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Helping Your Child Build a Healthy Body Image


Last week's Counselor's Corner Blog post focused on the importance of self-love. One way we can help children develop a love for themselves, is by encouraging a positive body image. Children’s opinions of their bodies form at a very young age. I recently read an article in Today.com that suggests that children as young as 3 years old can have body image issues There are many things that influence how children see themselves. Parents play a critical role in helping children develop a positive body image and healthy self-esteem. In fact, did you know that February is Love your Body Month? This is such a great month to talk to your child about what it means to love and accept themselves for who they are, from the inside out.

Body image is a person's perception of their physical self and the thoughts and feelings, positive, negative or both, which result from that perception

Body image can be defined as "how you see yourself in the mirror and how you picture yourself in your mind". To better understand what this means on a deeper level, lets take a look at the four components of body image:

  • Perceptual body image is how someone actually sees their body. The way you see your body is not always a correct representation of what you actually look like.

  • Affective body image is how someone actually feels about their body. This can include height, shape, and weight.

  • Cognitive body image is how someone thinks about their body. This can lead to preoccupation of body shape and weight. For example, someone may believe that if they are thinner or more muscular, they will be happier.

  • Behavioral body image is made of the unhealthy behaviors as a result of how someone sees, feels, and thinks about their body. When someone is experiencing body dissatisfaction, they may isolate themselves or engage in destructive behaviors such as excessive exercise or disordered eating in order to change their appearance

Why Body Image Matters

When your child is able accept, appreciate and respect their body, they have a healthy body image. Helping your child build a healthy body image is critical for many reasons. Here are just a few:

  • increased self-esteem which contributes to happiness and well-being.

  • self-acceptance which results in less societal pressure to look a certain way

  • healthy outlook and behaviors related to food and exercise

  • unhealthy body image can increase the risk for shame, isolation, depression, and eating disorders

Teaching children about healthy body image can be tricky. While we may try to send the message to our children that bodies come in all shapes in sizes, and the importance of not comparing yourself to others, for children, this can be a difficult message to grasp. On one hand, children are told how important it is to accept their bodies and love themselves for who they are, but society, media, and even extended family members can send a very contradictory message.

So, what can parents do? Here are a few tips (and things to avoid):

  • Open Communication: Begin with a conversation; ask gentle questions to help understand what they are feeling and what sparked the concern. Has someone every said something mean about their body or someone else's body? How did it make them feel? Listen attentively as they express their thoughts.

  • Use of Language: Avoid too much talk about weight and using the word “fat” in the home. But if it does come up, explain about what fat is — like muscle, bone and blood — it is an important part of the body. Explain to your child that fat is something we have, not something we are. Furthermore, that we don’t describe anybody (including ourselves) as fat. It never makes anyone feel good.

In addition, here are some expert-approved phrases to help you navigate the issues of weight, health, and size stigma with your kids:

Instead of: “Being fat is bad for you.”

Say: “Weight is one way to measure health. There’s also blood pressure, the foods you eat, and how much sleep you get.”

Instead of: “That person is fat.”

Say: “That man is bigger than you and me, but people come in all different sizes, and that’s okay.”

Instead of: “I’m fat, and Daddy is thin.”

Say: “I’m shaped more like a circle, and Daddy is more like a ruler.”

Instead of: “You shouldn’t eat that.”

Say: “Let’s see if there are some other choices that we can make today.”

Source: Parents Magazine

  • Encouraging Healthy Habits: Body image is a part of overall health along with physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being. Talk about how healthy food choices and being physically active would affect how they looked and felt, but keeping the discussion age-appropriate (avoid talk of diets).

  • Focus On Skills Versus Appearance: During your conversation, describe to your child in detail what you love about them; their confidence, poise, laugh, their eyes, etc. Talk to them about their strengths, how important their contributions are to the family and to people around them.

  • Media influences: Encourage your child to think critically about messages and images they see and hear in the media.

  • Puberty: Help your child understand that their body will change, especially throughout puberty.

  • Be a healthy role model: If parents are wrapped up in anxiety of their own bodies, it is likely going to rub off on your child. Be mindful of what you are saying about your body in front of your child or how often your child sees that you are getting on the scale. This also includes being mindful of talking critically about other people's body types or eating habits in front of your child.

  • Avoid sexualizing. These days it is hard to avoid any kind of media, including cartoons, that don't show some kind of sexualizing of girls (and even boys). I am not saying that you should avoid allowing your child to watch these shows, but instead watch it with them and have conversations about what they are viewing. For example, what do you think about that characters body or the clothes that he/she is wearing? Do you think that is realistic? What kind of message do you think it says about how girls/boys should look?

  • Avoid comparisons. Teach your child that all bodies are good bodies. Help them understand that it is unfair to compare their body to someone else since we are all unique and our bodies are all built differently.

  • Talk about the wonderful things that their body helps them do. For example, my arms help me to hit a baseball, my stomach tells me when I am hungry, and my legs help me run.

  • Be aware of some of the warning signs of eating disorders. Understand that these warning signs can appear before puberty. Watch for: refusing typical family meals, skipping meals, comments about self and others like “I’m too fat; they’re too fat,” clothes shopping that becomes stressful, withdrawal from friends, irritability and depression, or any signs of extreme dieting, bingeing or purging.

Following these steps can help but it doesn’t mean your kiddos will be fully protected from body image struggles, self-esteem issues, or even eating disorders. A lot of those issues are bigger than we are—and are woven into the fabric of our society. The best thing you can do is start the conversation, be a good role model, and recognize the warning signs that your child may be struggling and need additional help.


Here are some videos to watch with your child and then discuss their thoughts about what they saw or hear heard. (I would suggest previewing first to make sure appropriate for your child's age)

Most of these videos come from the Dove Real Beauty Campaign. I strongly encourage you to checkout this link for even more helpful resources for parents.


Blog Sources:

  1. How to Talk to Kids About Body Image

  2. How to Talk to Your Daughter About Healthy Body Image

  3. Promoting a Positive Body Image

  4. How to Talk to Kids (and Other Humans) About Body Image

  5. National Eating Disorders Collaboration

  6. Developing and Modeling a Healthy Body Image (National Eating Disorders Association)

  7. Mayo Clinic

Have questions or want some more insight about eating disorders or seeking help for a loved one who may be struggling with an eating disorder? EDIN is a great Atlanta-based resource for you to check out.


And as always, if you have questions and/or concerns about your child's social or emotional well-being, please do not hesitate to email me.


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