It seems that it’s coming earlier and earlier – the self- consciousness about their bodies, the intense focus on appearance. It takes us by surprise, and we worry when we hear 9 and 10 year old girls talking dieting and weight loss. It is most definitely something to concern us, and to address. But should it really surprise us when we live in the epicenter of the beautiful- model thin women and well buffed men- with seismic pressure to adopt each new discovery diet and sweat the latest, most intense exercise regime?
First, let’s take a breath and note that as our children move towards adolescence, it is a natural part of their development to become more interested in how they look. The period of early adolescence includes a greater need for approval by their peer group and a feeling of belonging, while the body changes that come with puberty present them with new shapes, smells, and roller coaster mood swings. With all that’s going on with their own changes, they are particularly vulnerable to those unrealistic cultural messages that pressure us to be perfect and fuel dissatisfaction.
The good news is that there are some simple steps parents can take to help their children hold on to a healthy body image.
- Try to remember how it felt being their age. Recognize that this concern about their appearance is a part of their development, and as frustrating as it can be, be patient, knowing that this phase will pass, and provide statements that let them know you understand.
- Reassure them about their looks with compliments that are more about their unique qualities rather then their shape or size. For example, “Your smile lights up the room.” or, “That shirt really brings out your beautiful eyes.” And draw attention to their other physical assets, i.e., strength, speed, grace. Encourage physical activity for health benefits.
- Let them hear the things you love about them often. Compliment them on their actions, efforts, talents, accomplishments and personal values. For example, note their acts of generosity toward others, their creativity, or their courage in standing up for themselves or others.
- Role model the positive image and balance you want to encourage in your child. Avoid negative statements about food, weight, body size and shape. The comments they hear us make about our own bodies and those of others has a significant impact on their body image. Our concerns about our own weight, aging, need to be kept out of earshot of our children, most particularly at this vulnerable time.
- Limit television viewing and computer time. Watch television and view internet sites along with your child and discuss the media images you see. Help them develop a critical eye that diffuses the impact of negative messages.
- Keep communication lines open by listening.