Growing children face a range of positive and negative influences that contribute to their sense of self. It can be easy for children to form a negative body image if they compare themselves with their peers and with people they see online or on TV. Even though you cannot prevent this, it is possible to be aware of what is happening and how can reduce the impact of various influences on your child's body image.
Taking a balanced approach
In a culture that places an emphasis on “attractiveness”, it is not surprising that children are expressing dissatisfaction with their bodies. As a result, some children are dieting before their teen years. In extreme cases, some children are developing disordered eating habits and turning to pro-anorexia websites.
As a parent, you play an important role in promoting a positive body image. You may need to be mindful of your own attitude to food and the value you place on physical appearance. Developing a healthy relationship with food and accepting your own body will rub off on your child. They will learn to regard food as fuel rather than a comfort or something to be controlled. Unhealthy attitudes to food could lead to obesity or an eating disorder such as anorexia.
You should be aware of the influence your messages (intended or not) have on your child. Emphasize the full range of your child’s skills, not just their appearance, and promote activities and hobbies that give your child a sense of achievement. Avoid criticizing your child or encouraging them to diet, as it could make an unhealthy situation even worse.
Dealing with media influences
Media ranging from newspapers and TV to websites and social networking outlets often present conflicting messages. They promote a narrow version of beauty but also advertise junk food.
For a long time, children have been targeted by advertising. What may be surprising is that children are now starting to request specific brands of products from as young as age two. However, you can take steps to keep the role of the media in your child’s life in check.
Limiting your child’s screen time (TV, internet and video games) is a positive first step in helping them stay healthy. Research shows that more time in front of the TV leads to an increased interest in junk food.
Another step towards a healthy body image is to encourage your child to question the messages they receive from the media. Having them think about the messages in advertisements can help them separate fact from fiction and make better informed choices for their health.
Focus on physical activity
A healthy body image is more easily achieved when a child or teen has a healthy body weight for their age and height. Healthy eating habits play the biggest role in keeping a healthy body weight, but the benefits of physical activity should not be ignored.
Including physical activity in your child’s routine from a young age gives your child essential movement skills. It also promotes greater self-confidence, as children develop social skills through playing with others. They also learn to appreciate what their bodies can do rather than how they appear.
Trying out a range of activities will give your child the best opportunity to do to something they enjoy. This does not need to involve organized sports. Your child can build physical activity into their routine by playing outside, cycling to school or helping to walk the family dog.
Taking a balanced approach to both nutrition and physical activity will help keep your child on track for a lifetime of healthy habits.