Unless you’re perfect – and no one is – it’s absolutely normal to have a few physical traits that don’t please you. As parents, we’ve navigated our way through these emotions and likely done so without the constant intrusion of social media. Children and young people see proof of body norms everywhere. They see it at school, in their sports, in the media and on their phones, where they are bombarded by images of picture-perfect bodies.
What they may not realise, however, is that these airbrushed images are manipulated so dramatically they present an unattainable image of beauty, cool and what’s fashionable.
And as parents you no doubt worry about what you can and should do to help your daughters and sons become healthy, informed adults. According to a survey of 14-24 year olds conducted by the Royal Society for Public Health, the use of Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram has all led to increased feelings of depression, anxiety, poor body image and loneliness. And, as studies clearly show, teens with low self-esteem are more likely to engage in high-risk behaviours such as drugs and alcohol, excessive dieting and disordered eating.
Here are seven tips for supporting children and young people with body image issues.
Have conversations about what’s normal – and what’s not – during the developmental stages of puberty and adolescence. What children and young people see on TikTok, YouTube, TV, in the movies, or in fashion magazines is not the standard to which they should compare themselves – or anyone else for that matter
Focus on listening, not lecturing. Resist the urge to criticise or pass judgment once they begin to talk. The important thing is that your child is communicating. Letting your child know you are there for them unconditionally and fully, is a great step forward.
Be gentle, but persistent. Don’t give up if they shut you out at first.
Acknowledge their feelings… don’t try to talk your child out of how they are feeling, even if they seem silly or irrational to you. Saying things like ‘it’s not that bad’ will come across as dismissive.
Try to reduce their social media use. Teens and young women see proof of body norms everywhere. As active consumers of social media, the continuous barrage of images and messages reinforces what our girls view as the ideal woman, which directly impacts their body confidence. According to a 2018 Mission Australia youth survey, body image is the fourth largest concern for teenage girls, with 30% expressing anxiety about their body image.
Whilst unplugging from devices is not realistic, there are ways that parents can curate social media feeds so their children and teenagers feel happier in their own skin – or at least stop feeling worse. Talk to your children about social media use and set some mutually agreed boundaries.
Make physical health a priority. Physical and mental health are connected. Have healthy food available, cook healthy meals and encourage different forms of exercise and relaxation.
Seek professional help, if needed. There are several organisations you can seek information and support from including the Butterfly Foundation (https://butterfly.org.au); the National Eating Disorder Collaboration (https://nedc.com.au); Body Image Movement (https://bodyimagemovement.com)
You might also see a professional psychologist. Your child may have body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), which is a psychological condition that typically begins by the age of 12 or 13, continues through adolescence and, for some, into adulthood). People with BDD are obsessed with their appearance, overly critical of real or perceived flaws, and have severe distress that interferes with all aspects of their lives.
As a parent, it might be hard to recognise the difference between BDD and general teenage malaise. Children and teens with BDD have an unwavering anxiety about one or more body parts. The more convinced they are, the more distress and disruption they experience.
Whatever your child or young person’s body issue is, for most it’s not about looking flawlessly beautiful, it’s about fitting in. We’re social animals and we all want to fit in and be liked. It’s devastating to be teased or ostracised for something we have no control over.
As a parent, it never hurts to remind your children and teenagers that they are far more than their looks. The self-criticism that comes from their reflection in the mirror or what they see in social media can be mitigated by a simple ‘I love you exactly the way you are’.
Article by Dr Pouria Moradi, Plastic Surgeon and author of the book, Normal – A Plastic Surgeon’s Letter To His Daughters About Body Image.