As teen girls hit puberty and adolescence, many will struggle with the associated changes in their body. Those struggles can lead to additional struggles with their body image, compounded in no small part by mean girls and unhelpful messages from Instagram and other social and popular media. But parents — and particularly fathers — can help teen girls get through this tough time and promote a positive body image.
“What’s important for fathers to understand is that they are the template, really, for their daughters in terms of the daughter’s future relationships with men,” says Erika Doukas, PsyD, a clinical psychologist whose expertise is in parenting issues and treating eating disorders. “How they interact with their daughters will affect how they feel about themselves, and how they feel about themselves in relation to other men.”
A father’s first step, according to Doukas, should be to consistently focus on their daughter’s greatest traits. “Parents should help them feel valued by telling them why they love them — for their intelligence, their compassion, their warmth, their work ethic, and their sense of humor — so that they don’t get the message that they are valued for how slim they are or what their body looks like,” she says.
Doukas stresses that the more parents talk about their kid’s smarts and wit, the more they feel that their body is a vessel for who they are. But that also means parents should consider their own bodies the same way. There’s no point in speaking positively about a daughter and then tearing down your own physical appearance, she says.
“Don’t talk about being on a diet or exercising so that you can lose weight or burn calories,” she says. “Think about what message that sends to your children. Focus on getting exercise because it helps you feel good, not because it helps you look good.”
In the same vein, parents shouldn’t talk about foods in terms of their calorie or fat content. Information about nutrition labels should always be a general message, one given as early as possible, and never in response to or in relation to a child’s weight or size. It’s about health, not a number on the scale. And if parents are legitimately concerned about their daughter’s weight gain throughout pubescence, they should start putting healthier food on the table quietly, without making a huge point of it. Doing otherwise will only make their daughter more uncomfortable and could set up unhealthy associations with food that can affect her even into adulthood.
How to Help Your Daughter Deal With Body Image Issues
- Talk to your daughter about her intelligence, wit, interests, kindness, compassion, warmth. Not her body.
- Avoid talking about your own body in a derogatory way. Do not express a desire to lose weight in front of her or talk about the diet you are on.
- Decouple healthy diets and exercise from weight loss or body image-related goals. Make healthy choices a family thing and make it about overall well-being.
- Talk about food as nutritious fuel. Not as calorie or fat content.
- Remind daughters, if they talk to you about it, that weight gain and bodily changes are very normal during pubescence, and that girls should focus on health (mental and physical) over a number on the scale.
- Remind daughters that the women they see on Instagram and in advertisements are photoshopped and make-upped to the high heavens, and that normal people do not look like that.
That doesn’t mean parents shouldn’t address their daughters discomfort in puberty. If, for example, a teen daughter comes home and says she feels fat or ugly or somehow less fit than her peers, parents should be real and honest with about how tough this time is for young women.
“Parents should convey the message that it’s really common for girls when they are hitting adolescence, to gain a bit of weight. It will even out. But the most important thing is for them to not focus on their weight and to focus on taking care of themselves and making healthy choices,” Doukas says.
Parents also need to be explicit about the harms of advertising and social media. Although images of photoshopped women in advertisements or on Instagram don’t literally cause eating disorders or similar issues, they can make young girls feel inadequate and lead to poor self-esteem.
“Girls should know that the models that they see are either wearing a ton of makeup or that images of them are retouched,” Doukas says. “The bottom line is, as a parent, you have to help your daughter feel good about herself — feel good about herself for who she is, not how she looks.”