5 Ways to Nurture a Positive Body Image In Kids

5 Ways to Nurture a Positive Body Image in Kids

Sometimes you can actually hear the whoosh. It sounds like a heavy sigh but is actually the sound of another load of confidence taking a dive, usually pushed by a mirror, a size tag or a set of scales. They’re the dirty little liars in our midst.

 If negative body image was caused by a pathogen, we’d be lining up the kids in our lives for immunity.

Having a positive body image doesn’t mean believing your body to be the picture of perfection. What it means is that the body is accepted and embraced as it is – bumps, bends, curves and all.

First (not that you probably need it) here are the stats:

 According to Eating Disorders Victoria:

  • Eating disorders are on the rise in boys and men.
  • 1 in 8 of women have had an eating disorder at some time in their lives.
  • In Australia, 28% of males and 35% of women aged 11-24 are dissatisfied with their appearance.
  • 41% of children are worried about how they look. 44% of girls and 27% of boys worry about being overweight. 16% worry about being too skinny.
  • A 2007 Sydney University study of nearly 9000 adolescents found that one-fifth of teenage girls starved themselves or vomited to control their weight. 8% smoked to control weight. Boys are doing it too.
  • In a study commissioned by Dove involving 3,300 girls and women aged between 15 and 64 from 10 countries, it was found that 67% of women withdraw from life-engaging activities because they feel bad about they way they look.

Now for the good news. There’s plenty we can do to protect our kids – boys and girls – against the assault of a negative body image:

  1. Model self-compassion.

    A recent study found that self-compassion protects girls and young women against unhealthy weight-control practices and eating disorders. Women who were able to be gentle to themselves in the face of disappointments and upsets had a more positive body image and better eating habits. Being kind to yourself in the face of disappointment will make it more likely that your kids will follow.

  2. Make positive comments about others.

    Whenever you can, make generous comments to your kiddos about people of all shapes. Confident people (not arrogant people) radiate a beauty that is enviable and unmissable. Let your children know that beauty doesn’t only come in a size 6, by pointing out other forms of beauty when you see it. This will counter the constant bombardment by the media that it’s otherwise. 

  1. No trash talk.

    Avoid talking about weight or the parts of your body you don’t like. If you need to do it because the absence of self-criticism is making you shudder, just try to avoid doing it in front of your kids. They’ll pick it up and they’ll run with it because out of everything they want to be, the thing they want to be the most is just like you. There is nobody more influential. They’ll follow your footsteps before they follow your advice. 

  1. Exposure to healthy cultures.

    Encourage your kids to participate in sports or activities that value performance over looks.

  1. Counter the comparisons.

    Harvard researchers found that when cable made it to Fiji in 1995 (Friends, Ally McBeal, Melrose Place and the like), rates of anorexia nervosa and bulimia skyrocketed. Prior to this, fuller figures were appreciated and eating disorders were almost unheard of on the island. Fast forward a few years, and girls who watched these shows at least three times a week were 50% more like to have a distorted body image. Many aspects of the media are relentless in their promotion of perfection and supermodel-esque beauty above all else. Nobody looks like the people in the photos. Not even the people in the photos. Let your kids know. They’re never too young to hear it.

The push against society’s blind infatuation with the perfect body shape isn’t easy. Occasionally I’ve found myself buying into the propaganda. It generally coincides with the lumbering escape of my body from a not so obliging zip but fortunately, these days, the buy-ins are short-lived.

None of us were born hating our bodies. Recently, 50 children and adults were asked what they would change about their bodies. The adults were asked first and their answers included ‘my Dumbo ears’, ‘my crooked feet’, ‘my skin’, ‘my eyes’. Then the kids had their turn and their answers were breathtaking – ‘a mermaid’s tail’, ‘wings’, ‘a shark’s mouth – to eat a lot of stuff’, ‘I like my body actually’ and ‘I don’t think there’s anything to change’. You can see the video by the Jubilee Project here. It’s beautiful, moving, confronting and deserves to be seen.

Children are clever and will pick up on the inconsistencies between what we say in the public moments and what we do in the private ones.

The way we treat ourselves is critical in protecting our kids against the insult of body image propaganda.

Stand between them and the propaganda and they’ll move mountains, or at the very least wave a confident, commanding ‘shush’ to a flimsy photo-shopped world that would have them believe that they can’t.

[irp posts=”1338″ name=”19 Practical, Powerful Ways to Build Social-Emotional Intelligence in Kids & Teens:”]

4 Comments

Sarah

How would you so this if you’ve already altered your body to fit the popular image?

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Tammy

Thank you for sharing, this is so beautifully touching! I would like to think that I encourage my children to see beauty in all people & will definitely continue to do so.
I loved the video, it made my day. X

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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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