As soon as we begin developing friendships, we start to view our peers as a source of information as well as for approval. In early childhood, our peer group includes a broad group of people from school or activities while in adolescence friends are usually more self-selected, including people with similar interests to our own. Our peers contribute to our sense of belonging and our feelings of self worth. They also expand our sense of freedom while influencing and reinforcing our views of what constitutes acceptable behavior.
At the same time, peer groups create strong expectations for appearance and behavior that can taint the positive rewards associated with peer interaction. Individuals often find themselves conforming to the group’s norms, behaviors, attitudes, speech patterns, and dress code to earn acceptance and approval. If you conform, you’re considered “cool.” If you don’t, you are often ridiculed and expelled from the group. Sometimes peer pressure is exerted through what Freud called the “group mind,” the mentality of a group of people that takes on a life of its own. While the desire to conform to the demands of peers is known for its role in influencing adolescent rebellion, social pressure affects children much earlier than adolescence. As children begin to demonstrate and establish identity separate from family, the influence of their peers becomes stronger even at young ages.
Getting Comfortable with Your “Body Self”
From infancy, children are influenced by their family’s values; their early sense of self is basically developed through their interaction with their family. Ideally, children experience love, understanding, acceptance, intimacy, and companionship in their family, which helps them to develop a positive sense of their body. Your children’s “body self” is their comfort and confidence in their own skin. It’s not a matter of having the perfect physique or an ideal face. This confidence comes from taking responsibility for and ownership of themselves and who they are: assessing their strengths and weaknesses, assets and deficits.
How you act today will have a huge impact on who your child becomes as an adult. A confident stance, conscious of the example you are setting, is the best approach for guiding your children toward a healthy adulthood. For example, if parents don’t value appropriate dress, tidiness, and cleanliness, how do you expect their nine-year-old might look? Or if fashion is a vital value for parents, how do you imagine their child will want to dress? Because our physical appearance is often the first signal others pick up from us, we need to help our kids learn how to properly convey whatever message they choose. This pattern for crafting behavior and attitude affects everything from sports to religion and everything in between. If parents are exercise and fitness buffs, won’t their five-year-old be more confident in approaching sports? Parents who are attentive to nutrition and health will likely have children comfortable with making healthy food choices. When religious values and attendance figure prominently in parents’ values, their kids will take this part of life more seriously.
So how do your children feel about themselves? How do their behavior patterns reflect what they have learned at home? How do these patterns make you feel as a parent?
Attraction: How Important Is Looking Good?
If you’re like many people, you may believe, “It’s what’s on the inside that counts.” Yet research shows that physical attractiveness is a major determinant of interpersonal and sexual attraction. This physical attractiveness, however, is a combination of the looks we are born with and the confidence and self-esteem that come from how we feel about ourselves. A person with high self-esteem makes friends easily, is in control of his or her behavior, and feels more joy in life. You can help your children feel in control of their whole person. They can feel proud regardless of how they look, rather than feeling trapped by their body.
To support your child’s confidence, attuning to your child’s positive body image is a major part of the process. Many parents do this by supporting their children’s extracurricular activities; participating in the things your children enjoy and do well boosts their confidence and competence and helps them create a positive sense of their body.
Addressing Your Child's Concerns
Sometimes talking to our kids about their appearance can be difficult. We may be uncomfortable talking openly about our children’s self-doubt. So instead of communicating openly, we gravitate toward indirect methods of dealing with appearance issues. Kids can be wary of meddling parents—especially when it comes to something they’re insecure about—therefore, as loving parents we sometimes go out of our way to avoid pushing their buttons. It gets more complicated when kids model themselves after strange or eccentric characters or align with certain social groups, rather than seek their truly individual sense of identity. Parents may be in denial of what’s actually occurring, and this makes it harder for us to help our kids in their struggles.
Nurture healthy relationships and activities. Support your children in friendships and well-rounded activities—physical, social, religious, and academic—that strengthen their sense of attractiveness in a healthy, positive way.
Talk with your children. Discuss the images of attractiveness that they see in their world—from the schoolyard to the big screen. Don’t criticize or judge what they are saying—just talk with them so that you both can understand each other’s point of view. And, last but certainly not least, love your child—happy or sad, up or down, big or small.
(Next blog continues with Understanding Peer Pressure: Walking in Their Shoes)
John T. Chirban, Ph.D., Th.D., is a clinical instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical School and author of How to Talk With Your Kids About Sex that explains what kids need from parents at each stage of their sexual development and how parents can effectively communicate. For more information please visit www.dr.chirban.com and www.sexualproblems.com.