Raising boys and girls with a strong body image.
The most important thing that parents and health care professionals can teach young children and teens is that their bodies will go through many changes, and that every day there may be something new at which to marvel.
Kids need to understand that it’s impossible to compare themselves to anyone else, as their bodies are unique and like no one else’s.
Puberty brings many changes to a developing body, and there may be days or months when one change is more apparent and other changes are subtler. Change may affect one’s body image, especially if puberty happens earlier or later for some individuals than for their friends or classmates. Parents should take notice of this, as a teen girl who develops breasts before her friends do may be uncomfortable with the change. The right bra and clothes may help her feel more comfortable, as well as help a girl who is not developing as fast as her peers.
Puberty affects boys in many ways as well, though you may not think boys focus on their appearance as much as girls do. If a young male feels that he is much shorter than his friends and has no chance of making the basketball team, a sports coach can teach him basketball skills that do not depend on height.
Your child’s health care provider will monitor your child’s growth and development and will alert you if further evaluation is needed. If your health care provider feels there are signs of puberty and the rate of your child’s growth is within normal limits, you can reassure your child he is developing normally.
Kids are going through changes and stages of puberty at younger ages. Genetics plays an important role in the developing body, and may influence puberty development. Children and teens need to realize that they may never be six feet tall if their parents are much shorter. They may also inherit many body traits that they share with family members, which can certainly affect their body image if they find the traits undesirable. The good news is that your children can change some body parts with good health habits, good nutrition choices and physical activity. When they realize that their choices can have a positive effect on their bodies, it can definitely impact their body image.
Appearance and Self-Image
As your children age, appearance becomes very important to them. Today’s role models are celebrities and teen models whom many young children and teens aspire to look like. This is an unrealistic expectation. Social media has reinforced that thinness is how beauty is measured. Photographs are altered and retouched, and a model may look very different in person. As a reality check, it’s important to point out people who are doing great things in the nation or world: They are the true role models.
With different views of beauty, what is considered healthy and desirable in one culture may be the opposite in another. If children and teens live in a neighborhood where there are no other kids of their ethnic/cultural background, they need to visit areas where children look like them. Seeing people with similar traits may increase their confidence and make them happier with their appearance.
If your teens want a new look that is realistic and can be obtained with increased physical activity and the right food choices, contact your health care provider for a referral to a nutritionist. When we think of body image, it is usually associated with an overweight child or teen who is uncomfortable once swimsuit season approaches, but we need to pay attention to the very thin child who is uncomfortable as well. At times, our kids may be sending the message that they feel very unhappy with their appearance, and that no one understands them. We need to listen and observe because this is the time when they may resort to unhealthy behaviors to try to fit in.
Poor self-image can lead to quick weight-loss conditions such as bulimia or anorexia. Kids may be eating full meals with family at home and with their peers at school, or they may be restricting certain amounts or types of food at meals and secretly eating large quantities. Both these behaviors can lead to eating disorders that involve the use of laxatives or vomiting to prevent weight gain and promote weight loss. Family members need to be aware of patterns that develop and become mindful of these eating disorders that have the potential to be harmful physically and emotionally.
Underweight kids who feel that they cannot achieve weight gain and increased muscle mass with typical meals and snacks may consume supplements or take steroids that are illegal without a prescription. Children and teens may hear about the benefits of steroids and supplements, and may want to take them to be able to lift heavier weights, run faster or hit a ball further. We must teach them that these products may have side effects that can lead to a number of health problems. Supplements that are not needed nutritionally can result in the loss of calcium, increased risk for osteoporosis and kidney problems. Health issues from steroids may not appear until years after they are taken.
How kids see themselves can come from a combination of messages they receive. Body image is influenced by feedback they start to get as small children. Children and teens are sensitive to both verbal and non-verbal messages. Teens who were overweight as children and constantly heard negative comments may still see themselves as overweight, even if that’s no longer the case.
As parents, we need to be careful about how we talk about our own body image. If our kids always hear the word diet and observe us struggling with our body image, they may imitate this behavior. We cannot always be with our children. We may think we have given them the tools to feel good about themselves, but they receive messages from their peers and the outside world as well.
Children who are not invited to a party or picked for a part in a play may think it’s because of how they look — not the fact that the birthday child can only invite a certain number of kids to the party or that there may be children who are more talented for a certain part in a play. We need to teach our children that in life decisions are based more on education, talent and skills than looks.
It is very important to recognize certain areas in which your children excel and to build on these areas. If they show artistic talent, excel in a particular subject in school or can fix anything that’s broken, you should give special focus to these areas, as doing so adds to their self-esteem.
How children view themselves is based on their everyday routine, the community in which they live and the people with whom they socialize. At times, you must widen their view of the world. Having them volunteer in a soup kitchen or visit the elderly are two good options. When children and teens realize they can help and make an impact on others, their self-image improves.
There are times when kids don’t feel good about themselves, and it may be unrelated to their size or shape. We need to be aware of our children’s feelings. They may need a bit of pampering — a new pair of glasses, a haircut or some special alone time with us — which can go a long way.
Some children or teens may not have a good self-image, even though they receive positive messages from parents, friends and teachers. They may need to talk to a health care professional if this is the case.
Children and teens change from one day to the next, and so do their concerns. As parents, we need to treat each concern realistically and realize that our children need someone they can talk to about any subject, that their opinions matter and that they need to feel respected, loved and valued.
Sheryl Zang, EdD, FNP, CNS-BC, is an Associate Professor at Downstate Medical Center, College of Nursing. She has been a nurse for 38 years and is presently running groups for diabetic children and teens.