How to help your kids with back-to-school body image dilemmas

BY Zali Yager

Back to school 2023

The first day of school brings up a whole lot of feelings for our kids – some of them are excited to see their friends again, wear their new uniforms and school shoes, and fill those blank notebooks with a great title page. Others are filled with the anxieties of starting at a new school, changing schools, or turning up at school after their bodies have changed over the summer break. 


It can be hard to stop the words coming out of our mouths, but us grown-ups need to avoid the surprised “Wow, you’ve grown so tall!” or comparisons between siblings or peers (“You’re so much more tanned than your friends”). Voicing observations like these gives kids the subtle message that we are judging them on their appearance, and implies that what they look like is more important than who they are or what they’re doing. 


We can put in the effort to stop doing this ourselves, but what about managing how our kids feel about the things their teachers and peers might think or say?


1. Prepare them

If they’re aware of the ways their bodies have changed, have a chat about how they might respond to people’s comments. Depending on how old your kids are, it can help to write down and brainstorm responses first, and then practise saying them. Some of the options for responding are to change the subject (“Oh yes, how was your holiday?”), flip to function (“Yes, my body has changed, but look what it can do now!”) or shut it down (“Commenting on people’s bodies isn’t very helpful, Mr Jones”).


2. Find the right fit

It’s important that kids have clothes and a school uniform that fits them so they feel comfortable and confident. Now is a great time to test out last year’s gear and see how much kids might have grown over summer. Zoe Bisbing from @fullbloomproject recommends having an ‘It’s Not Working for My Body Anymore’ box or basket for kids to toss out anything that’s feeling too short, tight or not quite right.  


3. Figuring out ‘fitting in’

“But everyone else has XYZ” is usually a sign that our credit cards are about to take a hit, but should we resist the shoes/bag that everyone else has for other reasons? Probably not – tweens and early teens are primed to want to fit in. While you can encourage them to be individuals, it’s not such a bad idea to let them have the things they feel they need to fit in for social proof (as long as your wallet can handle the damage!). 


4. Discourage dieting

Now is also the time when some kids might initiate plans to change what they eat or how they move in an effort to show up differently for the new school year. If they are inspired to make changes, challenge them to add in fruits and vegetables rather than leave out food groups, and to find new ways of moving their body that feel good for them.


5. Cultivate compassion

We can’t always change what people say to us, but we can shift the impact that it has on us. There is so much research showing that self compassion is good for our mental and physical health and wellbeing, and you can practise this approach using meditation recordings and compassionate writing tasks. 


You can also help your kids practise using self compassion to manage their reaction to what people say to them. They can reflect on how the comments made them feel, and you can talk through the fact that they are definitely not alone – so many people experience these challenges. Encourage them to say kind things to themselves and use supportive touch – putting their hand on the heart, stroking their arms or massaging the back of their neck can help reduce stressful feelings. Doing kind, nourishing things for themselves like going for a walk, calling a friend or mindful colouring are also helpful.


The takeaways


The key messages to get across are that:


  • Our bodies are just right, exactly the way they are.

  • Our bodies are in charge of how and when we grow. 

  • We don’t need to try to change our bodies or the way we look.

  • Our bodies are here to be enjoyed and to get us around – what they look like isn’t as important as what they can do. 

  • FOR TEENS: Our bodies (and brains!) are evolving from their child to adult version. They are not ‘finished’ yet and will continue to change.


Like this? Taryn and Zali have a whole book for parents about body image! Add it to your back-to-school book list and purchase it here.

Meet The Author,
Zali Yager

Dr Zali Yager is the Executive Director of The Embrace Collective [TEC], a DGR-status health promotion charity on a mission to help people everywhere build better body image. In her research position as Associate Professor in the Institute for Health and Sport at Victoria University, Zali was also the Chief Investigator on the Goodform project for boys, a WADA-funded, randomised controlled trial of this 4-session school-based program.Connect with Zali via LinkedInInstagram and her website. Find out more about The Embrace Collective on Instagram. Sign up for the EK Support Squad to receive body image resources and support for young people.
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