October 1, 2021

Parents of preteens and adolescents are often concerned with their child’s increasing preoccupation with his or her appearance.

Physical and emotional changes that occur during puberty increase a young person’s feelings of self-consciousness about their appearance. While those feelings are certainly normal, there are some things parents can do to encourage a positive body image:

Provide education about puberty, health, and nutrition.

Children need to know that it’s a very normal part of development to grow in both height and weight, especially during puberty. For example, girls need to know that their hips will widen, and they will often put on weight before a growth spurt.

Beginning in early childhood, parents can communicate important information about nutrition, healthy eating habits, and a view of exercise as part of good health. Routines around meals and physical activity should be family-centered, and not focused on one particular child.

While parents should provide a home with nutritious foods and snacks and established mealtimes, they should try and avoid the temptation to micromanage their child’s eating. Nutritionist Ellyn Satter coined the phrase “division of responsibility” to remind parents that we decide where and when meals are eaten and what foods are available in the home, while it is a child’s responsibility to decide whether to eat, and how much.  

Praise a child's talents, efforts, and interests.

One of the tasks of growing up is to develop a sense of self. Help your child find an identity that’s much stronger and deeper than simply how he or she looks. Praise your son or daughter for what you appreciate about them, help them find a passion for a cause or activity, and let them know you value their uniqueness. 

Encourage critical thinking about media messages and social media judgment.

Adolescents are more likely than adults to compare their bodies to images they see in the media and pop culture. Therefore, they need to have discussions with trusted adults about how those images are often manipulated through technology, and often unattainable for most people. They also need to think critically about how companies use such idealized images to market products to young people.

While screen time may play a major role in your child’s life, it’s still a good idea to encourage interests other than media viewing since the values of pop culture are often very different from the ones parents want their children to internalize.

And while social media connects your child with his or her peers (particularly valuable during the pandemic), there is often a lot of jockeying for “likes'' and positive comments on appearance. Talking about your child’s feelings and your own concerns about this kind of validation can help keep things in perspective.

Although it’s hard to resist, try not to slip into lecture mode. Our children often listen more when we encourage open conversation with a genuine interest in what they think.

Refrain from making negative comments about your own body (and others’). 

It’s hard to encourage your child to be positive about themselves and their accomplishments if you’re focused on your own appearance in a negative way. Instead, comment on the way our bodies serve us by providing the strength and capability to have a variety of life experiences, such as riding a bike or watching a sunset. And refraining from criticizing the bodies of other people, whether family members or strangers, communicates that we value people for their qualities and character, rather than appearance.  


Lisa Phillips, a licensed social worker and parent educator at The Parenting Center at Children's Hospital, is a contributor to the award-winning "Parenting Corner" column. She can be reached at (504) 896-9591; chnola.org/parentingcenter.

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