Helping Your Children Develop a Healthy Body Image

My eldest daughter, Jane, is almost 12, and my second child, Libby, is almost 10.  The “tween” stage can be a difficult time of life for all kids, but especially girls.  I worry about the world they are entering–a place where beauty and unhealthy thinness are often emphasized over intellect and character.  As parents, it’s critical for my wife Jennifer and I to lay the groundwork from an early age to give my daughters, and my son, a healthy body image and self-esteem.

As early as the pre-teen years, girls begin to struggle with body image. They are bombarded with unrealistic images and messages in magazines, billboards, television, music videos and movies. Here is a great ad by Dove® – part of itsCampaign for Real Beauty – which dramatically shows how girls are facing an unfair, and unwinnable, battle if they try to live up to the “creation” of unnaturally (literally) thin and beautiful models by the fashion industry.

Creating a Healthy Body Image

What can a parent do to help foster a healthy body image for children? It starts with how we act and what we say in front of our children. The mother who obsesses about her own weight and talks about being too fat, is teaching her daughters to obsess about their body image. Children are impressionable and incredibly observant; at the earliest age they begin to pick up these cues from us.

We can help our kids create a healthy body image.

1.      Be a good role model. Eat right, exercise and promote a healthy lifestyle for the whole family. Children watch and imitate their parents–we can help them develop good life habits.

2.      Be positive. Compliment children, pre-teens and teens on their hard work and achievements–not their looks. Don’t nag or criticize a child with weight issues. Focus on the positive aspects of behavior and activities, rather than things related to attractiveness.  If your child is overweight don’t put them on a diet or talk constantly about their weight.

3.      Talk about the culture of thinness. If your children watch television, watch with them. Talk about how models are portrayed, reminding your teens that these women are too skinny (and unhealthy). Talk about photo-shopping and how pictures in magazines are altered to make people look perfect. Help your children understand that what they see isn’t real.

4.      Encourage a healthy lifestyle. Exercise with your kids, do family activities and other things together. Prepare and eat meals together, emphasizing a variety of good-for-you foods.  (Adapted from WebMD, Help Teens Develop a Healthy Body Image)

As girls reach the pre-teen years they’re facing so many changes, physically and emotionally. As their bodies begin to develop so does their concept of who they are. This is the point at which young girls begin to worry about how they look. How can they avoid it?

Dr. Wendy Oliver-Pyatt, a specialist in eating disorders, describes this period of change:

As children’s bodies undergo these changes, they also develop a new image of their own sexuality and attractiveness. In addition, as they add weight and round out, their casual relationship with food and eating becomes more complex.

Children who navigate these changes successfully can mature into confident, healthy individuals who value their own bodies and are in control of their eating. Those who fall prey to societal pressures or destructive dieting during their teen years, however, are targets for eating disorders or lifelong obesity. That’s why parents need play an active role in understanding their children’s changing bodies and feelings during puberty and adolescence, and promoting a positive body image and a healthy relationship with food and eating. ”  EatingDisorderHope.com

If you suspect your pre-teen or teen has an eating disorder call your family doctor or pediatrician.

Resources on healthy body image and eating disorders in teens and preteens:

Fostering Healthy Body Image and Weight in Your Pre-Teen or Teen  (http://www.eatingdisorderhope.com/information/body-image/teen-adolescent-issues)

 Eating Disorders, What Families Need to Know (http://www.med.umich.edu/yourchild/topics/eatdis.htm)

Center for Young Women  (http://www.youngwomenshealth.org/self_esteem.html )

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