How To Raise A Child Who Feels At Home In Their Body
A psychologist’s advice on how to talk to kids about their bodies and physical insecurities.
Inundated daily with societal expectations, filters that make you appear like a model, and airbrushed photos of celebrities on Ozempic, it’s no wonder kids struggle with body image issues. Parents, who have their own self-doubts, often want to reassure their kids and help them feel comfortable in their bodies. But it’s challenging to know what types of responses are helpful when kids express insecurities about how they look — or how to start the conversation if your child never does.
Chances are good that your child is concerned about their appearance. Nearly two-thirds of parents reported that their child aged 8 to 18 is self-conscious about some aspect of their physical appearance, according to C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health. Acne, weight, and hair were of the most concern to kids, but teeth, height, and facial features also polled high.
“In the last several years, we have seen a rise in these types of concerns at younger ages,” says clinical psychologist Anjeli Ferguson, Ph.D. “Since 2020, with the rise of and increased exposure to racial violence through social media, kids seem to be particularly concerned with skin color and hair. We're also seeing eating disorders and body image becoming a concern earlier in development.” She adds that children with physical disabilities often speak to feeling concerned by how others view them or internalizing those differences.
With such a wide array of factors contributing to how comfortable kids feel in their bodies, there’s no tidy turn of phrase that can instantly improve how they feel about themselves. But Ferguson does have some guidance for conversations parents can have with body-conscious kids to help them process whey they’re feeling self-conscious and help them embrace confidence.
If a parent gets caught off guard by body-conscious concerns from their child, what types of responses are most helpful?
The first step is to pause and manage our emotions around the subject because we don't want to shame the child by having a very strong reaction. Next, we want to validate the feelings and thoughts they might be having by approaching physical differences with neutrality as much as possible.
The body neutrality movement — which is a push away from the body positivity movement — is becoming more popular. The idea is that we can kind of become aware of our existing body states, notice them, and account for them as they are at a given point in time without placing judgment on what that means for a person.
Why is a body neutrality approach more effective at validating feelings?
The intention behind body positivity is great. Unfortunately, the way in which it becomes applied is not very inclusive because it minimizes those points in life where our body is maybe not ideally how we would like it to be, or it's functioning differently, or it's causing stress or distress.
The neutrality movement acknowledges those feelings versus placing emotion and judgment around them. Body positivity tells you to minimize your feelings and look at the positive, but some folks within the disability community argue that there are times when they can't be body-positive, depending on how inclusive their environment might be.
It’s a substantial shift that is hard to teach kids, but one that I think culturally we have to make. Some physical traits are fluid and change over time. So we don't want to place such an overemphasis on positivity when a child looks a certain way, to where if that changes in the next couple of years, they start to develop concerns related to those changes.
You mentioned hair as a feature some kids feel particularly self-conscious about. That’s an interesting one in that it can be easily modifiable. How much should parents consider accommodation if their child wants to change something like hairstyle?
What it comes down to is making sure parents are having a conversation with their children about the intentionality behind the change. Does the child want to change their hair texture, color, or length because of the pressures that they're feeling for how their hair currently looks? Or are they doing it to express identity in some way? Those are two very different situations.
Now, if it's something that's related to expressing their identity, then I think that's a beautiful way to allow your child to have some control in expressing who they are. If it's something that's much more related to social pressures or pressure from social media, then we’d need to unpack those pressures with that child.
Another tricky subject is size because of the messages kids are inundated with and the social stigmas associated with weight. How should parents talk about size and weight with their kids, and is there a point where health concerns come into play?
Kids are sponges. They soak up everything we say about ourselves and about the people around us. So, if we are being self-critical about changes in our own bodies, kids are going to pick up on that. They're going to internalize those comments, and they're going to use that kind of language. So, we want to ensure that we aren't overly critical of ourselves regarding body size.
We also want to teach neutrality in these conversations with kids and explain that everybody comes in different shapes and sizes. Make it matter-of-fact, and talk about the body's purpose and differences in health. The way in which we promote health in this country is often associated with size, which is inaccurate in many ways.
There are a lot of people who are of larger sizes that are very healthy. Health is not just about how big you are. So we can frame exercise as something we do to stay strong and healthy, not to get fit. Or that we eat certain foods to be strong and healthy, not necessarily to be thin. And help kids parse through some of that language because they're likely hearing and internalizing correlations between health and thinness.
How can parents better equip their children to respond when adults aren’t around, and other kids comment about their physical features?
That's a tough one because social pressures can have a profound influence on our youth. I think the more that you have those conversations at home explicitly, the better equipped your child will be when they encounter those difficulties outside of the home.
What we want to do is to build up a child's identity so that they feel firm in who they are when they encounter somebody who's different from them. We can celebrate differences by teaching kids at home that differences are important. They're what make us special. They're what make us unique. And if we can help lay that foundation, they hopefully internalize those messages so when they're facing something stressful or difficult, they’re more firm in who they are.
By “firm in who they are,” do you mean confident in their character traits?
Yes, helping kids shift to focus on character traits that are of more importance to who they are as well as nonphysical commonalities they share with others. So, teaching them to say things like, “You're right; my skin is different from yours. But you and I both like trucks, and we're also friends because we’re both fun people.”
The trick is helping them turn the conversation back to those personal characteristics more than the physical components, but not making them avoid discussing the physical features altogether. We want them to be able to acknowledge that their physical traits are a part of who they are, but personality traits are the most important part of who they are.