By: Alison Ross, LMFT, CEDS
Is your child or teen experiencing body image stress? Here's a guide to help you help your child turn that stress into confidence.
Why Not to Your Child's Body Image Stress by Encouraging Dieting or Restrictive Eating
First off, let me explain why it's not a good idea to respond to your child's body image stress by encouraging weight loss strategies or restrictive diets. Children and teens shouldn't spend their formative years consumed with worries about weight or anxiety about food. Restrictive eating and weight worries during their developing years can disrupt their mental and physical health. There are many reasons you shouldn't encourage your child to restrict their eating. Here are four of them:
Dieting in the first two decades of life can disrupt healthy development. The first two decades of life are a critical time of growth and development for a child. As such, they require an adequate intake of nutrition to support the achievement of developmental milestones. Children and teens need essential nutrients such as proteins, carbohydrates, healthy fats, vitamins, and minerals. Protein is crucial for the growth of tissues and muscles, carbohydrates provide energy, healthy fats support brain development, and various vitamins and minerals each play their unique role in ensuring the overall health and well-being of your child. When body image stress takes over and a child becomes focused on restricting their eating to promote weight loss, they risk malnutrition during their most important development years. This can hinder the healthy development of their brains and bodies, and set them up for physical and mental health disorders that can last a lifetime.
Promoting dieting can support unrealistic appearance standards, perpetuating unattainable ideals and a negative body image. When we encourage kids and teens to diet or lose weight, we might unintentionally reinforce their worry that their natural body shape, size, and growth curve are inadequate. This can lead to them associating self-worth with weight, and can worsen their body image and self-esteem. It also contributes to adopting unrealistic appearance standards and the pursuit of unattainable body ideals. Society's imposed beauty standards are unrealistic and unsustainable for most, and striving for them can negatively impact your child's mental health, triggering stress, anxiety, disordered eating, and eating disorders.
Food restriction is not healthy; it's a pathway to disordered eating. The practice of restricting food is a major predictor of developing eating disorders in both males and females, increasing the risk by four-fold. It's crucial to understand that there's never a valid reason to deprive a body of the nutrition it needs. Food restriction frequently leads to overeating and getting stuck in restricting-overeeating cycles. While initial weight loss can occur with dieting, the brain quickly responds to restrictive eating by entering survival mode to prevent malnutrition or starvation. This can create a hungry-brain state where your child becomes hyper-focused on seeking food, perpetuating a cycle of yo-yo dieting, emotional eating, bingeing, a loss of eating control, and more profound body image and weight struggles.
Encouraging dieting can reinforce your child's fear that their natural body is a problem. When teenagers feel distressed about their body image, it's important not to reinforce the harmful notion that their body is a problem. Instead, focus on the deeper issue; body image stress often stems from social stressors in their life. All kids go through social challenges during their development, like losing friends or feeling like they don't belong. It's normal, and they can learn valuable lessons from facing these pressures head-on and working through them (with your support). Diet culture perpetuates the false idea that people with certain body types have no social problems and are always popular and included. As a result, when your child faces social difficulties, they may falsely believe that they'd be treated better if they conformed to a specific appearance, or that losing weight would solve all their problems. But what they really need in these moments is not to strive for approval by trying to be someone they're not. Instead, talk with them about where the body image pressure is coming from and help them find the right friends and activities that connect them with people who truly respect and appreciate them. They might even benefit from therapy to get support in working through the social problems that cause them to worry about their appearance. (Read on below for guidance on how to have this talk with your child or teen.)
How to Respond to Your Child's Body Image Stress in Way That Helps Them Turn Their Worries into Confidence.
Now that I've highlighted four reasons why it's not advisable to promote dieting and weight loss when your child is struggling with body image, let's explore ways you can respond to their body image concerns in a manner that empowers and boosts their confidence.
Think of your child's body image stress as an opportunity.
When your child begins expressing dissatisfaction with their body image, it can be stressful for you as a parent. However, try shifting your perspective. Instead of viewing their pain as a problem, see it as an opportunity to engage in a meaningful conversation about the challenges of living in a culture that, in some aspects, places excessive emphasis on appearance. By initiating a dialogue about the pressures they face, you can help them navigate and overcome diet culture challenges with time.
Empathize with their feelings and open up to listen to the pressure they're experiencing. We often rush to tell our children not to feel bad about their bodies. However, it's important to genuinely acknowledge their feelings. Unfortunately, it's common for kids to experience body concerns at some point in their lives. They live in a society that places value on extreme and trendy body types, and are constantly bombarding with toxic messages about weight, appearance, and eating. When they express worries about not measuring up, it's a sign that they have absorbed the diet culture pressures all around them. By acknowledging that many people experience these concerns due to societal pressures, we open up a dialogue. Simultaneously, it's crucial to convey your sadness that your beautiful and perfect child feels this way about themselves. Let your love shine through as you normalize their worries while challenging the notion that anything is wrong with them. A compassionate statement could be: "I'm sorry to hear that you're feeling bad about your body. It sounds like you're under a lot of pressure about your appearance. Just so you know, I think you're perfect just the way you are. I'm here to support you and I'm curious to understand what's making you feel this way. Can we talk it through and find a way to help you feel better?"
Explore where the pressure they feel is coming from. Once you've opened up the conversation, explore where your child's body image pressure might be coming from. They might have internalized body-negative messages from friends, influencers, or even family members. It's useful to pinpoint the source of these pressures so that you can address them together with your child. In our society, influencers and marketers have been making us feel insecure about our bodies for years, all to sell their products and services. It's unfortunate that these messages are everywhere and have affected the minds of many of the people in your child's life. Your child is growing up in an environment where there's pressure all around them, from screens to relatives, friends, coaches, peers, and even teachers who, often unknowingly, contribute to body image pressure. For instance, when my child was in kindergarten, he came home and asked me, "Mom, are calories bad?" It seemed like someone at school was just echoing their parents' fear of calories, which made my child uneasy about eating lunch. I felt a mix of anger and stress, but I managed to stay calm and take it as an opportunity. I took that chance to explain that calories are actually energy and how important they are for his growth and well-being. When it comes to your child, it's useful to gently ask about when they started feeling bad about their bodies. Did someone say something to them? Have they been exposed to body- or food-shaming messages? Do they have friends or other influencers in their lives who talk negatively about food or bodies? Is someone in your home expressing body image or eating worries? Your role here is to have a gentle conversation to understand where the pressure is coming from. Be mindful not to force your child into a discussion they're not ready for. Find a time when stress is low and they are open, like when you're driving together or going for a walk. Unless the problem is urgent, and quickly turning toward an eating disorder, there's no need to rush. You can have this conversation gradually over time.
Gently challenge the idea that your child's body is the problem.
Once you understand where the pressure your child feels is coming from, gently challenge the notion that your child's body is the problem. Instead, focus on addressing the pressure they feel; which is usually the actual problem! For instance, if they're exposed to body-negative and food-negative messages, talk about the intention, insecurity, or profit-motivate behind these messages and who benefits from them. If a loved one is pressuring them, discuss why someone might do that and emphasize the importance of setting boundaries. If they face social pressure, have a conversation about their friendships and help them understand what true friendship means. Encourage them to establish their own boundaries and seek out people who appreciae them for who they are and treat them well.
Be patient and take your time. Being patient and taking your time is crucial when supporting your child through their body insecurity journey. Imagine yourself as their ally, walking alongside them as they navigate the various toxic pressures they may encounter. Remember, it might take time for your child or teenager to open up about their body image stress. Approach these conversations with openness and encourage them to share their thoughts and feelings without any fear of judgment. Keep in mind that these conversations are not one-time events but an ongoing dialogue. By acknowledging the pressures our kids face and becoming dependable guides, we can make body image an open topic of conversation that empowers our children to transform body insecurity into self-confidence. Above all, as we help them accept and appreciate their bodies, we can steer them away from the distress of body insecurity and the pain of living a weight-focused existence.
Consider seeking professional help for your child.
If you find that you're struggling to adequately support your child or feel that their issues with body image and self-esteem may be leading towards an eating disorder, seek professional help from an eating disorder therapist as soon as possible. Engaging a qualified therapist can be beneficial in navigating these complex and sensitive issues. A therapist can coach you to help your child, or can work directly with your child to help them resolve the pressure they are feeling before it progresses into a bigger preoccupation or an eating disorder. While the cost of therapy may seem daunting, it's important to weigh this against the potential cost of treating an eating disorder later down the line. Early intervention and preventative measures can not only lower the financial burden but also prevent significant emotional distress for your child.
Remember, fostering an open dialogue about body image, recognizing and challenging societal pressures your child if facing, and seeking professional help when necessary, are crucial steps in supporting teens with body image issues and preventing the development of eating disorders. And remember, you're not alone, reach out if you need help.