As children approach adolescence, many often go seemingly overnight from still chubby-cheeked young grade-schoolers running around on the playground to long-limbed pre-adolescents who are suddenly very concerned with how they look in the mirror.
While this newfound focus on physical appearance is a normal part of child development, worrying too much about looks and becoming unhappy with one's body is not. When a child repeatedly express dissatisfaction with his or her body, parents should pay attention.
Body Image and Kids
Everywhere we turn, we are constantly exposed to messages about what we are supposed to look like. From ads to TV shows and movies to the attitudes of other kids and adults and everything in between, in ways both subtle and overt, we are told that that happiness means looking a certain way (whether that means wearing fashionable clothes, having a certain hairstyle, and possessing a certain body and face). Think about how hard it is for adults to counter these messages, and then consider what it must be like for a child who is experiencing uncertainty and insecurity about physical growth and body changes to encounter these images on a daily basis.
One of the things parents can do to counter this skewed emphasis on physical appearance is to recognize how pervasive these messages are and to fight them by teaching kids to pay more attention to things that have nothing to do with what one looks like (such as sports, activities, accomplishments, friendships, and more).
Girls' Body Image Issues
Girls can face particularly difficult challenges as they try to develop confidence about their own bodies. In our society, girls and women are constantly confronted with unrealistic messages about what women are supposed to look like. These messages can come from everywhere -- magazines, TV, billboards, comic books, and even toys that depict the female body in biologically-impossible and ridiculous ways.
To counter some of these messages, be sure to talk about what your child sees and what it means. Discuss why advertisers may want women and girls to feel bad about their appearance (answer: so that they can sell more products). Expose her to plenty of strong women role models whose achievements have nothing to do with their physical appearance.
What Parents Can Do
Some other ways parents can fight the pervasive emphasis on unrealistic body images:
Remember the power of subtle messages. You may not realize it but children are not immune to the images we are all constantly exposed to of what "ideal" bodies are supposed to look like. Studies have shown that even children as young as 3 years old have already absorbed the message that thin is better.
Give her some perspective. Remind your child that it's normal to experience weight gain at this stage in their lives, especially for girls. Reassure your child that gaining weight is part of normal physical development, just as much as developing better muscle control and coordination are.
Consider carefully the example you are setting for your children. Do you frequently refer to yourself as "fat" or struggle to stay on a diet? If you have a negative image of your own body and an unhealthy relationship with food, your children will pick up on your cues and be more likely to follow your example.
Eat a healthy and nutritious diet. Teach your kids to appreciate and enjoy food and eat as many meals together as a family as you possibly can. Be sure your kids get plenty of healthy fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and lowfat dairy, meats, fish, and other lean protein. Teach your child that healthy eating means energy and feeling good (rather than looking skinny), and that eating too much junk food can have the opposite effect. By teaching your child healthy eating habits, you will help set a solid foundation of nutrition that will last a lifetime.
Make exercise fun. Taking the emphasis off appearance and putting fitness and fun center stage is a key component of healthy self esteem. Take your kids bike riding, roller blading, hiking, or any activity that lets you exercise together and spend time as a family. When choosing extracurricular activities for your kids, make sure you include some sports and physical activities into the mix.
Emphasize that different body sizes and shapes are normal. It would be very abnormal, not to mention uninteresting, if everyone looked the same. Teach your child to appreciate his or her body type and the different body types that they see around them.
Watch for Worrisome Signs. If you see warning signs that your child may be developing an unhealthy body image or problematic issues with food, contact your pediatrician right away.
- These signs include:
- Skipping meals
- Constantly talking and worrying about weight
- Binge eating (eating big quantities of food followed by guilt)
- Using negative words and comments (such as "fat" or "too short" or "ugly") to describe themselves
Learn the signs of an eating disorder. About's Guide to Pediatrics, Vincent Iannelli, MD, lists some of the common signs of eating disorders in children.