Help Teens Build a Healthy Body Image

As teens' bodies grow and change, they can feel self-conscious and hyper-aware of every blemish and extra pound. They’re also bombarded with "ideal,” often computer-enhanced, body images that are impossible to measure up to. These messages can convince anyone that they’re too fat, too thin, too short, or too tall.

The good news is that, as a parent, you have more influence than you think to help your teen get through this tough time of life and create a positive self-image, no matter their size or shape.

Both Girls and Boys Can Struggle

Between glossy fashion magazines, TV shows, movies, and social media, teenage girls can get the impression that models and celebrities have perfect bodies and flawless skin. Many teenage boys compare themselves to the buff athletes and movie stars they see. They feel dissatisfied if their own bodies don't measure up.

Teens might even risk depression, eating disorders, and other dangerous behaviors in an attempt to achieve what they think is a perfect body.

Boys don’t usually talk about body image issues as much as girls, but that doesn't mean they don't have them. They can struggle with eating disorders, too. But parents and doctors may overlook them, even if they are alert to such problems in girls.

If you think your teen may be struggling with low self-esteem, what can you do? Try these simple steps to start taking action. Of course, if you notice major changes in your teen's weight or eating habits, talk to her doctor.

Teens, Body Image, and Self-Esteem: 5 Tips for Parents

1. Be a good role model. Your teen does notice.

Your teen is closely watching your lifestyle, eating habits, and attitudes, even if she seems to cringe every time you speak. Pay attention to the example you are setting, and make changes if you don't like what you see. You can start an exercise program, eat healthier, or turn off the TV and get moving instead.

Remember, your child will also model your attitudes about your body. So if you're constantly criticizing your hip size or thinning hair, she will learn to focus on her flaws instead of her good qualities.

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2. Be positive.

Never make critical remarks about your teen's body. If she has a weight problem, you can be sure she's aware of it. Your comments will only make her feel more discouraged and could make the problem worse.

Instead, compliment your teen. Tell her what a pretty smile she has, or how that shirt makes his eyes shine. When you give positive feedback, you are building a healthy body image. Encourage other healthy habits, like good personal hygiene and posture, healthy sleep habits, and stress relief. When your teen is sitting on the couch, suggest you go out for a walk or run together or head to the gym.

If you feel you need more help, talk to your teen's school counselor or her doctor and work together to come up with a nutrition and exercise plan.

3. Teach your teen about media.

Help your daughter or son learn to be skeptical about what they see in magazines, on screen, and on the web. Make sure your teen understands the airbrushing, photo edits, stylists, personal trainers, cosmetic surgery, and other tricks that fuel the beauty industry and celebrity culture.

4. Put other qualities over looks.

Support your teen’s talents and skills that have nothing to do with how she looks -- like music, sports, arts, and volunteer activities. Show an interest in her passions and pursuits. Praise the good things you love about her, like how she can make you laugh, her focus on schoolwork, or the way she looks out for her younger siblings. Focus on health over looks whenever you can.

5. Make good health a family affair.

Your entire family will be healthier if you keep junk food out of the house, cook nutritious meals instead of hitting the drive-thru, and get active. But you don't have to do it all at once to make a difference. Just one small change can start building your and your teen's confidence and help you work toward bigger goals. If other family members share in these new behaviors, it will make your teen feel less isolated, too.

Start a nightly family dinner ritual if you don't have one already. Then, instead of turning on the TV, suggest a family walk. You could also offer to join a gym and go with your teen. It's OK to start out slowly, maybe being more active once a week, and then walk or workout more often over time. If you make a healthy lifestyle part of your family culture, your child will build good habits to last a lifetime.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Amita Shroff, MD on February 25, 2016

Sources

SOURCES:

Pesa, J. Journal of Adolescent Health, May 2000.

Dyl, J. Child Psychiatry and Human Development, Summer 2006.

Cohane, P. International Journal of Eating Disorders, May 2001.

Harvey, J. Journal of Clinical Psychology in Medical Settings; vol 10(4): pp 297-306.

KidsHealth: "Encouraging a Health Body Image," "A Guy's Guide to Body Image."

Women's Sports Foundation: "Her Life Depends On It II."

National Association of Social Workers: "Adolescent Girls and Body Image."

Commonsense Media: "Boys and Body Image Tips."

David Ermer, MD, child and adolescent psychiatrist, Sanford Health, Sioux Falls, SD.

Emily Ets-Hokin, PhD, associate assistant professor of psychiatry, University of Buffalo School of Medicine, N.Y.

Robert Pretlow, MD, author, Overweight: What Kids Say; director, weigh2rock.

Canadian Women's Health Network: "Beauty and Body Image in the Media."

Reviewed by Amita Shroff, MD on February 28, 2014

David Ermer, MD, child and adolescent psychiatrist, Sanford Health, Sioux Falls, S.D.

Emily Ets-Hokin, PhD, associate assistant professor of psychiatry, University of Buffalo School of Medicine, N.Y.  

Robert Pretlow, MD, author, Overweight: What Kids Say; director, weigh2rock.

Canadian Women's Health Network: "Beauty and Body Image in the Media."

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