Teenage years are often when kids’ bodies feel most out of their control. While dealing with growth spurts or weight gain, kids see boys and girls their age on TV, YouTube and Instagram who look perfect. They see messages to love themselves alongside advice for getting thinner, curvier or more muscular.
It’s a highly emotional time, with teens figuring out who they are, and relying heavily on others for clues on how to look and act. That pressure can lead to body image issues that affect their mood, schoolwork, and relationships.
Here are a few things parents can do to ease the self-doubt and increase their teen’s self-confidence:
Take note of their attitude and behavior toward their appearance
A recent study found that even 3-year-olds may develop body image issues, worrying that they are too fat. When that self-assessment starts so young, it’s no wonder teens who fall outside their ideals may despair. Both boys and girls are vulnerable to disliking their appearance, and in extreme cases that distress can lead to eating disorders and depression.
Some warning signs that dissatisfaction is turning into obsession are when a teen:
- Spends a lot of time in front of a mirror, examining a specific part of their body that they don’t like
- Avoids mirrors altogether
- Regularly asks about getting surgery to fix a part of their body
- Wears baggy clothes not because of trends but to hide their body
- Avoids going out because they don’t want their appearance to be judged (For example: avoiding a pool party because they are worried about being too thin or fat)
- Begins obsessively exercising or dieting
If you see signs of depression or eating disorders, consult their doctor.
If you feel concerned that they’re dwelling on their body and may be in danger of developing serious issues, take a step back and try these suggestions for helping your child overcome body image issues.
1. Be a role model for body acceptance
If you fret about your own weight or physical flaws, your sons and daughters will pick up on that and apply it to themselves. Fortunately, the opposite is also true.
Fitness writer Dara Chadwick wrote about the ways her mother handed a legacy of body shame to her, and how she chose to end the cycle with her own daughter. In her book “You’d Be So Pretty If” she writes about looking at a picture of herself with her mom.
“We’re wearing the exact same outfit: black pants and long red sweaters that reached down past our hips. I knew she was thinking the same thing I was when I got dressed that day: black on the bottom to minimize, something long and shapeless on top so no one will know what’s underneath. That was the day it hit me — just how much power I have in shaping my daughter’s future relationship with her body.”
2. Avoid talking about healthy food or exercise as a means to achieving a physique
When your child looks at food as “good” or “bad” in terms of whether it makes you gain weight, they may see healthy behavior as chore, like homework. Instead of talking about dieting, talk about eating healthy foods. Talk about how great you feel after a good workout, not how many calories you burned at spin class.
3. Compliment people of all shapes and sizes
Adults have their own body perceptions to overcome, and casual remarks that praise appearances make an impression. Today’s body acceptance movement is trying to open eyes to the fact that the world is filled with all types of beauty. Be part of the change, and help your teen see beyond idealized standards of attractiveness.
4. Listen to their concerns and talk them through
Teenagers feel their doubts and pain deeply, so telling them that they are being ridiculous will not make them see the light or raise their self-esteem. When you hear your son or daughter disparage their own looks, restrain your impulse to contradict them. Instead, attempt to have a conversation about why they feel the way they do and see if you can offer a perspective that will help them cope.
No parent has the power to block out all the messages that their kids hear about ideal body type, or to shield them from the pressure to fit in with their friends. They can, however, give them the core confidence to get through periods of self-doubt and focus on the parts of themselves that they love.