Your child probably thinks about the way her body looks -- a lot. Even if she doesn’t tell you about it.
Concerns about weight and appearance can start as early as elementary school or preschool. In many ways, that’s normal, says Alexandra Corning, PhD, director of the Body Image and Eating Disorder Laboratory at the University of Notre Dame. No matter how old they are, boys and girls want to fit in with their friends, and one way is to look “good” or like “everyone else.”
But when questions like “Are my thighs fat?” or “Am I pretty?” become something your kid thinks about often or all the time, it can be a sign of a bad body image. And that can affect her mood, schoolwork, and the kinds of choices she makes -- like what (or if) to eat during lunchtime or whether she’ll join in a game of soccer with her friends.
There’s a lot you can do to help your child feel good about herself and make the healthiest choices she can. Here are four easy steps to boost body confidence.
Start With Yourself
“You’re the biggest role model for your kid, even if you don’t realize it,” says Dara Chadwick, author of You’d Be So Pretty If… “If you’re constantly talking about how you’re fat or unattractive, your kid is going to internalize that appearance is really important, and that it’s normal to be self-critical.”
Do your best to be kind to yourself and curb critical comments about how you -- and other people -- look. If you slip up and make a negative remark, acknowledge that by saying, “I’m having a bad day, and shouldn’t have said that,” Chadwick says.
It’s equally important to focus on your health, rather than your weight. “If you want your child to eat well and get physical activity, you have to, too,” Corning says. Try to make health a fun family affair. You can cook with your child, or go biking together. “You want to show kids how good it feels to take care of your body,” Corning says.
Don’t Say 'No You’re Not'
If your child says something negative about himself -- or tells you someone else has -- your first instinct will probably be to say “No you’re not!” or “You’re perfect.”
Trouble is, these responses don’t help when your kid is already feeling bad, Corning says. A better approach? Listen until he’s done speaking. Then, acknowledge how he feels and follow up with questions. For example: “That sounds terrible. What makes you say that?” This can lead to a better conversation. It can also help you find out if other issues -- like bullying, or trouble with puberty-related body changes -- are part of the problem.
No matter what your child says or does, “try to remain unfazed,” Corning says. “The minute you act shocked or start lecturing, they’re going to shut down and end the conversation.”
Watch With Them
Smartphones, TV, computers: Everywhere kids turn, they’re bombarded with media images of what’s “hot,” “cool,” and “perfect.” Those images -- styled or airbrushed to look just right -- can make kids feel bad about themselves. “You can’t shield them from the media. But you can talk to them about what they’re seeing,” Corning says.
“Watch TV with them when you can. Find out what websites and magazines they’re looking at,” Chadwick says. “With my daughter, we talked about what it must be like for actors and reality TV stars to have the pressure to look a certain way, and to have people always criticizing you.” One conversation may not lead to a light-bulb moment for them. But keep talking. You can help them start to see that they don’t have to look like the people they see in the media.
Give the Right Compliment
A lot of your child’s confidence comes from your approval. Compliments help if you give the right ones. It’s OK to make an occasional appearance-related comment, like “You’re really pretty.” That’s especially true if you know your child has put effort into how she looks.
But “if you’re constantly talking about their appearance, you run the risk of them thinking that’s what you value them for,” Chadwick says. Instead, make an effort to mostly praise them for their achievements and abilities. For example, “What strong legs you have,” “You’re really kind,” or “I like how hard you tried.”