Many people are unhappy with their bodies and this can make them feel self-conscious. A negative body image can have long-lasting effects on self-esteem – especially for children.
So, what can be done? Here is some guidance for recognising, preventing or alleviating a child’s problems with negative body image and poor self-esteem.
Children who like themselves are confident and comfortable in their own skin. They are less likely to suffer from social anxieties or worries. A positive attitude is a great platform - for learning, and for living.
Confidence and self-esteem help your child to be resilient in the face of setbacks. If they can take criticism and brush off failure, they are better able to learn and stretch themselves with new challenges. Good self-esteem stops them focusing on any flaws or comparing themselves unfavourably with others.
For many people, unfortunately, self-esteem is closely allied with their personal appearance.
Low self-esteem is pervasive. The NSPCC organised 35,244 counselling sessions for children with this problem between 2014 and 2015.
Most body-image and self-esteem issues occur around puberty. Changes in a child’s body are scary enough, but their hormones are upset too, leading to emotional disturbance. Self-consciousness and anxiety about their appearance can easily be blown out of proportion – but to your child, they are real. The media (in posters, magazines, videos and TV) tend to show ‘beautiful, slim’ or ‘handsome, fit’ people. Teenagers are impressionable enough but, shockingly, children as young as 5 have expressed concerns over body image.
1.6 million people in the UK have eating disorders, and 11% of these are males. 72% of eating disorder sufferers have admitted to self-harming, and the issue can lead to more tragic consequences.
Bullying can make things worse. Bullies often focus on appearance to taunt their victims. This can feed into a child’s own unhappiness with how they look.
Airbrushed images of ‘perfect’ celebrities give youngsters unrealistic expectations of how they should look. Children can easily compare themselves unfavourably with the models and actors they see.
The rise of the ‘selfie’ image also feeds into the public obsession with appearance. With doctored images posted online, anyone lacking in confidence can feel inferior to others.
Two thirds of all teenagers had Facebook accounts in 2013. Teenagers are also using other social media websites and apps such as Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp and Snapchat. It is easy for people – not always friends – to comment negatively on your child’s posts or how they look.
Talk to your child about the influence of the media. Explain that images are often unrealistic and digitally enhanced – even selfies! It's all an illusion. Help your child focus on the more important issues of happiness and health.
Body image affects boys as well as girls. According to a study by the YMCA, 49% of teenage girls have dieted at some point – and 34% of boys. Boys are overloaded with images of ‘perfect’ male bodies and they often find it harder to discuss their feelings than girls. Suffering in silence can lead to eating disorders and self-harm. Talk to your child and be on the lookout for warning signs.
Pressures can soon overwhelm youngsters, so spot any warning signs early on. You might notice that your child has become lonely or withdrawn. Perhaps they aren’t socialising or participating in activities they previously enjoyed.
Children with body image issues may:
Only 1 in 10 youngsters will ask for help, so address any concerns carefully. Your child may be defensive or in denial, so reassure them that you are there to support and help them.
Focus on their positive qualities, and appreciate that it may be difficult for them to open up to you. Explain that additional help is available - confidentially. A valuable resource for parents and children is Young Minds.
Talk to the school or your doctor if you are concerned for their health or welfare.
Children are influenced by what they see and hear at home, too:
Start young, and continue to support your child through puberty. Encourage them to love their body, and what’s inside too! Investing in your child’s self-esteem will pay dividends throughout their life.