In a world obsessed with physical appearance, it may be tempting to believe that we as parents have very little control over how our children feel about their bodies.

They (and let’s be honest…we do too…) have their faces in their phones constantly, sub-consciously absorbing our society’s messages about how a person is to look through social media.

Girls are to be thin, with some feminine curves, toned, but without too much muscle. Boys are to be muscular, lean, tall, strong, but not too bulky. While adolescence is a time when friends’ voices are heard more loudly than those of parents, our voices are still vital to our child’s overall self-concept and self-worth.

Here are five steps we can take to help encourage our children to see their bodies for what they are and to see their true value.

5 Steps Parents Can Take to Promote a Positive Body Image for Their Children

1. Start Talking Back

Take a minute to consider the explicit and implicit messages that you yourself receive in a given day from any form of media, directives ranging from latest home decorating trends, to how to make the most fiscally responsible investments.

Think about how difficult it is for us as adults, with fully developed frontal lobes to not believe that our lives are supposed to meet these “standards,” and that if we fail to do so, then we will be miserable. Refuting these messages on a day-by-day, hour-by-hour basis is difficult.

If this is a battle for us, how much harder is this task for our teens who are just beginning to figure out who they are—while possessing brains that are still developing? The truth is that kids often fail to recognize that these messages are not facts, and so we have to inform them of the truth.

Here is one bit of reality to share with our kids so they can start talking back to the lies: people only post the most flattering photos of themselves on social media. Social media is highly controlled; these images are not even close to the full picture of someone’s life.

2. Model with Our Words

What messages are we sending our kids, intentionally or otherwise, regarding our concept of physical beauty?

As a therapist, I have heard many loving and devoted mothers complain about their own bodies (arms, neck, nose) in front of their daughters who are battling eating disorders. While these moms may feel that their body dissatisfaction is a completely separate issue from their daughter’s body image struggles, this belief is far from the truth.

Remember, our opinions and our words matter to our kids. So what these daughters end up hearing is, “Well, mom must not think I’m very attractive since I have the same nose that she is complaining about,” or “My arms are bigger than mom’s…she must think I’m really fat!”

Adolescents translate our words through their own insecurity filters, frequently leading to negative self-talk. And body image is an easy target. Because children want their parents’ approval and acceptance, these unintentional body-related comments can become damaging.

Rather than talking about how big your thighs were as a teen, talk about how much fun you had on the soccer team, and how you are so thankful you had strong legs that allowed you to play hard. Model what it is like to appreciate your body’s capabilities, rather than how it looks.

Instead of commenting on the size of your nose, tell your daughter how thankful you are that she has some of your features so that people know you two belong to each other.

3. Model with Our Food

We also want to monitor our comments about the food we are putting into our own bodies. One question I encourage you to consider: what is your household’s culture around food and exercise? What are the attitudes and beliefs about what should be eaten and how much someone needs to work out?

Just as with comments about your own body, it matters what you say about your food choices in front of your kids.

When you say, “I can’t believe I just ate that whole cookie; now I need to hit the treadmill for an extra 30 minutes,” your child is listening, and rather than hearing your own anxieties, he or she is translating: “If I eat too many calories, then I better go burn them off, or my body will not be attractive.”

We want our kids to know there is no such thing as bad food, that all food is acceptable in moderation. Balanced eating is about eating when you are hungry, and giving your body the fuel it needs to operate without strict regulations that interfere with enjoying life.

Our children should be able to partake in birthday cake without the fear of their thighs expanding, or needing to go run five miles afterwards.

4. Emphasize Values

Teens are hungry to hear that they have worth, especially in the midst of a world that says worth is conditional.

Research indicates that low self-esteem is a contributor to body dissatisfaction (Murray, K., Rieger, E., & Byrne, D.). And positive self-esteem is highly connected to knowing our value and believing that we have something to offer as human beings.

Help your child see his or her strengths. Comment on your adolescent’s hard work, kindness, sense of humor, genuine heart, intentionality. Encourage him or her to believe you see beyond his or her body, and that what matters to you is the person who he or she is.

Kids need to know that their parents value them, weaknesses included, and that Mom and Dad do not wish them to be anything other than themselves.

5. Apologize when We Misstep

We will not get it right every time; we are guaranteed to unintentionally say the wrong thing at times. Simply acknowledge the misstep to your child and apologize.

When you have a solid, genuine relationship with your children, where they feel secure in your love for them and know they are valued just as they are, then these kinds of moments, where you misspeak or your child misunderstands your words, have a greater chance of bouncing off.

Murray, K., Rieger, E., & Byrne, D. (2013). A longitudinal investigation of the mediating role of self-esteem and body importance in the relationship between stress and body dissatisfaction in adolescent females and males. Body Image, 10(4), 544-551.

Click here for more content by Mara Teal, M.A.!

Mara Teal, M.A.
Mara Teal, MA, has been a practicing therapist for over three years. She has a passion for working with female clients struggling with eating disorders, body image, identity development, depression, anxiety, and relationship issues.


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