For many children and young people, how they see themselves, and other people’s perception of them is incredibly important. Their view of self and body image, in particular, can contribute significantly to their self-esteem, emotional wellbeing and behaviour. A report by the Be Real Campaign found that 79% of 11-16-year-olds said that how they look is important to them, and over half said they worry about how they look.
As a parent, you may be wondering where to begin when talking to your child about their body image and helping them have a positive view of themselves. Before beginning a dialogue with your child, it’s important to understand body image a bit better and some of the factors that might be affecting your child today.
What are the most common body image issues?
Body image is multifaceted and there are a range of different worries your child may be experiencing. Here are some of the things they may feel particularly conscious of:
- Their weight, height or body shape
- Their skin and hair colour
- The maturity of their body
- A disability they have
- If they feel as though their body doesn’t match their gender
- Any birthmarks, scars or acne
- Particular facial features
- Their clothes or style of clothing
These worries don’t appear in a vacuum however and so it’s important to understand what external influences exist in your child’s life and how they might be impacting their body image.
What influences a child or young person's body image?
Young people are bombarded with messages everywhere they go and these can shape and influence their perception of self. When it comes to body image there are a few key influences that affect how a child sees themselves:
The first context children usually learn about body image is within their family. The family culture they grow up in and the examples they see before them are integral to shaping their perception of themselves. Here are some of the questions you could consider for your own family: What is the culture in your family when it comes to body image? How do you talk about your own bodies and appearance? How do you speak about other people’s appearances? What role does food and exercise play in your home? There are lots of ways we can help our children to develop positive body images and that can start with us.
2. The media
It is near impossible for young people to avoid the influence of the media and particularly social media. What they read, watch and listen to will impact them, even if they’re not always aware of it. They may see certain types of bodies, ethnicities and abilities heavily represented, while others are rarely seen. Or they may be fed false information through the use of filters, editing and airbrushing. Perhaps they can't resist comparing themselves to others as they flick through image after image of their peers. It can be difficult for older generations to know how to approach this, and it's important to be aware of how you can help your child as they engage with social media.
Alongside their family, a child’s peers are usually the people they spend the most time with and whose opinions they value most. It is no surprise that your child’s peers may have a big influence on how they feel about their body, whether that’s through comparison or feeling they need to fit in. A young person’s appearance can often be a target for bullying from their peers, particularly cyberbullying through social media. How body image is talked about and seen amongst their peers can have an impact on how young people view and feel about themselves.
How to talk to your child about body image
So, now we know what could be at the root of a young person's body image issues, what can we do to help them? Here's my top tips:
1. Ask questions
Asking open questions is the best way to start a conversation with your child. Don’t presume you know or understand what their experience is, find out by asking. It’s good to find out how they view themselves: is their body image a positive one? What influences them most when they think about their appearance? What ideals do they have for themselves?
Don’t interrogate them, and over time, by beginning to ask and explore, you’ll have a better understanding of their perception of self. It’s also good to ask how you can help them to feel good about themselves, or if there are other ways you can support them.
2. Acknowledge their feelings
As you begin a dialogue with your child, it’s important to acknowledge any feelings they express to you. In your efforts to help, try not to dismiss their feelings in the process. Let them know you've listened and heard how they’re feeling. It may not always be something you can relate to or a feeling you have had yourself, but by listening and acknowledging them you are showing your care and love for them.
3. Encourage the idea of health, not perfection
Help them to understand what a healthy, balanced diet looks like, giving them some choice in what they eat so they feel ownership and control. Try to move away from the idea that they need to clean their plate, instead help them to understand when they are full and satisfied. Encourage them to find an exercise that they enjoy, as well as finding things that look after their mental wellbeing too. If they are on social media, think through how you can educate them on what it is and how to use it healthily.
4. Celebrate character, as well as appearance
Often young people can become preoccupied with how they look and they pay little attention to their character. As you encourage them, try to focus on their character and celebrate the positive attributes they show. As you refrain from focussing just on their outward appearance, this lets them know you value all of them, and their worth is not just to be found in how they look.
5. Seek support
It's very normal for young people to struggle with their body image as they grow up, especially during puberty. If you are concerned that their feelings are persistent and starting to impact their daily life, do seek the help of others. It may be that they have extreme worries about their looks, or you have noticed a change in their eating pattern or physical exercise. Perhaps they are overly conscious of their body and want to cover themselves up. It could be that there are more general changes in their behaviour and mood which concern you. If you have any concerns about your child speak to your GP.
If your child would like someone to talk to, they may benefit from speaking to a counsellor. A professional will be able to help them recognise unhelpful thinking patterns, and they'll often open up more to someone who isn't in their life.