Worldwide, an overwhelming amount of the population, children and adults alike, report struggling with body image concerns. In Australia alone, some staggering statistics are:
- Body image is consistently rated amongst the top four concerns by young people aged 15 to 19 years.
- Approximately 23% of women overevaluate the weight and shape of their bodies.
- Approximately 15% of men overevaluate the weight and shape of their bodies.
Our bodies are ever-changing, especially for young people whose weight and shape are frequently changing due to growth spurts and puberty – hormones are at an all-time high. Despite how much our body does for us, body dissatisfaction is something that many people continue to experience. This can seriously affect how they go about their daily lives – the feelings they have, the clothes they wear, who they choose to speak to, and even what events they will attend.
To address the growing number of people who struggle with their body image, many mental health professionals provide strategies that parents can use to promote body acceptance and body respect in their children.
- Regularly reassuring your child that it is normal to experience negative or bad body image days.
- Modelling acceptance of your own body. The smallest things can have the biggest impact – such as complimenting yourself and not talking negatively about your body, weight, or shape.
- Enjoying all foods and not labelling them “good” or “bad”.
- Giving your child compliments that are not based on their physical appearance – such as “you always know how to make me laugh” or “you are a kind person”.
However, it can be difficult to open up or maintain honest conversations with your child about how they’re feeling. There are a range of positive body lessons that parents can teach their children, including:
- Each body is unique in its own way – no two bodies are meant to look and work the same way
- It is important to pay attention to what our bodies do for us – not just how they look. Encourage your child to engage in conversations about this. You can provide them with a few examples, such as – “Your legs help you walk to the park” or “Your eyes help you read your favourite books”.
- It is their right to call out people around them for shaming comments about the physical appearance of self or others.
- That you will stand up for your child in situations where they feel others in a position of authority, such as adults, make body shaming comments of others.
Help your child work towards body acceptance by establishing a series of habits within their daily routine that become healthy habits for life. These include:
Let your child know that you are there to listen
- Remind your child that you are a safe space for them, and that you are here to listen without judgement.
- Check in on how your child is feeling. Ask open-ended questions such as “What are you feeling right now?”, “How have things been with your friends?”, “How is school going? What do you like or not like about it?”, “What is on your mind right now?”
- Validate that it can be difficult to always feel good about the way you look because negative feelings can creep in comparing yourself to others and on social media etc. If your child voices that they are disappointed with the way they look, endorse the positives of taking care of their bodies from the inside out. Here, the smallest things make the small difference like practising breathing exercises, getting enough sleep, and enjoying snacks and meals.
Engaging in behaviours such as restricting food intake in any way or explicitly labelling certain foods as “good” or “bad” will likely be detrimental to their mental and physical wellbeing in the long-term.
Putting in place a series of healthy habits that you and your child can practice together, such as:
- Sharing meal times together; bonding over delicious and nutritious meals that you and your child both enjoy. Cooking together and involving your child/ren is a great way to show them how to nourish their bodies.
- Take small steps to celebrate your child for things that you notice, such as their kindness to others, being helpful at home etc, to normalise that they are more than their bodies
- Arrange activities together that include some type of movement, ie walking, throwing a frisbee, rock climbing, soccer etc.
The aim of this article is to highlight the powerful role that parents play in empowering their child to recognise that their body is something that needs to be looked after and cherished. There are many ways to communicate this message. The two most influential being:
- As a parent, modelling care for and acceptance of your own body
- Practising healthy habits together.
Remember to remind your child that every body, including their own body, will naturally change and that it is a special part of growing up.