As parents, it is never too early to start talking to your children about their bodies or body confidence, and it’s never too late to start either. Sarah, The Mammy Coach (a body confidence and well-being coach for mums) has put together 10 ways you can start helping your children with their body image – both in early childhood and when they’re teenagers. She uses these techniques with her own children.
It’s important to understand that a person’s ‘body image’ is not always an accurate image of their body. It’s not even their feelings about the image of their body. Their body image is how they think and feel about their body. Not how their body looks (although that may be part of it) but their relationship with their body.
Teach them about their body.
Teach them how the body works, what different parts of the body do and are called. Help to see what their body can do and how it feels.
Don’t criticise your own body in front of your children
Children form their beliefs about their bodies very early on. Parents are their first, and most important, role models. If you are constantly giving out about your body then they will see that as normal practice. If you use harsh words to describe your body or other people’s bodies your children will pick up this habit too. Model the behaviour that you want your children to pick up. You may even find that you develop a more positive relationship with your own body as a result!
Teach them to listen to their body’s messages
Being able to listen to your body is a key part of building a good positive body image. When we can listen, we can start to take care of our body. It might be as simple as listening to their body when they are tired, or recognising that “butterflies in my tummy” means excitement.
Teach them how to take care of their body
Self-care can never start too early. Show your children how to take care of their own bodies this gives them a sense of worth and looking after themselves is very important. This can be as simple as explaining why they need to brush their teeth before bed, or why wearing sunscreen and a hat on a sunny day are important.
Focus on what the body can do
What are your child’s unique skills? Do they dance, run, skip or just love to play outside? Help your child to recognise their own progress – are they able to make it further on the monkey bars in the park than they could last month? Even small wins like being able to tie their shoes are ways of noticing how their body helps them every day.
Focus on activities that they love
They will be more likely to keep up an activity that they love. At the same time, be wary of putting too much pressure on their performance of that activity – make it about the enjoyment and teamwork of their sport, rather than the points scored. Give them plenty of opportunities to try new activities too. Children’s tastes change over time so don’t be surprised if their hobbies change from time to time too.
Teach them to respect other people’s bodies
Teach them to value and respect other people’s bodies as unique and valuable no matter what size or shape they are or what abilities they have. Diversity and inclusion don’t start when you join the workforce! Sinéad Burke’s children’s book “Break the Mould” could help them to understand that everyone is different.
Be open and honest
When those awkward questions come along, be as open and honest as you can. It’s so much easier than backtracking later on! You know your child best, so you can decide what language and information is appropriate for their level of understanding.
Celebrate their achievements
Think about the smile on their faces when you celebrate their achievements. Use any difficulties as learning experiences. What is routine to us as adults can seem like a much bigger deal to our children.
Show them how to talk kindly to their bodies
Show them how to talk to and about their bodies in a positive and friendly way.
Body image in Puberty and beyond
Children’s bodies change when they go through puberty and the way they feel about their body can also change. Some are excited to look like the older kids, others may feel shy about their changing bodies. It takes time to get used to a body that looks and feels different.
Preteens and teens may care a lot about how they look. They may try out new looks and styles, they may dress to fit in or stand out. This is all normal and part of growing up. We as parents and caregivers need to reassure them that these changes are totally normal. Some may also start to focus on what they don’t like about their looks and this can hurt a teen’s body image.
Here are some tips for parents to help develop a positive body image with teenagers:
Say specific complimentary things about how they look and who they are
For example “I love the colour you are wearing - it brings out your eyes.” Or “you have a great sense of style - I love that about you.” Compliment them on things that don’t relate to their appearance, personality traits and achievements – for example, “you were so patient when you were helping your little brother with his homework.”
Encourage them to try out new styles and looks
Ask them how each one feels and whether it represents who they are. Be prepared to keep your opinions to yourself – this is a time for experimenting and discovering their own ways of dressing and doing things!
Help teens focus on how to be healthy, active and positive
You can do this by supporting them to continue after-school activities, providing lifts where possible and healthy snacks when they return home.
Treat them as if they are the wisest people on earth
Encourage them to tell you, and figure things out for themselves. Allow them to make mistakes and help them to learn from them.
Be curious about what their opinions are and what they think about the world
Remember when your child was three and their favourite question was “why”? Turn the tables and start asking them why they think the way they do!
Be respectful of their space and when you are speaking to them
They are entitled to a private life, so resist the impulse to look at their phones! At times it might not feel as though you’re their number one role model anymore but treat them with the same respect that you want them to treat you with.
Honour their changes and make it ok for them to continue to experiment with change
Remember hair grows back, make up can be removed, rooms can be repainted and someday you’ll look back at the photographs together and laugh about their latest style statements!
Have fun with your teen, find ways to laugh with them
Find an activity that you both enjoy doing together regularly. This could be a TV show that is on once a week, a walk at the weekends or cooking something together. These activities will create a safe bonding space.
Ask for their point of view and what makes them believe what they believe
This can be about current affairs, something happening in a film or sports as well as in their own lives. Help them to be comfortable articulating their opinions – even when you disagree with them.
Be a good listener, we have two ears and one mouth for a reason
Create opportunities for conversations. Often your teen will feel more comfortable talking to you when you’re doing something together like going for a drive or walking side by side.
Sarah Lyons (AKA The Mammy Coach) is a body confidence and well-being coach for mums. She works with mums all over the country to help them feel comfortable and confidant in their bodies. She is passionate about teaching mums the benefits of having body confidence so they can in turn teach their children. Sarah provides one to one coaching along with group workshops. Contact her at www.sarahlyonscoaching.com or on Instagram!