Children learn how to operate in the world based largely upon the influence of their parents and the examples they set. American culture and media messages place emphasis on certain (often unhealthy) body ideals that children may internalize. By discussing these images and displaying a healthy attitude about their own bodies, parents can help break the dangerous thought patterns that influence youth.
THE SOBERING STATISTICS
The sobering reality is that even young children start to think about their bodies in a negative way. According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD), 42% of 1st-3rd grade girls want to be thinner. By age 10, 81% of children are afraid of being fat. Almost half (46%) of 9 to 11-year-old children are “sometimes” or “very often” on diets.
As children age, these numbers get worse.
Somewhere between 35-57% of adolescent girls engage in unhealthy habits such as self-induced vomiting, crash dieting, fasting, laxatives or diet pills and by college, 91% of women in a campus survey said they controlled their weight through dieting.
PUBERTY CHANGES THE BODY
As children enter puberty, their bodies will develop into a more adult shape. During this time, children may experience weight fluctuations, skin issues, hair growth, muscle development, change in stature and more. These changes may feel unsettling or awkward for children, causing them to be less comfortable in their body.
WHAT CAN PARENTS DO?
Lead by example. Do a quick check of your own thoughts and comments regarding your weight and appearance. Do you negatively refer to the few extra pounds you gained, your frizzy hair, the pesky zit that won’t go away? While these offhand comments may seem minor to you, in the eyes of a child, they can be interpreted as a body ideal and they may feel discouraged if they share the same traits. Focus on only positive comments about your appearance and encourage them to give themselves daily compliments too such as “My smile made others happy today!”
Talk openly to your children about media portrayals of beauty. Encourage them to observe the people they encounter in daily life and how the majority of people do not look like the magazine models or social media influencers. This is a great opportunity to teach them about what goes on behind the scenes and the team of people that helped make what they see. Hair stylists, makeup artists and wardrobe experts are a big part of what they see on TV.
Discuss the importance of loving yourself, your whole self, for who you are. Praise the uniqueness of each individual. Focus compliments on skills and behaviors rather than appearance. Help your child understand that their value as a person does not come from what size jeans they wear or their ability to grow the perfect eyebrows.
Celebrate what your body can do. Instead of drawing attention to things you don’t love, point out what you are grateful for, such as being able to climb stairs, walk the dog or go on a family bike ride. Celebrating and appreciating the physical body for the freedoms it allows is another strategy to shift mindset.
Keep the conversation going with your children and any concerns they have about their appearance. Encouraging love and acceptance of people of all body types helps children learn the importance of valuing their true self, not just what they see in the mirror.