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Promoting Positive Body Image In The Home With Tweens and Teens

BY Zali Yager

Many of us know that sinking feeling when your adolescent daughter makes that comment or says that thing and you realise… she’s starting to hate her body. She is starting to take on all the things that society and social media and her peers tell her about the way that girls and women ‘should’ look.

Or that moment when you notice your teenage son checking his body in the mirror again, and you know that he is insecure about the fact that he hasn’t developed and bulked out as much as his friends have.

My kids haven’t hit the teen stage yet. I have twin girls who are 7 and an older boy who is 9 – but I know this day is coming. I’ve spent more than 15 years studying the way that body image develops, and the ways that we can try to prevent body dissatisfaction and eating disorders in children and adolescents. I’d love to share some of the things we know from the research to create a more positive environment for your young people in relation to their bodies, weight and appearance.

It’s such a large and complex problem that it can seem so overwhelming to confront it, and to know what to say. But think back on your own experiences and your own feelings about your body during your teenage, young adult and now your adult years – you probably want something different for your kids. You don’t want them to be held back by what they think about the way they look. You want them to feel free to be themselves and look the way they want to, without needing to conform, bulk or shrink themselves down to meet other people’s expectations.

What is Body Image?

Body image is the term we use to refer to a person’s thoughts and feelings about the way they look, and the behaviours they engage in as a result. This isn‘t about their actual appearance – it’s about how they feel about the way they look.

A person’s body image is determined by many factors. There are biological, psychological and sociocultural influences that contribute to the development of body image. Biological influences include genetic factors such as Body Mass Index (BMI) and pubertal timing, as well as gender expression. Psychological influences include the extent to which individuals might have perfectionist tendencies, be more likely to compare themselves to others, and so on. The biological and psychological influences are not easily changed, but we as parents have a bit more input to the sociocultural influences of peers, media and the family.

Around the age of 9, children move into a developmental stage that makes them much more aware of the people around them, and how their abilities compare to those of their friends and peers. At this age, the dominant influence on body image shifts from being parents and family to friends and peers. And at this age, the need to belong and ‘fit in’ starts to become the primary focus. These developmental events affect different tweens to different degrees, but these three things combined mean that the age of 9-12 is a critical early stage for development of body image attitudes and behaviours. Body dissatisfaction and the onset of eating disorders tends to peak at the age of 14-16, with boys more likely to develop concerns at a later age.

What can I do?

Even though the influence of parents declines throughout the tween and teen years, the home environment is still critical. One of the most important influences on adolescents’ (particularly female adolescents) body image is the role modeling of body image attitudes and behaviours from the mother, and the comments about weight, shape and appearance from mothers, fathers and siblings.

The things that you say about yourself and others act as vicarious learning for your kids, who are trying to figure out how the world works, how to fit in and how to belong. Making comments about your own weight like “Ugh, there’s no way I’m getting in the pool today, I’m so bloated” or about others’ bodies like “You look great, have you lost weight? Well done you!” send subconscious messages to adolescents about how men and women should behave. These messages imply that appearance is one of the most important things that makes you a good or bad person, that makes you worthy of love and attention, and that affects whether you should or should not engage in certain activities.

The top three things that I recommend for parents of adolescents to do at home are to:

  • Talk the talk. Try not to say negative things about your own body or other people’s bodies. If you can, try to say positive things about the functionality of your body. Show your kids that you can accept your body, and not let it hold you back from doing the things you love. And if you’re not feeling it, try faking it until you do!
  • Shut down body shaming. Body talk can range from the seemingly benign “Does my butt look big in this?” to the obviously harmful teasing from a sibling about body weight, shape and appearance. Although it is very difficult to see and hear everything that happens in the family, try to have a guiding rule that aims to avoid the body as the target of conversation and teasing. You can talk about bodies and body image, but try to avoid the negative stuff.
  • Practice, and model, self-compassion. Self-compassion is a powerful tool in combating perfectionism, and there is evidence to show that self-compassion programs can improve depression, anxiety and body image. This can be as simple as becoming aware of when your critical voice is talking to you, or comparing you to someone else, and replacing that thought with something that a kind friend would say instead. There are also some great books and meditations to help you find your compassionate voice.

What do I do if I see some red flags?

As parents, you know your kids better than anyone, so trust your intuition. Some of the things to look out for among your young people and their friends include:

  • Openly criticising their body.
  • Spending a lot of time in front of the mirror, or checking their appearance.
  • Talking about their own appearance in comparison to others.
  • Withdrawing from the family, particularly around mealtimes.
  • Becoming more secretive about food.
  • Engaging in dieting, tracking calories and food consumption.
  • Wearing larger clothes to hide the body.
  • (For boys) Engaging in weight training.
  • (For boys) Taking muscle-building supplements.

If you start to notice your son or daughter’s body image and eating behaviours change and you are worried this could be something serious, there is support available. The Butterfly Foundation has a free helpline that acts as a first stop for more information and details about seeking help.

So to sum up, be kind to yourself as a person and as a parent, and encourage your young person or people to do the same. The more compassion and less judgement we have in the world, the better, and we can start this in our homes.

Modelling body confidence to our young people and creating a body confident environment will help them take on the overall messages that:

  • Every body is accepted
  • Their bodies are the least interesting parts of them
  • They can engage in health behaviours to look after their body because they appreciate what it can do, rather than what it looks like

These are the key messages that we want them to take into adulthood to change the way they think about and treat their bodies, and that will impact generations to come.

*I use these terms here as I think they will be more familiar to parents but they are not terms that I would normally use. I prefer to use ‘person in a larger body’ or specify the weight category in terms of the range of the BMI rather than using these labels.

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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