As parents, it’s hard for us to hear when our children feel negatively about their body. Sometimes just letting children express their feelings is what they need to release fears and heal. They don’t always want to be consoled or rescued; sometimes they just want to share their pain. When they feel that you will be disappointed or hurt or that their pain can be magically removed by pretending peer pressure is easy to ignore they suppress their feelings, which makes them feel even more alone and more vulnerable to peer attacks.
We cannot listen enough! The problemoncerns we have with our body are felt on many levels. They should not be denied or avoided. Though we want to emphasize to our children that self-worth is more than how they look, we have to take seriously that their feelings about their body connects to their self-esteem.
Never take lightly the impact that your support and approval (as well as your criticism) have on your child. Be keenly aware of what you say to your child regarding his or her body. To help you with this, here are a few pointers about what you should and shouldn’t do to help your child embrace his or her body:
1. Avoid comments on size or weight. This includes comments about your child and other people—especially jokes. If the subject comes up, do not talk about the weight but about the impact that comments like that have on a person. The point is not to make rules about what’s okay or not okay to say but to help your child understand the effect our words have on others. Don’t just tell them not to make fun of someone’s size; explain that such comments have an impact on the self-esteem of others. Likely, your child will be able to relate to feeling hurt by another’s words. Parents, schools, religious groups, and pop culture need to convincingly confirm the reality that people come in all shapes, sizes, and colors—and that this is okay: tuning into situations like this is an opportunity to send a positive message that improves kids’ understanding and acceptance of diversity—and themselves—overall.
2. Help your child understand attraction. This includes what specifically he or she is attracted to, and the presence of attraction in all aspects of life: physical, emotional, relational, social, and spiritual. By helping your child identify what elements of something give him or her pleasure, you support your child’s enjoyment from the inside, instead of emphasizing looking outside for happiness. Whether it’s humor, music, sports, or another person they are enjoying, you can help your kids name out loud what specifically is so pleasing to them.
3. Shop with your children. Help them develop confidence in taking responsibility for their physical appearance through clothing selection. Explain to them the impact of first impressions and discuss what impression they want to make. While it’s true that kids like to shop with their friends, shopping with your kids and spending time out alone provides an invaluable opportunity to understand their daily experiences and process choices about appearance. When children want to select clothes that are not flattering to their bodies or are inappropriately revealing, tactfully steer them in another direction. If this guiding nudge doesn’t come from you, your children may become the objects of pointing fingers at school because of their poor choices.
4. Help with expectations. Guide your children about what to realistically expect from their sense of attractiveness physically, as well as emotionally, socially, and spiritually. Help them understand what attractiveness is in themselves and others and help them bring this into their lives. Help them understand that physical attractiveness can be very compelling; sustaining satisfaction usually occurs when we find it on many levels.
5. Pay attention to doubts and insecurities. Children will often leave small clues about their feelings to see if you’ll ask further. Don’t minimize their concerns; take them seriously, provide reassurance, and try to place their concerns in perspective.
6. 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—so that they realize that they shape their own identity.
7. Talk with your children. Discuss the images of attractiveness that they see in their world and what drives it—from the schoolyard to the big screen—and if it’s fulfilling. Don’t criticize or judge what they are saying—just talk with them so that you both can understand each other’s perspetive.
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.sexual problems.com.