It’s never been more challenging as a parent to encourage your child to have a healthy body image. As children today enter adolescence, they experience the normal changes of development while being surrounded by a society obsessed with unrealistic standards of the way they “should look.”
The good news is that the relationship parents have with their children is the most important factor in how children develop self-esteem. Read more here to learn what parents should know about body image and what you can do to help both boys and girls develop healthy body images.
What Parents Should Know about Body Image
Children begin to develop a body image, or to be aware of their physical attractiveness, as young as 8 years old. Many children already begin to experience body dissatisfaction, or the sense of not being pleased with certain parts of their bodies, at this age (Heron, 2013).
Both boys and girls experience social pressure regarding how their bodies should look. Girls experience higher rates of body dissatisfaction, which also increases with age. However, boys feel an equal amount of pressure to obtain their ideal body image but are less likely to talk about the way they feel about it.
Children receive messages about how they should look through media, as well as from family and friends. Most media images are altered to provide the illusion that female models are thinner than they actually are or have larger breasts than they actually do. Male models often appear to be more muscular, taller, and to have less body fat than they actually have.
Family and friends may contribute to these messages by making comments to a child, about themselves, or about the bodies in the media images they see.
At some point, most children will try to achieve these standards, and some children may resort to extreme means to achieve them. Boys may resort to excessive exercise routines and use supplements to attempt to bulk up. Girls may diet, skip meals, and work out excessively in an attempt to reach their ideal body type.
How Parents Can Help Their Children Build a Healthy Body Image
Validate their feelings. When your child complains about a certain body part or overall appearance, listen and acknowledge these concerns. Talk with your child about your own experiences and about your feelings regarding your own body image. It’s okay to let your child know that many people struggle with not loving all aspects of their bodies, for example, the way their nose looks, the texture of their hair, or their height. Acknowledge these feelings and let your child know that these concerns did not affect who you are as a person or your ability to succeed, make friends, and enjoy life. For both boys and girls, it’s often a little easier to have these conversations with a parent or trusted adult of the same gender.
Focus on abilities. Talk with your children about their abilities and achievements. Help them find activities they really enjoy and are good at. These may be a sport or another activity, such as hiking, art, or music. The more confident your children become in their abilities and achievements, the more likely they are to develop an overall healthy self-image.
Praise your child. It’s okay to tell your child he is handsome or she is beautiful, but it’s even better to tell your children they are creative thinkers, problem solvers, and people who you like to be around. It’s important for your children to know they add value to the world based on more than just their physical appearances.
Think about your influence. Try to avoid making comments about yourself, such as “I need to go on a diet” or “I am so fat,” in front of your child. Be aware of your own media consumption, such as reading materials with muscular men on the covers or watching movies and commenting on the actors’ physical appearances. Your children, boys and girls, are always listening. What you say and do will have an impact on how they think about physical attractiveness.
Talk about media messages. It’s nearly impossible to shield children from all media forever. Instead, talk to your children about what they see in television shows, movies, and magazines. Know the shows your children watch frequently and discuss any characters who seem to be fixated on physical appearance. Provide alternate role models or tell your child about the other interests the celebrities they admire may have.
Beware of making comments. Commenting on your children’s physical appearance only makes them focus more on body image. Even when you think you are complimenting them, talking about their physical looks may cause your children to think that how they look is more important than other aspects of their lives.
Participate in healthy living habits. Making healthy meals and exercising together are great ways to motivate your children to develop a healthy body image, and it’s a wonderful way to spend time together! Encourage your children to take care of themselves and to have good grooming habits. Self-care helps children boost their confidence and contributes to their overall health.
Get help if you have concerns. Being active, eating healthy, and taking care of themselves are important to your children’s overall health and body image. However, excessive exercising; excessive dieting; steroid use; and becoming so concerned with physical appearance that it affects your child’s home, school, or social life indicate that additional help may be needed. Talk with your child’s pediatrician whenever you have concerns.
You can protect your children from the negative impact of media and the world around them by encouraging them to have a healthy body image. Your relationship with your children is vital to their forming self-esteem, and your love and guidance will help them learn to accept and love themselves.
If you think your child is being bullied because of their physical appearance, check out our resources on bullying to learn more about what you can do: