How to Talk to Your Children About Body Image
Kids are more likely to follow what we do rather than what we say. So, no matter what we say about their strong, perfect bodies, they’ll reflect what they see us do and say about our own. To raise a confident kid who has a healthy relationship with their body, you have to walk the walk as a parent.
No kid is immune
It’s one of every parent’s worst nightmares to learn their child struggles with body image issues or, worse, an eating disorder. Unfortunately, children are not immune to the constant stream of messages in the media about body image. Sometimes even well-intentioned family, friends and strangers can leave a negative impact on your child’s self-perception.
Kids as young as preschool-age can begin to show signs of a poor body image. Anxiety, depression, overeating or undereating, risky behaviors and isolation may all be linked to body image issues. Focusing on nutritious foods and enjoyable physical activities (rather than counting calories and mandated exercise) can help your child grow to love healthy habits.
It may seem like you’re fighting a losing battle when encouraging your child to see themselves how you see them. We must remember parents are a powerful force in a child’s life. Paying attention to the way we talk about our bodies and the bodies of people around us can shape our kids’ views of themselves.
Supermodel Susan Holmes McKagan explains how she talks with her two daughters about body image, including teaching them the importance of being healthy rather than focusing on being thin. Watch the full interview here.
Choose your words
When was the last time your child overheard you talk about not being "swimsuit ready," having to "walk off dessert" or “treating yourself” to a comfort food? While these words may seem harmless in the moment, they can contribute to attitudes and beliefs your kid is developing around food and body types. Try to avoid making negative comments about how you (or others) look. Show that you appreciate and respect your body and teach your children to do the same.
Compliment your children on aspects of their personality or accomplishments unrelated to how they look. Bring attention to how clever they are, how good they are at music or sports or what kind of friend they are. If your child comments on how others look, redirect them to notice other traits. Explain that there’s more to a person than their appearance.
In our image-obsessed culture, it’s easy for children to get wrapped up in placing too much importance on how they look. It may be unrealistic to tell kids looks don’t matter at all (since looks often do matter to them and others), but you can set up your child’s life to include less superficial pursuits and a broader understanding of the world’s diversity.
Provide opportunities for your kid to volunteer, whether for the environment, to help others or for another cause they’re passionate about. Feeling that they make a difference in the world will give your son or daughter a sense that they have something important to contribute to society, while also broadening their minds and perspective.
Confident children are less likely to fall victim to bullies, feel pressured to have sex before they’re ready or feel the need to live up to unrealistic body ideals from society. You can’t shield your child from every hardship. But you can help them build the resilience necessary to stand up for themselves and weather life’s inevitable challenges.
Find forms of physical activity your child can excel in and enjoy. Not all kids are naturally inclined to play soccer, do gymnastics or run fast. Maybe your child loves to swim or dance, take hikes in nature or roller skate. Whatever activity they lean toward, whether it’s a competitive sport or an unconventional hobby, be there to support them in their moments of glory. By learning to find joy in movement, your child’s focus can shift from body image to body function and health.
If you learn your child is engaging in unhealthy dieting practices or getting bullied at school, don’t wait to intervene. Talk to a school counselor or administrator and your child’s pediatrician about your concerns. Consider arranging for your child to meet with a therapist or social worker to help them navigate tough situations and address feelings of body dissatisfaction.