Black and white photo of children suggesting an image of helping children overcome body image problems

How To Know If Your Child’s Body Image Problems Are Cause For Concern

How do you know if your child’s body image problems are cause for concern?

If you’re thinking, “Oh great! Now this to worry about?” I get it. Just what you need –yet another thing on the mile long list of concerns.

Please don’t panic!

At every phase of body image development, parents can do lots of things to support their children’s body image. And address signs of body image problems.

Whatever your child’s age, their relationship with their body is important. In fact, their body image is central to their sense of who they are. And lays the foundation for well being throughout their life.

What is body image?

Body image is how your child feels and thinks about their body.

Positive body image means they’re relatively happy with how their body looks and moves. A child’s positive body image is central to confidence and self esteem.

If a child has poor body image, they feel negatively about their body. They may not like how their body looks, or for some other reason feel unhappy about their body. Feeling badly about their body lowers confidence and self-esteem.

A child’s relationship with their body is one of the most important relationships they’ll ever have.

Children and Body Image

Everyone with a body has a body image. A relationship with their body. As with teens and adults, children can have body image problems too.

Babies and Toddlers

  • We are all born with a body. And that is where body image begins – as a newborn, with a body.
Dad holding a newborn in his arms, demonstrating the initial development of the infant's body image.
  • A year or so later, babies become toddlers and learn to crawl, stand, and walk. They take pride in doing things themselves.
A toddler proudly standing on a couch, demonstrating no body image problems;
  • Parents can help babies and toddlers feel good about their bodies. You may do this through smiles and praise. Or by cuddling and playing. And by tuning into and responding to your their needs.
  • Spend time 1:1 if possible, and have direct eye contact.
parents' hands around infant feet, obviously without the baby having body image problems.

Children

  • Body image grows as your child grows.
Dad holding twin girls, walking in a field, behind his son who is running ahead. None appear to have body image problems.
  • Poor body image occurs in children as young as 3-5 years of age.
  • For each child, positive body image moments look different. Like when your child smiles in the mirror after a dental cleaning, delighting in their ‘shiny whites’. Or when you two plant a garden together, as she enjoys the feel of the dirt on her hands.
Dad and daughter are planting a flower in a garden, working cooperatively and by so doing positively impacting her body image.
  • All of these moments are based in body image. And are an opportunity for you to support your child’s relationship with their body.
  • Children naturally want to feel good about their body and how it looks. They want to be able to do what other kids can do.
  • As your child gets older, he will likely compare himself to others. To do so is normal. But, comparisons can go south over time. and cause body image problems.

According to research on body image among children:

  • More than half of girls and one-third of boys as young as ages 6 to 8 say their ideal weight is to be thinner than they are.
  • By age 7, one in four kids has attempted some sort of dieting behavior.
  • As many as 41 percent of girls say they use social media to “make themselves look cooler.”
  • A whopping 87 percent of female characters on TV that are between the ages of 10 and 17 are below the average weight.
A group of 6 smiling girls, ranging in age from about 7-11, appearing not to have body image problems.

Body image problems are most likely during adolescence

  • Puberty is one of the most challenging times for body image – and for lots of other things. So much is in flux at this time in your child’s life. The way they feel about their body may be one of many changes, happening all at once.
  • Body image problems are common during this phase of development.
  • Your teenager may be excited about the way their body is changing. Or feel shy and modest. Or somewhere in between. All of it is normal.
  • Being in a body that is changing can be stressful. Hair grows where it had never been. Body shape changes. Weight gain is biologically natural and common.
  • Adjusting to a changing body is about more than just looks. Boys’ voices become more like men’s. Girls begin to menstruate.
A red headed boy who looks like he is about 14, smiling awkwardly.
A teenage girl in front of a blue car with her hands on her face, as if she is surprised.

Getting used to a body that looks and feels different takes time. It’s an adjustment.

There may be more body image problems than victories. And that is ok.

  • Kids who develop early may feel super awkward at first. Some feel proud.
  • Teens who develop late may be excited to finally fit in with their friends.
  • Or maybe their self esteem has already taken a hit.
  • Your role as a parent is to educate, support, and provide assurance.

Being in a teenager ‘s body can = body image problems: What’s normal?

  • Adolescence is a time your son or daughter is prone to worry about weight.
  • Kids become more aware of looks around the time bodies start to change.
  • This can make physical changes difficult to deal with.
  • Some kids grow wider before they grow taller.
  • Some become taller and then fill out.
  • Their relationship with their body can be challenged, especially if their growth sequence causes them to feel like they don’t fit in.
  • Preteens and teens may try out new looks and styles. Or dress to fit in or to stand out.
An image of a 'cool boy' with sunglasses.
An image of a girl African American girl with sunglasses.
  • Some kids focus on what they don’t like about their body.
  • Boys may wish they had more muscles. Girls may wish they were thinner or had a bigger butt.
  • Being self-critical about looks hurts everyone’s body image. This is especially true for teens.
  • In addition to speaking negatively to themselves, some kids are teased or shamed about their body.
  • Bullying in all forms, including cyberbullying, is harmful. Whether it happens on social media or in person.

Bullying can easily trigger to body image problems.

Especially when you consider that kids in larger or smaller bodies are at higher risk for being bullied.

THe back of a girl, who

What can parents do to help with body image problems?

It seems almost inevitable that at some point, Aunt Phyllis or other well-intentioned person will make a comment about your child’s body. Maybe the comment is in the form of a diet recommendation. Any such talk is likely inappropriate and may negatively affect kids’ body image.

Parents have limited control of outside forces, such as peers, media, social media, classmates, and teachers. But, parents do have some agency in their child’s relationship with their own body.

If you’re reading this article, you’re clearly a parent who wants to do their best to encourage their teens to feel comfortable in their body.

Remind yourself and your teen that health and happiness are not equated with weight loss or weight gain, nor with appearance in general.

You and your teen could focus on their talents, passions, strengths, and other valuable qualities, along with appearance.

Talk with and listen to your child. About everyday things. About their life. And even about bodies.

Show interest in your child’s interests, hobbies, opinions, and schoolwork.

Minimize the focus on appearance. Encourage your child’s passions. Help them find their special skill, talent, and/or joy.

A healthy body image comes from accepting one’s body, liking it, and taking care of it. Even when there are things kids can’t do, they can feel good about what they can do.

Talk about your own body in positive ways. Accept your own body, and take good care of it. Kids will pick up on this and do the same for themselves.

A child’s body image can improve, even if it’s been hurt.

The most important thing for you as a parent is to be a good body image role model.

Dr Elayne Daniels is in private practice in the Boston area. Areas of expertise include body image and eating disorders. She’s passionate about helping people improve their relationship with food and their body.

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