Body image refers to the way teens feel about their bodies, not how they actually look. Having a healthy body image refers to being satisfied with one’s appearance. When a teen is unhappy with their appearance, they may become preoccupied with their body image.
Teenagers receive messages about body image from many sources, including celebrities and social media, but the most influential source is parents. The family’s influence on a teen’s physical ideals, habits, and thoughts about appearance can be positive or negative. So, parents often ask, How do I talk to my child about body image?
Understanding Body Image
While the family influence is paramount, there are many other reasons why teens can become obsessed with their body image. Peer influence, cultural attitudes, and their own changing bodies can catalyze obsessive thinking about body image. As a result, teens can develop a negative self-image and even come to believe that they are disfigured, disabled, obese, or physically unattractive in other ways.
Poor body image can result in low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and unhealthy dieting. Therefore, parents need to learn the signs of an unhealthy body image, so they can seek professional help for their child should they begin developing related mental health challenges.
Signs of Unhealthy Body Image
Parents can look for some of the indicators that a child is suffering from an unhealthy body image. These signs include:
- Being self-critical
- Spending excessive time in front of a mirror or analyzing selfies
- Making comparisons with others’ appearances
- Being obsessed with weight, body size, muscle mass, or other features
- Not wanting to leave the house due to appearance
- Changes in eating habits.
Where Unhealthy Body Image Comes From: Parent Influence
Whether parents realize it or not, what they say and do in regard to their own and others’ physical appearance has a significant impact on how children view themselves. Adolescents who hear parents making self-critical remarks about their own bodies or criticizing other people’s bodies are more likely to become critical of their own appearance.
Without recognizing the power of words, families will sometimes discuss their child’s weight or body shape with or in front of them. While this kind of talk may be well-intentioned, it can be harmful. Research shows that children whose parents talk about their weight with them are more likely to indulge in binge eating, overeating, and secretive eating, and to become obese.
Social Media and Body Image
One of the most potent outside influences on teens today is social media, with its images of unblemished, well-groomed, muscular, “perfect” people—both celebrities and peers. While some social media platforms are taking measures to reduce the influence factors, parents are often called on to intervene.
In discussing social media images with teens, parents can explain that the “perfect” people they’re looking at are typically curated and edited images. In addition, parents can explain that getting likes and followers on social media doesn’t measure up to real, in-person friendships.
Listening and Love Support Positive Self-Image
When discussing body image with a teen, parents can express positive encouragement for a teen’s internal qualities, and show love and appreciation for them as a whole person, not just how they look. The loving feedback that parents give can help a teenager feel secure and more confident.
Listening is also essential. What parents think about their teen’s appearance and what the child thinks are often two very different things. Rather than denying what their child is feeling, parents can take the time to listen to how they feel before offering another opinion. This approach can help parents to be more successful in influencing their child’s self-image positively.
How to Nurture a Positive Teen Body Image
Sometimes, it is not so much what parents say as what they do regarding healthy body image that makes the most significant impact on adolescents. When parents are nonjudgmental of self and others, teens are more likely to internalize positive thinking when it comes to physical appearance.
Parents can serve as positive role models by treating others with respect. This includes avoiding negative comments about others in real life or in the media. Likewise, bullying or teasing about appearances should never be tolerated by anyone in the home.
Creating a healthy lifestyle that includes nutritious eating and physical activity also supports positive body image, rather than being obsessed with weight. Moreover, talking with teens in a warm, open, and loving manner about body image is essential. As with every aspect of an adolescent’s process of maturing, parent support is a powerful factor in helping teens grow into happy, healthy adults.
Int J Eat Disord. 2018 Jun; 51(6): 527–534.