Body image issues take on a variety of appearances. It may be an obsession, or complete avoidance, of mirrors. It may be a preoccupation with the thought of being viewed by others as ugly or feeling the need to spend great amounts of time getting ready for social situations, or avoidance of social situations altogether. For some, it may be an eating disorder. For others, it may be emotional eating.
This shame often starts in childhood.
Related: A Letter to My Mom About My Eating Disorder
The University of Melbourne and the Murdoch Children's Research Institute found that children are increasingly vulnerable to poor body image at the very onset of puberty, at around eight and nine years old. The study, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, calls for more strategies at school and home to protect against this.
Researchers found girls to be more susceptible to overall poor body image. However, boys with higher hormone levels also tend to struggle with their physical shape.
"Basically the higher the level of hormones, the more unhappy the children were with their body size," said lead study author Elizabeth Hughes, eating disorders researcher at the University of Melbourne. "However, children with heightened levels of hormones also tend to be taller and heavier than their peers, and this could be the cause of their poor body image. It may be that children who are taller, heavier, and more physically mature feel more conspicuous among their peers."
Researchers say the key to raising children with a good body image is to help instill a strong self-esteem rooted in other ways beyond just physical appearance. It's also important to know how to talk about body image because at some point, it will pop up in the conversation.
Here are eight tips on how to approach this in your home:
1. Focus on Health, Emotional and Physical
Make healthy living the priority, not weight. And when I refer to health, I'm talking about emotionally and physically. So focus on your relationship with your kid. So many insecurities about ourselves can be lessened or eliminated by knowing there's someone who loves us unconditionally.
Related: How to Build Resilience in your Sensitive, Emotional Child
And when focusing on physical health, make it child-friendly. Children shouldn't be counting and restricting calories. I let my children eat as much as they want, whenever they want to. The key is to offer healthy foods. I'm not remotely concerned about childhood obesity if all my children have to snack on are fresh fruits and vegetables.
Another key to physical health is physical activity.
Kids don't need to be running on a treadmill or attending formal workout programs to stay fit. They do, however, need a lot of play time. My kids spend almost all of their time outside, running around and riding their bikes. If your child needs a little encouragement in this area, consider going on daily walks around your neighborhood or setting up a volleyball net in your backyard for some one-on-one play.
Finally, make sleep a priority. A chronic lack of sleep raises stress hormones, which can impact fitness as well as mental and emotional health. Our children need sleep to recharge both their brains and bodies, including metabolism hormones that help maintain a healthy weight.
Related: Are Your Kids Getting Enough Sleep?
2. Address Your Own Body Image Issues
This is a big one for me. Our children learn by example, whether we're voicing our views or simply living them. I like to stay fit, and like many moms, certain features of my body changed after having several babies. So I work out daily to stay in shape.
However, I sense that there's a fine line between aiming for healthy physical fitness and appearing preoccupied with being thin. It's important to model to our children that what's important is that we feel healthy, not that we get as low as we can on the scale.
When I go for a run, I don't insist that my kids come with me. If they want to, that's fine. I usually suggest they ride their bikes because I go for several miles at a time.
Related: The Shape of Motherhood: Exploring Body Image
I stock the fridge and pantry with healthy foods, but I'm not so stringent as to cut out all junk food. Pizza is one of my favorite meals. Among my goals to teach them is that moderation is key.
3. Don't Comment on Your Child's Weight
Even if you feel your child is gaining too quickly, don't say anything to her. If you're concerned, talk with her doctor. But as soon as you start making comments about physical appearance being unattractive, or that appears to be putting too much emphasis on body image, your child's attention will shift there, too.
Some parents may feel that they're just trying to motivate their child to make better food choices, or to get physically active. But children need to know that they're unconditionally accepted by their parents, especially when it comes to how they look.
In the same way, don't tease your child about physical appearance or give him any labels such as "big boy" or "skinny mini." If you're looking for a nickname, stay away from anything related to physical appearance. Even be careful about how many times you comment positively about your child's body. There's nothing wrong with occasionally saying your child looks pretty or handsome, but if that's the only reason a parent gives praise or if the praise seems to center around that, a kid will absorb that as being most important.
Related: 11 Goals to Aim for When Raising Your Son
4. Confront Bullying Issues Right Away
If you suspect your child may be the target of bullying at school or elsewhere, it's always important to address that right away. Also be prepared to do some remedial work on improving your child's body image, because among the areas many bullies target is physical appearance. Being bullied for weight or a certain physical aspect can leave a lasting impression on how other peers supposedly view your child.
Trust me on this: As a child who was bullied for her physical appearance for years, the effects can last well into adulthood.
If the bullying is happening at school, talk to the administrator. If the bullying is happening elsewhere, move your child out of that situation. Also, consider making an appointment with a therapist to help your child work through any insecurities planted in his mind.
5. Choose Physical Activities that Build Self-esteem
Feeling capable and learning to work through struggles toward a goal is key to building self-confidence. If some of those skills are developed through physical activities, this can help protect body image.
But choose carefully. Just because you liked to play team sports as a kid, doesn't mean your child wants to. Some children, especially introverts, tend to choose more individual activities like dance or tennis. Know your child, and help your child find the best coach to help her gain skills and confidence in her selected sports.
Related: How Attachment Parenting Protects Against Bullying
6. Teach Media Literacy
Help your child learn that not all that media portrays is fact, and just how media images on women's and men's bodies can influence our thinking. Being an advertising major in college, I wasted no time in teaching my children about the power of media on their minds.
Invite critical discussion about pictures of models and celebrities that your child sees on television, online, and in print. Explain how photos are retouched to make them appear perfect, and share about how these pictures make them and you feel about body image. Explore ideas for media to have less influence on your thoughts, perhaps by watching less TV or unsubscribing to certain magazines.
By learning how to discern what is fact and fiction in media messages, our children (and ourselves) are able to rise above cultural norms, question the status quo, and make better-informed decisions regarding ourselves.
7. Talk About Clothes
Consider how your view on what your child wears, or what you would prefer they wear or not, may influence their body image. I don't think that girls, for example, necessarily need to never show skin. But what are you communicating when you allow certain outfits or make comments on their choice of clothing?
Part of allowing our children autonomy is allowing their personal style of fashion. But there are limits. I don't mind my middle schooler wearing spaghetti-strap tanks and short shorts at home, but this is against her school's dress code. And depending on the family outing, these clothing items may not be appropriate.
Yet, it's important to be careful in how to comment on a child's choice of clothing. She may feel her outfit looks attractive on her or reflects her creativity. It may help to specify where and when certain types of outfits can be worn. Is it okay if she wears it at home only, or when out with friends? What would be more appropriate to wear to school or church? How can these more appropriate outfits be altered to tastefully allow her own sense of style?
8. Listen with Empathy
At some point, your child may voice a concern about her body. Maybe she thinks her ears are too big, or her tummy isn't flat enough. Don't change the subject. Instead, empathize. Most of all, listen. Often just having someone to talk to, whether or not anything is resolved, is enough to help a child start to process her emotions.
Let your child lead the conversation. Share with your child your own insecurities with your body image, and then follow up with what healthy coping skill or thought pattern helps you. Emphasize that no one is perfect. Mention that learning to love the differences can sometimes be hard, but that you love your child just the way he is, perhaps for the very concern he brought up.
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