and stereotypes towards bodies and beauty norms. Never shame or compare other body types, including your own.
- Be a role model. Young people watch and mirror adults, including behaviors and choices surrounding health. Model and support a healthy lifestyle and be positive towards yourself and others so those around you adopt a similar focus. Check in on your own self-image. Avoid using nicknames and insults that are shameful. Use caution with diet culture and workout obsessions that are often masked as a “lifestyle.” This verbiage can be very harmful and influence a youth’s future relationship with food and movement.
If you feel your child is struggling with an unhealthy body image, consult with your family doctor, nutritionist, and mental health provider for professional guidance and a plan best suited for their personal needs.