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Body Image: How to Prevent Issues in Kids

Body image is a growing concern for kids and their parents. Learn about body dissatisfaction, what causes body image issues in kids, and how you can help improve your child’s body satisfaction.

Parents tell me they want to protect their child from body image issues. I felt this way when my kids were growing up, too. Especially for my three girls.

Sadly, I’m finding kids are increasingly questioning whether their bodies are normal, stating they don’t like parts of their body, and as a result, navigating the murky waters of their self-worth.

When was the first time you remember being unhappy with your body?

What is Body Dissatisfaction?

Body dissatisfaction is defined as a negative self-perception of one’s own body shape, weight and size.

In the case of kids, body dissatisfaction is growing. A 2016 Journal of Pediatrics study of children aged 9 to 14 years looked at children’s self-perception and found that over half of girls and boys were unhappy with their body shape.

In the study, children were asked to select a picture representing the body silhouette they currently had, followed by the shape they wanted to be. Half of the girls wanted to be thinner, and the boys were divided: 21% of them wanted to be bigger and 36% wanted to be thinner.

Listen: Strong & Muscular: Boys Have Eating Disorders Too with Barbara Greenberg

What Causes Body Image Issues?

Comments made to or about children at a young age can shape a negative body image. Being intolerant of differences among body shapes and sizes, teaching biases (intentionally or not) against heavier individuals, and body bashing yourself or others can leave a strong impression on your child.

“I was 7 when I heard my mom talking to her friends about how much I weighed,” shared Leanne, a 34 year old mom from Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, Canada.  “I weighed 90 pounds, was big boned, and the tallest in my class.”

Leanne went on to struggle with an eating disorder at age 21. Although one comment in isolation was probably not the sole cause of her eating disorder, it likely played a role.

Social interactions with friends and family, or other influential adults like coaches or teachers may also plant seeds of body dissatisfaction. And let’s not forget normal developmental changes, including greater self-awareness and comparison to others, as a root of body image concerns.

“In the 6th grade, I had my ballet leotard on for a performance and I noticed I was not as slender as the others,” said Carissa, a 43-year-old occupational therapist from Virginia. “This started a life-long body image struggle for me. I still struggle, even though I eat well, exercise and am slender.”

Last, body image and the media is a topic of importance and concern. The influence of the media conveys an unspoken ideal relationship between thinness, fitness and health. Appearance is a common topic of conversation in the media and kids pick up on these messages.

How to Help a Child with Body Image Issues

Building body confidence in your child is an active undertaking.

In my article for US News & World Report entitled How to Teach Children to Love Their Bodies, I focused on some concrete things parents could do to protect their children from a poor self-image.

You could say I made you a “Do this” list.

Body Image: How to Prevent Issues in Kids and Teens

How to Prevent Poor Body Image (Or, What Not To Do)

Here, I’m taking a different angle. I’m creating a “Don’t Do This” list, so that you can avoid some of the common, innocent and unintended actions that may cause a poor body image, or at the least, interfere with the development of a positive one.

Don’t Ignore Your Own Needs

As parents, we make a lot of sacrifices. We give up time to exercise. We short-change our need for sleep. And we opt for quick-fix food options such as drive-through, processed items, or poor food choices that don’t sustain our energy.

Our children see us ignore ourselves. They see us not take care of ourselves. If we want our kids to respect and care for their bodies in kind, gentle ways, we must model the same for ourselves.

Don’t Judge or Bash Others

When it comes to helping children develop a positive body image, we have to model an appreciation for body diversity in all humans. If our kids hear us comment, judge or make disparaging remarks about the bodies of others, then they learn to be intolerant, unaccepting and biased against other human beings.

In our world today, we need to be teaching our children tolerance of all humans. We have to make a point to consciously teach our children that all bodies are good bodies, no matter their size, shape or weight.

Just like we teach children to appreciate diversity in culture, creed and color, we need to actively add body diversity to the conversation.

Don’t Undermine or Under-Emphasize Family Meals

Family meals are increasingly important to the healthy development of children. Not only do they provide a format for practicing autonomy and communication, they have a variety of health benefits.

Undermining the power of family meals happens when you comment on your child’s food choices, how much they are eating, and of course, their weight. These comments may stir up feelings of inadequacy and shake the foundation of a healthy self-esteem.

Additionally, don’t undervalue the power of positive family meals. They can help your child feel strongly connected to her family tribe, know she has a place to share her insecurities, and provide a welcome respite from the pressures of growing up.

Don’t Let Media Be the Go-To Resource

Today, kids are exposed to a lot of media. Screen time is out of control.

Videos, music, movies, news, social media, digital images, and more. All of these leave an impression on our children.

Some of that media sends a message that health is equal to thinness, beauty and fitness. You and I know that beauty comes from within, but kids may not understand this.

Social media and the messages they deliver are linked to the development of eating disorders.

Connect and converse with your child, face-to-face. Have a relationship with her so that she comes to you to set the record straight rather than heads to Dr. Google to find out how the body works, or whether dieting is the answer when she’s feeling badly about her body.

Don’t let media play a bigger role in your child’s life than you do.

Don't let media play a bigger role in your child's life than you do. #bodypositivity #positivebodyimage #family Click To Tweet

Don’t Buy Into Social Ideals of Health

The truth is, anyone can attain health regardless of their body weight, shape or size. I encourage you to tune out the din of celebrities telling you this or that diet will buy you or your child health.

Tune out the fanatical fitness routines and the ‘carbs are bad’ messages that only confuse kids and lead to restrictive eating.

All children need to learn balance, balance, balance. In all things: food, fitness, sleep, media, self-care, and more.

They also need to learn that health is not equivalent to the number on the scale. A low number does not equal health, and a high number does not equal disease.

Rather, the habits you help your child develop over time, including food balance, activity level, sleep habits, screen time, and self-care are the things that translate to a healthy body, or not.

So much of this comes from you.

The habits you help your child develop over time translate to a healthy body, or not. #health #bodyimage #healthyhabits Click To Tweet

Model, Teach & Guide

You have so much influence over how your child sees himself in this world. I invite you to take conscious, intentional action and be aware of the little day-to-day things you do.

Are they helping your child appreciate his body or are they calling his body confidence into question?

Need More Help?

If you want to learn more about helping your child develop a positive body image, I have a few of my favorite resources:

Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School, 2nd edition. This new edition adds in the latest evidence on body dissatisfaction in kids and teens.

Body Kindness by Rebecca Scritchfield

The Body Image Book for Girls (podcast)

Body Image Issues in Boys (podcast)

A Mighty Girl: 25 Body Image Positive Books

Health at Every Size by Linda Bacon

The Body Positive website and organization

the nourished child podcast #77

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