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Healthy body image and it's best friend, high self esteem, are hardest to find in teenage girls, but let's not forget that teenage boys and kids of all ages can potentially suffer from an unhealthy or distorted body image (not to mention adults). Your child's self-image isn't plain to see, so monitoring it can be challenging. But, the same way we can prevent illness by being proactive about healthy habits, we can help prevent unhealthy body image in our kids by encouraging healthy self-image and high self-esteem. Here are five ways you can support your child's healthy body image.
1. Be a good role model
Your kids are watching you, subconsciously and even when you think they're not. What kind of attitude toward beauty and physical appearance do you have? Before you start to analyze your kids behavior, take a look at your own eating and exercise habits, and your relationship with TV, magazines, online media, and the mirror.
2. Keep it positive
Even those of us without teenagers know they are extremely sensitive, and often have distorted and over-dramatized interpretations of reality. Never make a negative comment about your child's physical appearance. If you feel the need to say something, do whatever you can to keep it positive. Also, if you overhear negative self-talk from your child, seize the opportunity to chime in and ask them to re-think what they just said. Ask "do you really believe that?" Another negative habit teens often struggle to avoid: comparing themselves to others.
3. Emphasize Inner Beauty
Compliments about physical appearance are skin-deep. While there's nothing wrong with telling your kids how cute you think they are, go out of your way to emphasize how much you enjoy and appreciate the traits they have that have nothing to do with their appearance: how creative, hard working, kind, persistent or imaginative they are. Telling them what a good friend, daughter/son, or sibling they are is also a great way to emphasize how they treat others over how they look to others.
4. Start a conversation about media
This one is particularly important for parents of teens and pre-teens, especially girls. In magazines, on TV and online, girls are bombarded with images that are over-sexualized, unrealistic, often-digitally-altered, and generally damaging to their self-image and self-worth. Boys too can adopt an unhealthy attitude toward and expectation of girls (not to mention their own masculinity) simply by being exposed to the media that is part of our society. Point out to your kids how unrealistic these images are, and the negative stereotypes they reinforce. Train them to see media images with a more keen eye, not a blindly accepting one.
5. Start young
When most adults meet a very young girl or boy for the first time, they are tempted to make comments like "aren't you cute!" or, for girls, "you look so pretty in that dress!" Steer away from this temptation. Ask kids questions to engage them instead, and refrain from commenting on how they look. Point out their strengths instead.
We all struggle from time to time with our body image, but remember your worth should not be dictated by the way you look, but by the way you behave.
Stay well and enjoy being yourself.