The media seems to be obsessed with appearances, promoting the concept of the perfect body or the latest look, and bombarding us with these images on a daily basis. This can be worrying for parents who know their children are naturally concerned about their appearance and looking for a standard to measure themselves against. There’s also the added concern related to eating disorders and the impact they can have on physical and mental health. How can you, as a parent, encourage your child to look up to positive role models and develop a healthy self-image? Here are seven ways to help you do just that.
Words can have a far greater impact than we realize. Treating name-calling seriously and being aware of casual negative references, particularly jokes, will help create an environment where self-worth is not influenced by appearance. Talking to your child about unrealistic media portrayals, such as the widespread use of airbrushing techniques, will help them understand how often media photos are rooted in fantasy. Make sure you’re not adding to the problem when you talk about others; focusing purely on looks and ignoring other attributes gives unnecessary weight to the importance of appearance. Encouraging your child to talk to you openly will give you the opportunity to help them maintain a healthy perspective about what they see in the media.
Encourage your child to have a healthy diet and focus more on the effect different foods have on how well the body functions, rather than their role in weight gain or loss. Regular eating times, exercise and talking to children about good and bad habits will help them understand how food should be fuel for the body as much as something to be enjoyed. Following good habits yourself will encourage your child to eat healthily.
Compliments are a useful tool to help someone feel valued, but there is so much more to your child than the way they look. Praising effort, talent and achievement can have a longer-lasting effect and give them a stronger base for building their self-worth.
Comparing your child to another, using terms like “thinner”, “fatter”, “taller” or “shorter”, can leave them feeling that physical appearance is the most important measure, making it harder for them to accept themselves as they are. This can be particularly damaging if you’re comparing an attribute, for example height, that they have no control over.
Identify their Issues
Children may feel self-conscious for different reasons; they could be taller, shorter, less well developed than their classmates or have an unusual hair color. This is a good opportunity to help them see their differences in a more positive light. For example, longer legs can make them a good runner. Recognizing that appearance is important to them and peer pressure may have far more influence than anything you can say will help you judge how to talk to your child. Focusing their attention on a famous role model may help them develop more perspective; a favorite pop or sports star may have had the same issues when they were young. It’s also important to understand the difference between your child suffering from a negative body image, and using appearance to express themselves; many children use hair-styles or different fashions to show either their individuality or membership of a particular group.
It’s never too early to start encouraging your child to have a positive body image, especially when it comes to healthy eating, exercise and positive role models. Even pre-school children will look to adults for approval and feedback, and commenting on something other than appearance gives them a deeper understanding that there is more to them than the way they look.
If your child develops weight problems, approaching it from a health perspective, rather than criticizing their appearance, and working with them to solve the issue will give you a better long-term outcome. It’s always worth checking that there isn’t a medical problem causing weight gain or loss.
Most children have a self-image that’s based on accomplishments, social relationships and values rather than looks, but there will always be some that don’t. A parent’s role is to help them develop a positive self-image, one that, together with self-confidence and self-esteem, will allow them to become happy, productive adults.