Raising Kids with a Healthy Body Image

At the onset of a new year, we find ourselves setting intentions and making goals for the twelve months to come. Many of us may want to get “back on track” with fitness or perhaps even set a weight goal for the new year. I often think about how the goals we set as adults, and the surrounding cyclone of body-centric messaging on the covers of magazines, on the radio and online every January affects the growing minds and perspectives of our children.

Body image is far from just a “girls” issue’ or a “women’s issue.” In fact, in my practice I have seen many boys and men who have struggled with body image challenges and low self-esteem stemming from how they perceive their appearance. For girls and women, the issues tend to revolve around striving for an unattainable “standard” that usually involves being thin. For boys and men, it can be more about wanting to look muscular. Here are some suggestions I often share in my practice that you as a parent can take to support the development of a healthy body image in your child.

Easy on the appearance-based praise

As beautiful as we all know our children are, you don’t want your child to feel like they’re earning your love by being “pretty” or “handsome.” Children who receive a lot of appearance-based attention from parents can sometimes mistakenly create the connection that their looks are connected with their worth. Your child needs to feel loved for who they are, for their internal self, with no strings attached, ever. Outward appearance takes many shapes and forms; everyone is unique and that’s part of what makes the world interesting. I suggest aiming for the “five to one rule”: for every time you give an appearance-based compliment, for the next five compliments, focus on inner qualities like: a positive attitude, diligence, creativity, empathy, intelligence or compassion.

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Stay current and show an interest in your child’s life

To support healthy development, parents need to understand what’s going on in the life of their child, as well as what’s happening in the world around them. Think of it as keeping a barometer on what matters to them. How are they feeling, acting? Who are they playing with, what interests them? And what are their peers interested in? It might not seem like much, but simply staying current in the life of your child sets you up to be there for them in a meaningful way, like when it comes to body image.

Establish smart boundaries, online and offline

Boundaries have a lot to do with body image. Why? Because body image has a lot to do with what messages we’re willing to allow into our minds, and the power we choose to give those images we see and the words we hear. Keep an eye on the apps, games and social media your child is using, watching for content or even online friendships that might be doing more harm than good. Don’t be afraid to enforce standards—uninstall an app or game if you don’t think it’s appropriate, and take the time to explain your rationale to your child in a loving, blame-free way. You can also have conversations with your child about balance, about not exclusively liking things, commenting on things, posting things, that are appearance-driven.

Nurture relationships IRL

When kids are developing relationships with others, they’re practicing empathy, they’re paying attention to the wants and needs of another and they’re considering community.

There’s no better time to build this intrinsically-motivated foundation than during childhood. That’s because they’re still developing that schema, the operating system, hardwiring them to engage with the world in a positive way. Raising your child to see the world as a community, and them being an active participant—a change agent who is connected and belonging—will help to instill that sense of purpose that guards against preoccupation with superficial things like appearance. Ultimately, encouraging friendships is a moderating factor for a healthy self image, but it also helps reframe the narrative about “what really matters.”

Despite the gains made with “body positive” messaging, and a general move as a society towards embracing diversity and celebrating differences, we still have a long way to go. Supporting your child’s development while modeling body-positive behaviour will help mitigate against negative body image influences as they progress into their teens. And what better time to start than the new year?

Dr. Jillian Roberts
Dr. Jillian Robertshttp://drjillianroberts.com/
Dr. Jillian Roberts is a child psychologist, UVic professor and mother. She is the CEO & Founder of FamilySparks and the author of Kids, Sex and Screens: Raising Strong, Resilient Children in the Sexualized Digital Age.