Raising kids with a healthy body image means that parents also need to take a look in the mirror.

Typically, body image awareness is thought to be associated with adolescents who are entering puberty or navigating a sometimes rocky transition into high school.

Research now finds that children as young as 2 are starting to develop notions about their body and it seems even more critical for parents to support a positive body awareness during this time of exploration.

Therapists who work with older children exhibiting negative body issues are finding that this groundwork was never laid. Yet, there are many things that parents can do at different stages to cultivate their child’s acceptance of their body.

“An awareness of body and body image begins at the very beginning with babies,” says Rachele Judd Thompson, a licensed social worker and therapist in New Orleans who specializes in eating and anxiety disorders. “Parents can help support a healthy body image from the beginning by holding, nurturing, calming, soothing, and being there.”

While this is probably what most parents are already doing, Thompson explains that it is still important to make children feel safe in their bodies early on as it plants the seed that “your body is ok just as it is.”

As children transition into toddlerhood, their brains are rapidly growing as well as their curiosity with their environment. Parents can start to give their child age-appropriate knowledge and be present with them in their experiences with the world, Thompson  says.

She remembers when her daughter, now six, became upset about a worm that had been accidentally severed in half by a shovel. Thompson explained to her that the worm was able to re-grow itself. A few days later, her daughter had a cut on her finger and Thompson saw an opportunity to teach her about how her body can also repair itself, much like the worm.

“The curiosities and the wonderings about what is going on in their bodies and having a space to start to talk about those things is a sense of empowerment,” she says.

Promoting Positivity

Parents can still foster a positive body image within their child even once they leave the nest and start attending school. “Parents create a foundation that can support their children when the bad things happen that they can’t control,” Thompson says.

Kids are regularly made fun of on the playground for how they look, how they dress, and even for having the wrong backpack. Steering them away from this appearance-centered rhetoric and talking more about the qualities of an individual, such as kindness, is one way for parents to combat these outside influences.

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Additionally, avoiding stereotypes in the TV shows and movies that their child watches and speaking to them about how bodies come in different shapes and sizes can also be constructive.

As adolescents enter middle school, they tend to shift away from their parents and towards the opinions of their peers. Physical signs of puberty are beginning to show as well as the emotions that go with these strange and unknown changes to their bodies.

“There is a softening of the body that is necessary in order for the child to fully develop and grow and so there can be an opportunity for teasing,” Thompson  says.

She stresses how important it is to talk with your child about how normal puberty is and how everyone is going through this, perhaps at different times. There is an overarching mentality at this stage with adolescents that they will be liked if they change their body, and being liked is very important at this time, she says.

Lead by Example

Most eating disorders, 90 percent in fact, begin between 12 and 25 years old, with the onset beginning during those younger years. Marian McGavran is a therapist and the Director at The Eating Disorders Treatment Center housed in River Oaks Hospital in New Orleans.

She has treated children as young as 11 for eating disorders. However, she finds that the dissatisfaction with their bodies started long before that as she only starts to see them once negative behaviors are being exhibited.

Forming either a positive or negative body image in adolescents has a lot to do with modeling after their parents.

“A lot of young kids are seeing themselves in the light of or reflection of their parents,” McGavran says.

For instance, a parent could be struggling with their weight, obsessing over exercise, or bouncing between diets. This might send a message to their child that to be happy, your body needs to look a certain way.

A study done by Common Sense Media found that adolescents who feel that their moms are not happy with their bodies are more likely to not like their own bodies. Additionally, girls whose dads are dissatisfied with their weight tend to view themselves as weaker than dads that don’t.

“It’s important to increase our awareness because I think that so much of this is mindless, meaning that we are not aware of the message that’s being received. We may not even be aware of the message that we are giving,” McGavran says.

Social media is another factor that influences body image, rapidly becoming a haven for kids with low body confidence. McGavran says that Instagram seems to be the most popular as individuals post photos of themselves half clothed to further motivate their desire to change their bodies.

Red Flags

There are many red flags that parents can be aware of when their child is exhibiting a negative body image. These can be subtle like constant body checking in the mirror or verbal complaints regarding parts of their body (or other’s bodies). More extreme behaviors would be eating only one meal a day or frequent visits to the bathroom after eating.

When it is evident that something more severe is going on, McGavran urges parents to bring them to their pediatrician or a therapist for a professional assessment. However, coming together as a family and having open conversations with them is also a good start.

Promoting body gratitude and monitoring words about their bodies is a positive way for parents to help. “There’s no way as a parent that we can’t influence our children,” McGavran says. “And as parents, we need to listen. That is where the cues are.”

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