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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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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