Nearly two-thirds of parents report that their child is insecure about some element of their appearance, according to the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health at the University of Michigan Health. To add to that, one in five parents say their teens dislike being in photos because they’re too self-conscious.
“Children begin forming opinions about their bodies and looks at a very young age,” says Dr. Susan Woolford, a pediatrician at the University of Michigan Health C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital.
While it might be easy to attribute a child’s negative views of their appearance to social media, it’s just as likely to stem from interactions with peers, strangers, or family members. But how can parents promote body positivity in their children? We offer some simple things you can do to help kids avoid becoming self-conscious and embrace who they are.
Do they seem pessimistic or preoccupied about themselves?
While retailers are moving toward body diversity and positivity in their advertising, Woolford says there are some red flags parents can look out for if their child is preoccupied with or has a negative outlook regarding their appearance. Behaviors can include constantly talking about how they look, suddenly trying fad diets, or excessively exercising.
“We looked at things like not wanting to be in photographs,” she says. “Some children may not want to be in certain social settings or attend events. If it appears to be taking a toll on their quality of life or self-esteem, it may lead parents to take action.”
Help children develop a critical eye toward media
It’s one thing to know what your child engages with online, but how are they processing this content? Woolford recommends helping your child develop a critical eye toward what they see in all media, including social media. For example, several years ago, Dove ran an advertising campaign showing the work and manipulation it takes to create a billboard ad. It can be a starting point for a more extended conversation. You can also start by asking your child: “Can these images be achieved in a healthy way?” “Has this been distorted in some way?” “Who is this for?”
“Parents can teach their children to be media literate and savvy so they understand that these portrayals of the perfect body, face, and look in advertisements, media, and even from their own friends doesn’t reflect reality,” Woolford says.
Social media isn’t the lone culprit
Concerned parents and social observers were worried about the effects of difficult-to-attain beauty standards long before the advent of Instagram, TikTok, and other social media platforms. Many parents who participated in the national poll reported that real-life interactions have a more significant impact than social media on their child’s self-view. Woolford recommends parents speak with any children, strangers, or other family members who reinforce a negative body image in their children.
Shift their motivation
Advertisements for diet and exercise programs and products tend to focus on how their services can make you look rather than how you’ll feel when you’re done. Woolford says parents shouldn’t emphasize on lowering the number on the scale but rather how better food and more exercise can help improve your health.
She also believes that the conversation about meals should be shaped similarly, as fruits, vegetables, and other foods provide all the vitamins and minerals we need for every organ to work well.
“The reasons for having a healthy weight are not because of how we look or the clothes we wear,” she explains. “It’s because we are likely to be working better. Vessels will likely stay nice, open, and clear so blood can flow through them. Our lungs are functioning well. Our hearts are functioning well. I think we have to reshape this conversation around food and activity so that it is completely about helping our bodies to work optimally.”
Negative feelings about appearance aren’t limited to gender
When Woolford began the poll, she thought the issues it tackled were mainly for girls. However, the data revealed something surprising.
“While the data suggests that a greater percentage of parents of girls noted that the child had a concern, the percentage for boys was quite substantial,” she says.
Children of both genders between the ages of 8 and 18 tend to be self-conscious about their weight, skin, hair, teeth, height, and some of their facial features, making males just as vulnerable to depression, eating disorders, and low self-esteem.
Remind children that this isn’t forever
A child’s body changes rapidly because of puberty, which means that the aspects of their appearance that children tend to focus on will eventually disappear. Woolford suggests that parents show children what they looked like growing up so they can see that issues with their skin and teeth are just a phase.
“Parents can acknowledge that we all feel slightly uncomfortable about something,” she says. “But it doesn’t define us and impact our self-esteem or self-worth.”