Help Teens Develop a Healthy Body Image

Adolescence is a time of extreme change.  At the same time that teens are experiencing mood swings and insecurities from hormones, their bodies are growing and changing drastically. Some girls may feel uncomfortable or embarrassed about their maturing bodies. Others may wish that they were developing faster. Girls may feel pressure to be thin, and boys may feel like they don’t look big or muscular enough. Teenage boys aren’t usually as verbal about their body image issues as girls are, but that doesn’t mean they don’t experience them. This is a stage in life where teens begin to care a lot about how others view them, and they may become self-conscious of every blemish or extra pound.

These changes from puberty, combined with a natural desire to feel accepted, mean it can be tempting for people to compare themselves with others. Teens may compare themselves with the people around them or with celebrities they see in magazines, television, and movies. It’s impossible to measure up to the idealized, computer-enhanced images they see, leaving many to think they are too fat, too thin, too short, too tall, too flawed.

The problem is that teens who have a negative body image may also suffer from poor self-esteem, depression, yo-yo dieting, eating disorders, and other risky teen behaviors. But take heart! As a parent, you have tremendous influence on whether your teen develops a positive self-image, no matter their size or shape. Here are some ways you can help your teen:

Be a Good Role Model

Your teen is closely observing your lifestyle, eating habits, and attitudes about issues like appearance and weight, even if it doesn’t seem like it. You must be careful about the example you are setting because the way you think about your own body image will have a tremendous impact on how your teen views their own body. Here are some tips to follow:

  • Do not talk negatively about your body. If your teen hears you complaining about the way you look, he or she will assume it is appropriate to dislike his or her body. When you are constantly stressing about your thinning hair or asking if your outfit makes your hips look too big, you are teaching your child to focus on their own flaws instead of their positive attributes. If you do need to lose or gain weight, be sure to talk about it in terms of your health, not on the way you look.
  • Develop healthy eating habits. Do not try to lose or gain weight dramatically or use fad diets. You – and your teenager – should work towards a healthy weight by eating a well-balanced, nutritious, healthy diet.
  • Model exercise. I know, I know, exercising is hard! But it truly is one of the best ways to ensure a healthy life. Take simple steps. Instead of flopping down on the couch to watch TV after dinner, invite your child to play Frisbee, walk around the mall, work in the garden, or go in-line skating. Not only will you both be getting exercise, you will also have a chance to talk!  Open communication is the best form of insurance against a whole host of risky teen behaviors.
  • Don’t make comparisons. One of the most painful experiences that a child can have is when a parent compares them to others.  Drawing comparisons will shut down communication between you and your child and hurt their feelings. Your child should never hear things like “if only you played softball like Bob…” or “your sister doesn’t eat dessert, no wonder she’s thin” or “When I was your age I walked everywhere for exercise.”  These statements not only increase your child’s insecurity, they also imply that your love is conditional on him or her looking or acting a certain way.  Also, avoid talking about how “good” someone else looks because they are thin.

Be Positive

Refrain from critical and judgmental words about your teen’s appearance. Your negative comments will only make your teen more discouraged and exacerbate the problem. More than likely, your teen is far more critical of himself or herself than you could ever be (so if he or she has a weight problem, you can be sure they already know and your comment has only confirmed (in their mind) that they aren’t good enough). Even comments about your teen’s clothes are hurtful since that is one way they express themselves. Instead, find ways to compliment your teen. Tell her what pretty hair she has, or how that shirt brings out his eyes.

Teach your Teen about Media

The media is pervasive in our culture and it does not portray healthy body images. Teach your children to view images in magazines, on screen, and on the web with skepticism. Tell your teen about airbrushing, photo manipulation, stylists, personal trainers, cosmetic surgery, and other tricks that make up the beauty industry and celebrity culture. Limit their viewing of television and teen magazines. Watch or read with them so you can talk about what your teen is seeing and feeling.

Emphasize Other Qualities over Appearance

Compliment your teen’s actions and emphasize that what they do is more important than how they look. Encourage your child to develop talents and skills that have nothing to do with appearance, such as music, sports, arts, and volunteer activities. Show an interest in his or her passions and pursuits. Acknowledge the good things you love about them, such as how they can make you laugh or their dedication to schoolwork or the way they look out for their younger siblings. Focus on health over appearance whenever possible.

Set the Family Up for Success

Take a good look at your family’s health habits.  What types of food are in your pantry?  It would be unfair to expect your child to eat healthy when your pantry is stocked full of chips and cookies. Does your family eat meals together? Studies have shown that family meals can reduce the risk of obesity in children, as well as a host of other behaviors, such as drug use. Where does your family go out to eat?  Avoid fast food. Take small steps to try to improve your family’s health, and that will go a long way to building your teen’s confidence. Besides, having other family members share in healthy behavior will make your teen feel less isolated than if you insisted only he or she implement these steps.

Although eating healthy is important, it’s equally important that you don’t become the food police.  If your teen feels that you are watching everything he or she eats, they will start to eat secretively, which can quickly become part of an eating disorder.  Do not criticize what your child eats or monitor their calorie intake.  Simply provide healthy foods at meals, limit the amount of junk food available at home and model good eating habits yourself.

Think Your Way to Success

Some people, and most teens, think they need to change how they look or act to feel good about themselves. Teach your teenager that, in actuality, all he or she needs to do is change the way they see their body and how they think about themselves. Suggest that your teen give himself three compliments every day to build up his self-esteem, or whenever she realizes she is saying negative comments about herself, to stop and replace that thought with a more positive thought.

Final thoughts…

Sometimes low self-esteem and body image problems are too much to handle alone. A few teens may become depressed, lose interest in activities or friends, develop an eating disorder, try to hurt themselves, or resort to alcohol or drug abuse. It is important to seek professional help if your teen seems to be having trouble with his or her body image or self-esteem or if you notice dramatic changes in your teen’s weight or eating habits.

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