Body Image and Self-esteem

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.

Why is self-esteem important?

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.

The problem

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.

Media and social media influence

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 across genders

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.

Identifying that your child has a problem

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:

  • Negatively compare their appearance with others’
  • Avoid eating with people or miss meals
  • Eat more
  • Toy with food
  • Wear baggy clothing
  • Count calories
  • Go straight to the bathroom after meals - this could signify bulimia

Addressing the issue

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.

Sites like Eating Disorder Hope are informative, and more useful information on eating disorders can be found on NHS – Eating disorders.

Addressing low self-esteem

  • Listen to your child and encourage them to talk
  • Try to understand how they are feeling, and why
  • Schedule family time together and reassure them they are loved and valued
  • Praise them when they have tried their best. Don’t dwell on mistakes
  • Encourage them in their favourite activities and cheer them on if they want to try new things
  • Let them spend time with friends who are positive and supportive
  • Suggest they visit the Childline website for useful tips
  • More advice can be found on Family Lives
  • Seek professional help when you need to

Promoting a healthy body image

Children are influenced by what they see and hear at home, too:

  • Children will take note if you are constantly criticising yourself or obsessing over diets and weight – so be careful of your role modelling
  • Words can hurt – often unintentionally. Challenge any teasing. Brother might think ‘Chubby’ is an affectionate nickname, but sister could be damaged by it
  • Reassure children about the changes to their body that will occur during puberty
  • Show them inspirational individuals as positive role models who don’t depend on look
  • Talk about eating disorders but encourage them to lead a healthy lifestyle, eat a balanced diet and take regular exercise
  • Encourage your child to speak up and express any concerns if they are bullied or if they witness bullying
  • Let them know that they are loved and reassure them how proud you are of them – for who they are inside – not for how they look or what they do


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.

  1. It is important that your child has good self-esteem. Which of the following will NOT help to develop this?
    If you over-praise your child it will cease to be effective. If you tell them they played well in a match, for example, when they know that they didn't, they will value your words less. Instead, focus on the positives, for example, 'you didn't play at your best but at least you kept trying'
  2. At what age are children most likely to be struck by self-esteem issues?
    Children as young as five can have self-esteem issues, but for most the problems seem to coincide with the onset of puberty and the move up to secondary school. Over half of those who contacted Childline about the problem in 2015 were aged between 12 and 18
  3. Adults can also suffer from low self-esteem due to body image. According to a Parliamentary Enquiry in 2012, what percentage of the population are ashamed of the way they look?
    It is clearly a major issue. As a result of the enquiry, MPs recommended that all schoolchildren should take part in compulsory body image and self-esteem lessons
  4. A report by the YMCA showed that body image is the third greatest concern amongst teenagers. Which two issues worry them more?
    Ironically, research has shown that those struggling with body image issues are less likely to finish their education or do well in the employment market
  5. Eating disorders are a possible outcome of body image issues. Which of the following eating disorders can be caused by low self-esteem?
    Both anorexia and bulimia are extreme attempts to control weight. Binge eating disorder (BED) may develop as a means of coping with low self-esteem, lack of confidence or stress. Keep an eye out for any of the symptoms listed on the NHS website:
  6. Who can you contact if you are worried your child’s low self-esteem is affecting their day to day life?
    The school may be able to help your child. Many of them run mentoring or buddying schemes. Youth counselling services, such as that run by Young Minds, are available and offer help to those aged between 13 and 25. Failing all else your GP is always available - though if your child is over 18 they will have to seek help for themselves
  7. The Childline website lists five things children can do to boost their self-esteem and confidence. Which of the following is NOT on the list?
    Wearing a bright colour can improve our mood, as can a healthy lifestyle which can also boost energy levels. Sports and dance classes could also be beneficial but they are not always available to everyone
  8. As parents we influence our children's ideas about body-image and food. Which of the following is NOT good advice for a parent?
    Sugary food or takeaways should be regarded as occasional treats. Research shows that children whose diets are overly restricted are more likely to become obese in later life along with ones whose diets are not restricted enough - balance is the key
  9. Girls may compare themselves unfavourably with models, and this question may help to show how unrealistic these comparisons are! A healthy weight for a 5'10" woman is 10 to 12 stone. What is the ideal weight for a 5'10" model?
    According to Modelling Advice, females should be 'tall and thin' - their health, however, is not mentioned!
  10. In a poll conducted by the advertising industry think tank, Credos, 55% of boys had some concern about their body image. What was the biggest influence on them?
    Despite the growing problem, boys still maintain the 'stiff upper lip' - over half said they would not speak to teachers about their worries and almost a third would not confide in their parents. It is vitally important that your child feels able to come to you with all of their problems


Author: Linda Innes

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