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 that 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 environments for your young people to grow into 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 you think back to your own life, and your own feelings about your body over 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 that 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 nine, children move into a developmental stage that makes them much more aware of the people around them, and how their abilities compare to that 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 three developmental events affect different tweens to different levels, 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 “ugh, there’s no way I’m getting in the pool today, I ‘m sooo bloated” or about others’ bodies “you look great, have you lost weight? Well done you!” send subconscious messages to adolescents about how men and women should behave, and 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 means that 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 the 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 that you love. And if you’re not feeling it, try faking it until you do!
- Shut down body shaming– Body talk can include 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 to kickstart 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 on this one.
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 that 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 in general- 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 with what happens in our home.
Modelling body confidence to our young people, and creating a body confident environment will help them to take on the overall messages that every body is accepted, their bodies are the least interesting parts of them, and that 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 with them into adulthood to change the way that they think about and treat their bodies, and 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.