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Parenting Teens: 5 Ways to Promote a Healthy Body Image

“Mirror, mirror, on the wall, why do I even look at myself at all?”

Have you noticed a shift in your teen’s self-esteem recently? Suddenly your confident, strong and outgoing child is more negative and critical about how they look, how they feel and about who they are.

While it’s normal for teens and adolescents to lack confidence from time to time, self-esteem can be particularly hard for young people, especially through puberty.

Why self-esteem and self-worth are important

Having confidence in yourself is related to your self-esteem, which is feeling good about yourself and feeling that you are a worthwhile person. Having confidence helps teens, especially during these formative years, make better informed decisions, be more assertive, engaged and persistent.

On the other hand, teens who lack confidence are more likely to have low self-esteem, feel unloved or unwanted, are less likely to try as hard when things get tough and may be more willing to give into peer pressure.

The influence of social media and societal pressures

At home, your teen may be told to be happy in their own skin, but everywhere else around them they may see impossible-to-obtain images. This is in most part due to social media and the importance our society places on the way we should look and feel.

“Image issues affect both boys and girls, but in different ways,” said Rashell Orey, a licensed master social worker with Banner Health. “Boys start to feel the pressure to be buff and masculine by excessively working out or taking steroids to achieve their goal, whereas for girls it’s to be skinny, add makeup and even extensions to look a certain way.”

The persistent focus on what’s on the outside versus what’s on the inside can contribute to teenage body image issues and eating disorders, such as bulimia and anorexia. For some, body image issues can lead to a mental health condition known as body dysmorphic disorder.

Develop a positive self-image and self-esteem

It’s important to start having conversations early with your child, but you may be unsure exactly how to approach body image and self-esteem. Here are five ways you can help your teen develop a healthy self-perception and appreciation for their body and who they are as a person.

1. Start with yourself

How you talk about yourself can set a powerful example for your child. Sure, there are things that, if given the chance, we would do here and there to improve your appearance, but remember your child is always paying attention to you—whether you think they are or not.

You are a role model for your child. Follow healthy eating and physical activity that you’d like your child to follow. When you care for and appreciate your body, they’ll learn to do the same with their body.

2. Compliment what’s on the inside

Praise personal qualities you notice in your teen, such as kindness, work ethic and effort. Doing so may help remind them that there is more to them than their outward appearance.

3. Get out and volunteer

Another way to help your teen feel more valued and important is through volunteering. Teen health is often affected by social factors, such as connections with you (their family), their friends, school and community.

A study in the Journal of Adolescence, suggests that teens who are involved in altruistic behaviors, such volunteering and helping strangers in need, have higher feelings of self-worth. Other studies have shown that volunteering can also help them feel more socially connected and instill a deeper sense of gratitude.

4. Talk to them

Whether it’s talking about puberty, their bodies or the “sex talk,” it is important to keep a regular conversation going with your teen. You can talk about unrealistic body images in the media and discuss problems or concerns they may have about their bodies.

These types of conversations can go a long way in helping them feel comfortable with who they are, and they may be more apt to come to you when they have questions versus friends or the internet. Your teen still needs a strong relationship with you, and you can do this by working on open communication and staying connected with them.

5. Monitor social media usage

This might be easier said than done—especially if they have their own devices—but pay attention to the messages your teen is being exposed to and what they are posting on social media. Try to set limits on your teen’s internet usage as well as discuss with them who they are following and what they are posting to help keep their platform a positive place to scroll.

Watch for unhealthy behaviors or actions

As your teen navigates young adulthood, insecurities may begin to creep in. It’s not uncommon for your most self-assured child to be down at times. If your teen has become so consumed with their body image that other problems arise, outside help may be necessary.

Some of these problems may be:

  • They obsess about counting calories
  • You hear them throwing up You notice food missing or stashed away somewhere
  • They obsess about working out all the time
  • Their grades in school decline or they lose interest in usual activities
  • They become more socially withdrawn

If you are concerned about your teen or would like more advice and guidance, reach out to your teen’s primary care doctor or a licensed behavior health specialist. Together they can work with you and your teen, if necessary, to find ways to strengthen their self-worth and confidence.

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