In our image-obsessed society, it’s more important than ever to ensure that children view their bodies in a healthy way. Body image, or the way that we feel about our bodies, is linked to our overall self-image—how we perceive ourselves, what kind of person we believe we are, and how we believe others perceive us. Poor body image is linked to a variety of other mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, body dysmorphia, and eating disorders. It is seriously concerning, then, that research has found children as young as three experience anxieties about their body image.
Research has also shown that by adolescence, parents have significantly less influence on our children—instead, teenagers are much more likely to pay attention to the opinions of friends, peers, and the media. As the mom of two school age children, conversations about body image have been a staple in our household since my children were young. Here are some tips on helping your kids develop a healthy body image:
Avoid Negative Self-Talk
If you are a parent, I don’t have to tell you that children pick up on everything. Children internalize the dialogue they hear from their parents, and that dialogue eventually becomes their inner voice. When mom calls herself “fat” every time she looks in the mirror, that sends the message to her children that this is an appropriate way to talk about ourselves.
Model Body Appreciation and Comfort
While avoiding negative self-talk is a great first step, the second piece of that is modeling how to appreciate your body and how you feel comfortable in your own body. Of course, many of us don’t actually feel comfortable in our bodies, but I feel that this is a “fake-it-till-you-make-it” situation.
If you’re going to talk about your body, talk about it with gratitude—talk about your strength, how hard your body works, and what it allows you to do. You can also focus on talking about qualities that aren’t appearance related in yourself, your child, and others. Talk to your child about the qualities that truly matter and how the way your body looks has little to do with who you are as a person.
Limit Media Exposure—And Talk About It When You Can’t
Limiting access to social media and the Internet in general, as well as previewing movies, TV shows, and video games before your child sees them can help to ensure that they are not exposed to a constant barrage of oversexualized or “perfect” (re: photoshopped) bodies that promote unrealistic beauty standards.
Completely shielding your child from the influence of the media is nearly impossible—think about the advertisements displayed in store windows at the mall, magazines on the shelf next to the register at the grocery store, and TV screens basically everywhere—but being aware of the media your child is consuming means that you can have open discussions about what they’ve seen and what they think about it.
Physical activity is good for both bodies and minds! Of course, some kids will naturally be more active or athletic than others, but requiring children to move their bodies for at least a few minutes each day is as important as enforcing teeth-brushing or cleaning their room. Getting active with your children is a great way to spend quality time, promote healthy habits, and improve mental health—riding bikes, going for a walk, swimming, playing a sport, doing yoga, or playing at the park are all inexpensive, accessible options.
Learn About Nutrition
Feeding your child a balanced diet—full of healthy fats, whole-grains, fruits, vegetables, and proteins—will help your child feel good physically and mentally, but being too restrictive about junk food or portion sizes can have the opposite effect. Let your child eat intuitively by helping them recognize when their body is telling them that they are hungry, thirsty, or full. Let them know that junk food can be yummy and fun, and there is nothing wrong with eating ice cream or cookies in moderation.