Ahhh summer time. Enter: beach days, summer camps, hikes in the woods, and nights spent sleeping under the stars. While longer, warmer days often means spending more time outside, it also can mean showing more of your body which may lead to an increase in body image issues.
As a parent, it can be upsetting to witness your child worrying about how they look or expressing unhappiness about their body instead of enjoying everything the season has to offer.
You may be wondering how to support your child through the challenges of the season while setting them up for a positive relationship with their body for life.
Read on for our advice to parents for supporting their kids affected by body image issues.
What is Body Image?
Before we dive into our tips, it might be helpful to have an understanding of what body image is.
Body image is more complicated than simply looking a certain way. Everyone has a body image. It can be described as the way you perceive your body – how you think about it, feel about it, and treat it.
Body image issues can affect many aspects of life – from social relationships, to academics and career, to how you take care of yourself. If you feel negatively about your body, for example, you may be more likely to avoid social outings and connections with others. Or, you may feel like you are less worthy of a job opportunity simply because of the way you look.
How Body Image Issues Affect Kids
Young kids are sponges, absorbing and processing information about the world at an amazing rate every day. Unfortunately, that includes information about bodies – what bodies are “good”, what bodies are “bad”. Research from 2016 found that kids as young as three years old may worry about how their bodies look, with nearly 24% of childcare professionals identifying poor body image in kids between the ages of 3 and 5 [*].
Kids aren’t born with the belief that there are right and wrong ways to have a body. This is something that they unfortunately learn as they overhear conversations between adults, internalize messages from the media, and see bodies depicted in ways where the message is clear: thin bodies are good, and fat bodies are bad.
6 Ways You can Help Kids Avoid Body Image Issues This Summer
1. Embrace Body Diversity
We love the short, educational video called Poodle Science to hammer home this point. Just as different breeds of dogs are built to be diverse (and you can’t turn a mastiff into a poodle just by feeding it less), humans are supposed to come in all different shapes and sizes. Body diversity celebrates these differences, and challenges the notion that people should try to look the same.
Rather than encouraging yourself and your kids to conform to the thin ideal, practice taking care of your bodies’ needs at any size. Look for a diversity in body sizes in the books your kids read and the TV shows or movies they watch.
2. Shut Down Body Commentary
If your kids overhear you making a degrading comment about someone else’s body, or your own body, this is what they might start to think: “Mom thinks her belly is too soft and round. If my belly is soft and round that’s bad. I should try to have a flat belly since that’s what mom wants, so it must be good.”
You can try to shut this down at the source. Set the example that you don’t comment on others’ bodies. Express gratitude toward your own body for the things it does (“I’m so glad my tummy helps me digest my food!”), rather than criticize it for how it looks.
If you overhear your child express sadness that they “feel fat,” resist the urge to tell them they “aren’t fat” as if fat is something they should feel bad about. Instead, we encourage you to explore this with your child with curiosity and compassion. What makes them feel that way? Emphasize that all bodies have fat, and that having fat doesn’t make a person bad.
3. Focus Less on Looks
Just like kids absorb the meaning behind your words, they are great at absorbing the meaning behind your actions, too.
Summer is a season where bodies may be exposed more than when the weather is cooler – wearing shorts instead of jeans and taking a trip to the beach instead of snuggling under blankets inside. This can be very difficult for anyone with poor body image. You might find your child attempting to hide their body or stay indoors because they are afraid of facing judgment.
As a parent, you can help support your child by first leading by example and de-emphasizing the importance of appearance this summer. Challenge yourself to leave the house without aiming for “perfection” every time. Wear weather-appropriate attire yourself. Play in the water with your kids at the beach and celebrate the fun times rather than stress over how you look doing it.
4. Watch out for Social Media
If your kids are old enough to use social media, talk with them about what kinds of bodies they see on their feeds. Find accounts to follow together that promote body diversity. If they start feeling worse about their bodies after they spend time scrolling on social media, encourage them that it’s okay to block or unfollow accounts that make them feel inadequate.
You might find it helpful to set some boundaries around social media and screen time use in general. New research found that teens who reduced their social media use by 50% had significant improvements in body image and self esteem [*].
5. Have Age-Appropriate Conversations
As a parent, you probably want your child to be healthy, and to learn how to maintain their health as they get older. As dietitians, we want this for you and your kids, too! But little brains can’t process complex health information the same way adults can. Kids are still very concrete, black-and-white thinkers.
It might be tempting to teach your kids to learn to appreciate “healthy” eating, or to limit “unhealthy” foods. Unfortunately, this may unintentionally set your child up to feel ashamed for eating foods deemed “unhealthy”. They may even develop irrational fears about how food will affect their body.
Rather than zeroing in on the nutrition, encourage them to try and appreciate a wide variety of foods and flavors, and to honor their feelings of hunger and fullness. Teaching kids to trust their bodies is much healthier (and more age-appropriate) than teaching them to be concerned about how many grams of sugar are in their granola bar.
6. Don’t Be Afraid to Get Your Own Support
As you read through the tips above, we understand that you might be feeling overwhelmed by it all. If you struggle with your own body image issues, it’s incredibly difficult to set a different example for your kids. You might be reminded of experiences from your own childhood that influenced your body image.
It is absolutely okay – encouraged, even – to seek out your own support as you navigate these rocky seas of parenting.
The dietitians at NourishRX are here to provide support for both you and your kids. Perhaps you need some help navigating tricky conversations around body image issues with your loved one. Or you aren’t sure the best way to address concerns you have about their eating habits. We may be able to help through individual counseling or our on-demand course for parents.
Reach out to us today to learn how we can best support the needs of your family.