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Fostering healthy body image in teens: A parenting expert’s perspective by Alyson Schafer

Every day, parents talk negatively about their bodies, unaware that their children might be listening. Children quickly learn that physical looks matter, and that thin is preferable. Some children may mistakenly reason that their whole worth is based on meeting societal standards for how they should look.

Now stop for a second and consider how ridiculously unreasonable those societal standards are.  The images on the covers of magazines are not typical, and often depict unrealistic or unhealthy body types. While adults may understand that these images are digitally altered, children and youth may not.

Girls as young as nine are now reporting that they are dieting to lose weight. And this isn’t a problem exclusive to girls – boys may also feel they need to conform to stereotypical male body types linked to masculinity.  According to Kids Help Phone’s Teens Talk report, almost half of all teens said they had concerns about their body image. So what can parents do to help?

  • Make a decision for yourself as a parent that you will speak less, or even not at all, about your own weight or looks. You’ll be surprised at how often others talk about appearance once you cut down.
  • Discuss the biology of growing bodies. Boys can find it difficult to gain muscle mass up until they’ve finished growing in height.  Their bodies often grow outwards first and then shoot up in spurts. In fact, during puberty the body can change as much as it did from birth to age 2.  No wonder it’s a lot for a young teen to handle.
  • Make dinner a social time for connecting with the family, not exclusively a discussion about weight, food or nutrition. Parents’ hyper involvement in what their kids eat can give food a twisted importance.  Eating (or not eating) can become an expression of power and control that can potentially lead to eating disorders.  If you worry about their weight or nutrition, speak to your family doctor about what to do.
  • Model a healthy active lifestyle. Be physically active and enjoy healthy foods. Let your children know you make these lifestyle choices because of the health benefits and how it makes you feel, not for beauty. Even if they don’t join you for a bike ride, the chances are they are paying attention and are more likely to adopt your lifestyle patterns in the long run.
  • Make small healthy changes instead of big drastic ones. Deciding to get an extra glass of water in over the course of the day, starting today, is a small doable step.
  • Educate your children about how image is portrayed in the media. Dove’s self-esteem campaign does a great job at educating on the importance of self-care and inner beauty.
  • Discuss critically how beauty is a cultural experience that changes over time. How did having braces become fashionable? What would other cultures think of our trends? In some countries having body fat is a sign of wealth. Try watching documentaries that approach these topics and discuss the themes together.
  • Celebrate the unique qualities and strengths of your children. Their value doesn’t come from their beauty, but from making positive contributions to the world. How could your teen’s abilities be put to good use to help others?  If they have a great singing voice, could they sing at a seniors’ center?  If they are nurturing, could they volunteer at an animal shelter?
  • Show your children unconditional love. The love that comes from accepting parents can give them a huge sense of self-worth, and a strong relationship with parents can help build the confidence they need to reach out to you if they need help.
  • Remember, despite your best efforts some children will never open up to their parents. That’s where Kids Help Phone can help.  It’s important our children have someone to talk to. Be sure to post Kids Help Phone’s number in your home.  Let them know the calls are anonymous and confidential and encourage them to call any time they need someone to talk to.

This year, I’m not making a New Year’s Resolution. I’m taking a No Year’s Resolution instead.  Care to join me?