- In a survey, two-thirds of parents said their children felt insecure about their appearance.
- They reported that their children’s self-esteem was affected by these feelings.
- In addition, many children were mistreated because of their appearance.
- Experts say this is a common feeling in childhood and adolescence.
- However, there is much parents can do to support and educate their children.
According to a new survey conducted by CS Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor, MI, 64% of parents said their children are unsure about some aspect of their appearance, such as their weight, skin or breast size .
1,653 parents with at least one child aged eight to 18 took part in the nationally representative survey.
Parents who took part in the survey said they observed these feelings more frequently in teenagers than in younger children. 73% of teenage girls and 69% of teenage boys felt this way, compared to 57% of young girls and 49% of boys.
In 27% of cases, they said their child’s self-esteem had negatively impacted their self-esteem, while 20% said their child did not want to participate in activities because of their feelings.
Almost as many (18%) had refused to appear in photographs and 17% had tried to hide their appearance with clothing. In addition, 8% had eaten restrictively.
Many respondents said their children were often mistreated because of their appearance by other children (28%), strangers (12%), family members (12%), teachers (5%) and healthcare providers (5%). .
Two-thirds of these parents felt their child knew how they were being treated.
Mott Poll’s co-director, Dr. Susan Woolford, MPH, a childhood obesity expert and pediatrician at the University of Michigan’s CS Mott Children’s Hospital, said these findings are important.
“Negative body image can contribute to low self-esteem and ultimately affect emotional well-being,” she noted. “That’s why it’s important to help children and young people to have a positive body image.”
According to Eileen Anderson-Fye, EdD, director of education, bioethics, and medical humanities and associate professor of psychiatry at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, these feelings are common in children. “Most teenagers feel uncomfortable or insecure in at least some context of their lives,” she noted.
Anderson-Fye explained, “Developmentally, adolescents bring parts of their brains online that allow for a better comparison of where they fit into their social world relative to others.”
She added that at this stage in their development, they are better at using abstraction, which allows them to imagine themselves in different scenarios and make comparisons between their developing bodies and those of others.
“Body image issues have long been a source of self-conscious uneasiness for adolescents in many societies, cultures and subcultures,” Anderson-Fye said.
She further pointed out how the ubiquity of social media complicates this issue.
“Not only do they compare themselves – and are compared – to others in their immediate world, but they also have instant, constant and filtered images from national and global media to contend with.”
“They often look at idealized, edited images of a person’s best moments and compare their worst,” she added.
She also pointed out that ideals of attractiveness are constantly changing, so children can never achieve those ideals.
Plus, she explained, they have to worry about someone capturing them at a bad moment and posting them on social media, where the photo could live on forever.
Both Woolford and Anderson-Fye say there’s a lot parents can do to help their children at this difficult time in their lives.
Model what you preach
Anderson-Fye explained that first and foremost it is very important that parents “exemplify what they preach”.
“The mother who belittles herself in front of the mirror and then expects her daughter to feel good, or the father who talks about his physical flaws but expects his son to feel confident, [those parents] exemplary behavior that the children adopt over time,” she said.
She suggests that parents praise children’s character traits, not their looks. “‘You really showed up for your girlfriend when she was upset’ has more clout than ‘Well you girls still look so beautiful.'”
Talk to them about their feelings
Woolford also suggests that parents talk to their children about what’s happening to their bodies, explaining that the things they’re uncomfortable with can change over time. She adds that parents can let them know that most people feel insecure at some point, which puts the pressure they’re feeling into context.
“It’s also important to talk to children about the unrealistic images they see in the media and to discuss the importance of diversity,” Woolford said. “This will help children understand that we are all unique and that those differences need to be celebrated and embraced.”
Anderson-Fye added that parents should listen carefully to what their teens are saying, without being dismissive or assuming, and ask follow-up questions. She advises going “in the spirit of Ted Lasso: Be Curious, Not Judgmental.”
Get a grip on social media
When it comes to social media, there’s a lot parents can do to educate their kids about the realities of filters, “Photoshop,” and angles of view, Anderson-Fye said. Also, directing them to body-positive social media feeds and influencers can help.
She also advises that parents should not post photos of their children on social media unless their children have given their consent.
“There’s so much out of control in the lives of young people and especially on social media to give them control and respect for what their own family contributions are important to,” she said. “As a mother of three adolescent girls, I feel that pain myself, but in the long run it pays off in your relationship and in the children’s sense of respect and control.”
Put them in supportive environments
Finally, Anderson-Fye said, “If parents are concerned about their teen, they can offer resources like counseling or opportunities to meet with a trusted friend or family member.”
She also suggests finding out where children feel most “themselves” and trying to nurture these environments as confidence boosters for children.