Helping Teens with Negative Body Image
Negative body image is common among teenagers and can lead to a variety of problems, including low self-esteem, depression, and eating disorders. The way a child or teen views their own body can affect their well-being and their relationships with others. As a parent or guardian, it’s important to understand the signs and symptoms of negative body image in teens and how you can help your child overcome it. There are immediate, actionable things you can do right now to support your teen and promote a healthy body image.
Understanding Negative Body Image in Teens
Negative body image (or body distortion) is a distorted perception of one’s body, often accompanied by critical thoughts and feelings about one’s appearance. In teenagers, negative body image is heavily influenced by societal expectations, peer pressure, and media messages. School closings and the shift to online learning in 2020 intensified the reliance on digital media to define our value based on appearance.
Here are some signs and symptoms of negative body image in teens to look for:
- Constantly talking about weight, appearance, or food
- Comparing oneself to others
- Avoiding social situations or activities due to body shame
- Engaging in excessive dieting or exercise
- Spending excessive amounts of time in front of the mirror
- Expressing disgust or shame about certain body parts
- Anxiety or depression related to body image
With the right tools and support, you can help your teen develop a healthy body image and build a positive relationship with their body. Educate yourself to understand the risk factors and healthy habits to build in place of a negative body image.
Contributing Factors to Negative Body Image
- Genetics: Some individuals may be more prone to negative body image due to genetic factors, such as a predisposition to anxiety or depression.
- Social media: The rise of social media has led to unrealistic beauty standards and constant comparisons with others, which can contribute to negative body image.
- Family dynamics: Family members who are critical or preoccupied with appearance can contribute to negative body image in teens.
- Peer pressure: In this era of Tiktok, Instagram and YouTube, teens often feel pressure from their peers to conform to unrealistic beauty standards, which can negatively impact their body image. Filters used on social media platforms contribute to these idealized standards.
- Trauma or abuse: Traumatic experiences, such as sexual abuse or bullying, can contribute to negative body image in teens.
It’s important to understand that negative body image is not a choice, but rather a complex issue that requires compassion and support.
Helping Your Teen with Negative Body Image
As a parent or guardian, you play a crucial role in helping your teen overcome negative body image. Here are some strategies you can use to support your child:
Encourage open communication
- Create a safe space for your teen to talk about their feelings and concerns.
- Validate their emotions and avoid minimizing their struggles.
- Avoid criticism or judgment and focus on understanding their perspective.
Scroll to the end of this article to find suggested conversation starters.
Provide a safe and supportive environment
- Promote a positive home environment that values diversity and body positivity. Creating a safe space for your teen to talk about their feelings and concerns is crucial. Listen actively without interrupting or minimizing their struggles. Avoid criticism or judgment, and focus on understanding their perspective. Let them know that their feelings and experiences are valid and important.
- Avoid commenting on your child’s weight or appearance, even in a seemingly positive way.
- Encourage self-care and stress-reducing activities, such as mindfulness or meditation.
- Promote healthy habits, such as regular exercise and balanced nutrition.
Educate yourself and your teen about body positivity and diversity
- Teach your child that bodies come in all shapes and sizes and that there is no “ideal” body type.
- Encourage them to challenge beauty standards and media messages that perpetuate negative body image.
- Celebrate diversity and promote inclusivity in all aspects of life.
- Learn about body positivity and share resources with your teen.
- Though much attention is focused on girls navigating body image issues, boys also face the same pressures to meet a certain ideal male standard.
Help your teen develop a healthy relationship with food
- Avoid using food as a reward or punishment.
- Encourage your teen to listen to their body and eat when they are hungry and stop when they are full.
- Avoid labeling foods as “good” or “bad.”
- Promote balanced nutrition and avoid restrictive diets or fad trends.
Encourage healthy habits such as exercise and self-care
- Encourage regular exercise as a means of improving overall health and wellbeing.
- Focus on the positive benefits of exercise, such as increased energy and reduced stress, rather than weight loss.
- Encourage self-care activities, such as journaling, taking a relaxing bath or engaging in a hobby they enjoy.
Identifying triggers and avoiding negative influences
- Work with your teen to identify situations or people that trigger negative body image thoughts and help them develop strategies to avoid or mitigate those triggers.
- Encourage your teen to limit exposure to social media or other sources of negative body image messages.
- Teach your child coping strategies, such as positive self-talk or mindfulness, to manage difficult situations.
Conversation starters for social media discussions
Remember to use low-key language that your teen can relate to and feel comfortable with, and encourage them to express their thoughts and emotions openly. Being non-judgmental and empathetic can help create a supportive environment for discussing body image and social media with your teen. It’s often better to raise an issue with an orientation of I statements, as in, “I read” or “I saw” and “I felt” rather than lead with a direct question, especially in the first conversation. You want to communicate that you are a sounding board and not there to judge how your teen is using social media (unless your teen is using it in a risky or dangerous way).
Some of these conversation starters may help to begin. Customize in your own voice to fit your family and parenting style.
Top suggestion: The media itself is often the best conversation starter of all. Lead into this video “Victoria’s Secret.”, in which the musician (Jax) created an anthem by calling out media manipulation of body image. “I know Victoria’s Secret / Girl, you wouldn’t believe / She’s an old man who lives in Ohio / Making money off of girls like me / Cashing in on body issues / Selling skin and bones with big boobs…”
You may also want to start with the technical aspects of editing images and videos (which is much easier for your teen to talk about) and then feel your way from the how they do it to the why they do heavy editing.
Other ideas to try:
- “I felt so weird yesterday when I saw a video with that influencer, ________________. She didn’t look real. How do all those Insta models seem to get those ‘perfect’ bodies? “
- “I read this post about Josephine Livin in which she shows all the face and body morphing tricks that some influencers use. Do you think social media puts too much emphasis on looks and appearance? How does that affect how you see yourself?”
- “Have you ever felt like you need to keep up with the beauty standards you see on TikTok or Snapchat? How does that make you feel about your own body?”
- “What’s your vibe (parent, this may be too self-consciously slangy – you be the judge) when you scroll through social media and see people who seem to have it all together in terms of looks? Does it ever make you feel self-conscious?”
- “I was reading this article about the pressure boys are under to maintain this impossible standard of looks on Instagram. Do you feel like there’s a lot of pressure to look a certain way on social media? How do you handle that pressure?”
- “What do you think about the filters and editing that people use on social media to alter their appearance? I don’t know how they handle the pressure to look perfect all the time”
- “Do you think that social media gives a realistic or fake idea of beauty? How does that impact how you see yourself?”
- “I wonder how teens navigate the expectations and beauty ideals that social media promotes. Does it ever make you feel like you need to change how you look?”
- “Do you think that most videos and images are authentic or edited? Is there a way to tell the difference?”
- “How do you maintain a positive body image in a world where social media can sometimes create unrealistic beauty standards?”
Seek professional help when necessary
Be proactive in seeking professional help if you notice persistent signs of negative body image, such as changes in eating or exercise behaviors, withdrawal from social activities, or persistent low self-esteem.
Helping teens create a healthy body image requires a multi-faceted approach that includes education, open communication, creating a safe space, promoting healthy habits and seeking professional help when needed. By being supportive, understanding, and proactive, parents can play a crucial role in promoting positive body image and helping their teens develop a healthy relationship with their bodies.
For further reading about the impact of media and body image in children and teens, check out this Common Sense Media Research Brief.