A Parent’s Guide: What NOT to Do When Your Teen Struggles with Body Image

By Cassie Finegan, MFT Intern

Teen body image struggles can have a big impact on your child's self-esteem.

Teen Body Image Struggles: How Parents Can Support

Body image is how you think and feel about your body, as well as how you perceive your body to look. Often, teen body image may have nothing to do with a child’s actual appearance whether that be size, shape, or weight. Having a positive body image means accepting, appreciating, and respecting your body.

Children begin forming opinions about their bodies at an early age, with research suggesting that children as young as three years old can struggle with negative body image. While there are many different influences on a child’s developing body image and how they see themselves, parents can play a critical role in both mediating the effects of negative influences, as well as helping children develop positive body image and self-esteem.

The “ideal” body image is a culturally determined image of what the ‘perfect’ body type, figure, and size is that’s used to epitomize a specific achievement in beauty standards, yet is unattainable by the majority of the population. This “ideal” body image is promoted on all forms of media (TV, social media, music, the internet, magazines, etc.). While parents can do their best to shield these messages and images, it’s likely that children will still receive these messages through peers, other adults in their life, and other media outlets.

Parents have such an important role in influencing positive teen body image and can model normative and healthy thoughts and behaviors around food, exercise, and self-worth. Below are some behaviors and influences to be mindful of when raising a child that may be struggling with body image or may struggle in the future.

The Do’s and Don’ts

Don’t: Dieting

Research shows that parents who diet throughout their teen’s childhood can lead to their child developing disordered eating habits. More specifically, parents’ own drive for thinness has been linked to higher levels of body dissatisfaction in children. Dieting often consists of discussing calories, fat content, and food makeup to excess, which places hyperfocus on the negative aspects of food consumption. This can also include labeling certain foods as “good” or “bad”, and emphasizing a “clean diet.”

Instead, supporting the development of healthy eating habits which includes a balanced diet of proteins, fats, grains, fruits, and veggies is most beneficial to your growing child. Limiting a child’s intake of foods that are often labeled as “junk” foods can create a mental dichotomy between good and bad foods which can lead to disordered eating habits such as restriction. Instead of “good” or “bad,” focus on the nourishment and nutrition that all foods provide. Supporting food diversity and consumption of a wide array of foods in moderation supports the development of a ‘food freedom’ mentality.

Dieting and labeling foods as "good" or "bad" can contribute to teen body image issues.

Don’t: Rigid Exercise Routines

While physical exercise and movement have many benefits ranging from improving memory and brain function, sleep, and heart health, and can aid in reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression, using exercise as a means to alter one’s outward appearance or for weight management can send the wrong messages to children and teens. Discussing exercise and movement as a means of altering one’s physical appearance rather than for the other benefits that exercise can bring, can negatively shift the focus and drive for your child’s exercise patterns in the future.

Additionally, modeling excessively rigid exercise routines in which parents may consistently shift their schedule or plan important social events around their exercise routine may send mixed messages to their children/teens about their priorities in relation to the other responsibilities in their lives.

Instead, modeling cognitive flexibility in one’s physical movement patterns can teach children that movement can look different day-to-day. As daily schedules shift and change, modeling flexibility in what movement can look like teaches children that movement can be joyful and fun. If there isn’t time to attend yoga, a cycle class, or your designated time at the gym, but going on a walk or bike ride, or throwing a frisbee with your children is accessible instead, this is a great way to model the different forms that movement can take.

This flexibility can also model how movement can be joyful and fun rather than a compensatory action. When exercise is used as a means to control weight or alter one’s appearance, that can mean it’s being used as a form of self-punishment as a direct response to eating. For example when children and teens hear messages about exercise being used to “make up for” or “burn off” the sugary drink a parent consumed earlier that day, or being used to give themselves allowance to eat a larger dinner that night, children are receiving messages that exercise should be directly linked to caloric intake. When movement becomes intuitive, it brings back the joy that it can provide, and emphasizes the other motivators for movement rather than as calorically compensatory.

Don’t: Outward Self-Criticism

Children pick up on all the subtle comments we make about our own bodies and the self-criticism that accompanies those comments. Parents model the ways in which children will learn to talk about themselves and their own bodies. Therefore, making judgments about others’ bodies, or making comparative statements between ourselves and how others look or how we would desire to look, teaches children to internalize the messages about the “ideal body”. Making negative comments about thoughts and emotions regarding one’s own body, especially hyper-focusing on specific body parts can teach children and teens to adopt those same criticisms.

These comments can include expressing dislike or dissatisfaction when seeing photos of ourselves, or simply the responses of looking in the mirror when getting dressed in the morning or going shopping with your teen. Additionally, modeling behaviors such as continually checking your appearance in the mirror can overemphasize the importance of outward appearance.

While everyone will have their own relationship with their body and can harbor feelings of dissatisfaction with outward appearances that ebb and flow, being mindful of the messages that we send to our children and teens is important in how they develop (or don’t develop) their own relationship with their body.

Make sure your teen is exercising for the right reasons rather than as a way to alter physical appearance.

Don’t: Pressure Your Kid to Alter Their Own Appearance

In the same way we as parents need to be mindful of the messages and behaviors we model for children about desires to alter our own bodies, it’s also important to limit the comments made about our children’s appearance as well. While children will hear messages in school, through peers, and through media about the ideal body image, it’s important that we don’t exacerbate those messages by pressuring kids to lose weight, alter their body, or put unneeded pressure on their outward appearance. In the same way that it’s wise to allow children food freedom in order to explore food in their own ways in moderation, it’s also important to give children and teens that freedom in exploring how they express themselves in their outward appearance without criticism.

Don’t: Place Your Own or Your Child’s Value of Self-Worth on Physical Appearance

Overall, the most important thing you can do for your developing child is to displace the importance of their physical appearance as it connects to their self-worth. De-emphasizing the importance of physical appearance teaches children that their self-worth lies more in their inward confidence, abilities, and character. This encourages self-expression and exploration without the constant drive for perfectionism.

When one’s physical appearance isn’t linked to their self-worth, children and teens can develop their confidence and self-esteem without added judgment. This allows space for celebrating body diversity and encouraging acceptance of all body shapes, sizes, and weights.

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