The first step is to be aware of your own feelings about your body and how you may express that around your children. Children are very aware of parents who criticize themselves for weight gain or are spending a lot of time dieting and focusing on weight control. Being conscious of how we talk about ourselves and the messages we are sending to our children through our own behavior can have a big impact on how their own feelings develop about their body. Having conversations that focus on how amazing our bodies are and celebrating what they can do is more beneficial than finding areas to criticize or be self conscious about.
Children of mothers who are overly concerned about their weight are at risk for adopting their unhealthy attitudes and behaviors. Encouraging a child to diet or children overhearing parents speaking about their own diet is linked to the development of both eating disorders and being overweight as a child. Instead, shifting the focus to enjoying a variety of healthy foods and eating the rainbow is a better way to teach healthy habits. Make mealtime a fun time and encourage your children to help you prepare meals and try new things. It is also important to avoid labeling foods or food groups as good or bad. We can teach children and teens to fuel their bodies in a balanced way, and allow them to enjoy treats as well. It is important to teach children what benefits certain foods provide to their bodies and connect that to balanced meal planning. Including regular body movement also encourages healthy connection to our bodies and what they can do. Making time to move as a family can promote lifelong healthy habits that do not have to be connected to weight or weight loss.
Another area of concern is the influences that kids and teens are exposed to through social media, television or movies, and advertising. A 2015 Common Sense Media Survey found that many teens who are active on social media fear how others view them, and girls are particularly vulnerable. 35% of girls are worried about people tagging them in unattractive photos, 27% feel stressed about how they look in posted photos, 22% felt bad about themselves if their photos were ignored. Social media use is a great concern for kids and teens for many reasons and research is developing to help guide parents in how to manage it appropriately. The Surgeon General recently released a health advisory addressing social media use as an urgent public health issue. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, social media use among young people is nearly universal, as up to 95% of youth aged 13 to 17 years reported using a social media platform. This report acknowledges some potential benefits for teens in developing and maintaining social relationships, but awareness has to be made of the dangers as well. The advisory warns, “According to statistics provided in the Surgeon General’s advisory, 46% of adolescents aged 13 to 17 years said social media makes them feel worse about their body image.” Monitoring young children on social media is very important to ensure that what they are viewing is developmentally appropriate and promoting a positive view of body image and as kids develop into teens, an open dialogue with teens about how they manage their own social media and exposure will be beneficial to teaching healthy habits.
It can be overwhelming to think about how to help kids with their body image development. There are so many influences outside of parents control and the culture we live in influences our children. Parents can invite their children to be activists with them in changing the public perception of the ideal appearance by talking positively about different body types and noticing more than a person’s appearance. Remembering to model healthy body image and celebrate different body types with children goes a long way toward fostering a healthy body image in kids. Even body neutrality can be beneficial to model when positivity is challenging. Parents can send the message to their children that they are special, unique, and loved just as they are every day and that will contribute to how they feel about themselves. That makes a big difference. If you notice your child or teen is overly focused on their body or appearance and is struggling with confidence in this area, it is important to get them professional help sooner rather than later. The prevention of eating disorders and body image issues is much easier to tackle than treatment for a full blown disorder.
If your teen daughter is struggling with body image concerns, we are starting a new group for teen girls called The Body Project that is starting January 10, 2024. The Body Project is a weekly, evidence based group led by myself, Jessica Custer, M.A., and Katelyn Goll, BS, to help teen girls address body dissatisfaction and the prevention of the development of an eating disorder. There will be 6 weekly, in person sessions, at 4pm on Wednesdays. One parent session and one individual session are required prior to the group starting. Contact us for more information, (941) 357-4090, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Body Image.” National Eating Disorders Association, 2022, https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/body-image-0.
“Fostering Body Positivity in Children.” National Eating Disorders Association, 11 Apr. 2017, https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/blog/fostering-body-positivity-in-young-children.
“The Body Project.” National Eating Disorders Association, 9 Mar. 2020, https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/get-involved/the-body-project.
Fitch, Joshua. Surgeon General Issues Advisory Regarding Effects Social Media Has on Youths’ Mental Health. 24 Mar. 2023, https://www.contemporarypediatrics.com/view/surgeon-general-issues-advisory-regarding-effects-social-media-has-on-youths-mental-health.
Parenting, Media, and Everything in Between | Common Sense Media. http://www.commonsensemedia.org/articles/social-media. Accessed 8 June 2023.