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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For way too long, there’s been an idea that discipline has to make kids feel bad if it’s going to steer them away from bad choices. But my gosh we’ve been so wrong. 

The idea is a hangover from behaviourism, which built its ideas on studies done with animals. When they made animals scared of something, the animal stopped being drawn to that thing. It’s where the idea of punishment comes from - if we punish kids, they’ll feel scared or bad, and they’ll stop doing that thing. Sounds reasonable - except children aren’t animals. 

The big difference is that children have a frontal cortex (thinking brain) which animals and other mammals don’t have. 

All mammals have a feeling brain so they, like us, feel sad, scared, happy - but unlike us, they don’t feel shame. The reason animals stop doing things that make them feel bad is because on a primitive, instinctive level, that thing becomes associated with pain - so they stay away. There’s no deliberate decision making there. It’s raw instinct. 

With a thinking brain though, comes incredibly sophisticated capacities for complex emotions (shame), thinking about the past (learning, regret, guilt), the future (planning, anxiety), and developing theories about why things happen. When children are shamed, their theories can too easily build around ‘I get into trouble because I’m bad.’ 

Children don’t need to feel bad to do better. They do better when they know better, and when they feel calm and safe enough in their bodies to access their thinking brain. 

For this, they need our influence, but we won’t have that if they are in deep shame. Shame drives an internal collapse - a withdrawal from themselves, the world and us. For sure it might look like compliance, which is why the heady seduction with its powers - but we lose influence. We can’t teach them ways to do better when they are thinking the thing that has to change is who they are. They can change what they do - they can’t change who they are. 

Teaching (‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘How can you put this right?’) and modelling rather than punishing or shaming, is the best way to grow beautiful little humans into beautiful big ones.

#parenting
Sometimes needs will come into being like falling stars - gently fading in and fading out. Sometimes they will happen like meteors - crashing through the air with force and fury. But they won’t always look like needs. Often they will look like big, unreachable, unfathomable behaviour. 

If needs and feelings are too big for words, they will speak through behaviour. Behaviour is the language of needs and feelings, and it is always a call for us to come closer. Big feelings happen as a way to recruit support to help carry an emotional load that feels too big for our kids and teens. We can help with this load by being a strong, calm, loving presence, and making space for that feeling or need to be ‘heard’. 

When big behaviour or big feelings are happening, whenever you can be curious about the need behind it. There will always be a valid one. Meet them where they without needing them to be different. Breathe, validate, and be with, and you don’t need to do more than that. 

Part of building resilience is recognising that some days and some things are rubbish, and that sometimes those days and things last for longer than they should, but we get through. First we feel floored, then we feel stuck, then we shift because the only choices we have we have are to stay down or move, even when moving hurts. Then, eventually we adjust - either ourselves, the problem, or to a new ‘is’. 

But the learning comes from experience. They can’t learn to manage big feelings unless they have big feelings. They can’t learn to read the needs behind their feelings if they don’t have the space to let those big feelings come back to small enough so the needs behind them can step forward. 

When their world has spikes, and when we give them a soft space to ‘be’, we ventilate their world. We help them find room for their out breath, and for influence, and for their wisdom to grow from their experiences and ours. In the end we have no choice. They will always be stronger and bigger and wiser and braver when they are with you, than when they are without. It’s just how it is.♥️
When kids or teens have big feelings, what they need more than anything is our strong, safe, loving presence. In those moments, it’s less about what we do in response to those big feelings, and more about who we are. Think of this like providing a shelter and gentle guidance for their distressed nervous system to help it find its way home, back to calm. 

Big feelings are the way the brain calls for support. It’s as though it’s saying, ‘This emotional load is too big for me to carry on my own. Can you help me carry it?’ 

Every time we meet them where they are, with a calm loving presence, we help those big feelings back to small enough. We help them carry the emotional load and build the emotional (neural) muscle for them to eventually be able to do it on their own. We strengthen the neural pathways between big feelings and calm, over and over, until that pathway is so clear and so strong, they can walk it on their own. 

Big beautiful neural pathways will let them do big, beautiful things - courage, resilience, independence, self regulation. Those pathways are only built through experience, so before children and teens can do any of this on their own, they’ll have to walk the pathway plenty of times with a strong, calm loving adult. Self-regulation only comes from many experiences of co-regulation. 

When they are calm and connected to us, then we can have the conversations that are growthful for them - ‘Can you help me understand what happened?’ ‘What can help you so this differently next time?’ ‘How can you put things right? Do you need my help to do that?’ We grow them by ‘doing with’ them♥️
Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting

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