Having a healthy body image is crucial for children as they grow and develop. Unfortunately, they’re bombarded with words and images—from the media, from their friends, even from their parents—that interfere with their ability to be confident about what they look like.
This is a bigger problem for girls, but it’s also a problem for boys—and a growing one. There is tremendous pressure on boys to be athletic and muscular and on girls to be thin and beautiful. In my practice I hear kids of all ages talking about hating their bodies. I hear 5-year-olds talking about being fat. And the problem is exacerbated in the summer, when everyone is wearing less clothing.
Sometimes kids’ concerns are specific—they don’t like their nose or they think their ears stick out. But most often the concerns are more general. Many girls feel they are not pretty enough or become hypercritical when comparing themselves to friends and celebrities. Some boys get upset if they don’t feel they’re tall enough. Or they see other kids playing basketball and feel they’re too weak and skinny to compete.
These feelings can be very damaging for kids. A poor body image is tied to low self-esteem and can lead to serious problems like depression and eating disorders. The good news is that there is so much parents can do, starting at a young age, to help children feel confident about their bodies. My advice:
CHOOSE YOUR WORDS CAREFULLY.
One thing I hear often from younger and older kids alike is that their mothers stand in front of the mirror and critique their own bodies, saying, “I look fat” or “I have to go on a diet.” Many moms (and dads too) say things like this absentmindedly, certainly without intending any harm. But when children hear these words, they start to internalize that they should be self-rejecting of their bodies, and as they get older they start to behave the same way. That’s the core of an eating disorder.
It’s important to model a healthy body image. Never say negative things about your looks. Instead, convey that your body is strong, that it carries you through life and allows you to do the things you want to do. To reinforce this, look at photos of your child performing in her dance recital or pitching in her softball game and point out how powerful her body is.
WATCH TV TOGETHER.
When kids see actors in the media, they see thin, attractive girls and boys dressed in expensive clothing—and this can make them feel inadequate about their own looks. If you watch with them, you can say, “That’s not real life. Those kids were prepared with hair and makeup for hours. If they were just going to school, they would look like you.”
DON’T TRY TO “FIX” YOUR CHILD’S WEIGHT.
Sometimes kids with body-confidence problems are overweight and their parents come to me for help. They think that if their kids can lose weight they’ll start to like themselves more—but really if they like themselves first they’ll be more motivated to be healthier. So what I say is that kids need to love who they are as a person before they can address their weight. If you love yourself, you can start to eat right and exercise as a way of showing that love.
IF YOUR KIDS SAY NEGATIVE THINGS, DON’T IGNORE THEM.
Instead, ask, “What makes you think that?” Explore where that feeling of not liking themselves came from and correct it: “Everyone has different bodies and just because yours isn’t the same as someone else’s doesn’t mean there’s something wrong.” Also explain that every body has imperfections, and that’s okay.
And do your best to take the emphasis off appearance. Instead of emphasizing how handsome your son is, point out what an honest, caring, hardworking person he is, what a good friend he is, or how much he helped you—qualities that, after all, are much more important than appearance.
Susan Bartell, Psy.D., a member of KIWI’s editorial advisory board, is a nationally recognized psychologist and award-winning author. She treats children and families in her private practice in Port Washington, New York.