Boosting a teen's body image is important

Talk to teens about body image. Teenagers are going through a lot and a positive body image can have many benefits.

Having four children, two boys, and two girls and working in health and nutrition, it has always been a goal of mine to communicate a healthy diet and regular exercise to my children. I try to offer healthy meals in the house and have them try new healthy foods that are offered in the stores. Some of the things we have tried have been fun and I’m fortunate to regularly find them excited to try new things. 

It seems like this message gets a little murkier as they near their teen years and their appearance becomes more of a primary concern. The conversation in my house turns to hair, clothes, and a lot of, “does this look o.k.?” many times during the day. I try to be aware of keeping the conversation positive, but I wondered if my message of a healthy lifestyle could be misconstrued and end up causing body image issues unintentionally.

I found some advice to boost a teen’s body image by providing and encouraging positive messages about other qualities while trying to not push appearance as the primary outcome. Here are some areas to remember when working with teens and their body image:

  • Accept and understand. It is easy to focus on how it looks so outlandish for teens to focus so much on their looks and to spend so much time concerned with it, but it is important to take a step back and remember this is normal activity and thought processes for teens. It’s important to their self-esteem for you to accept what they are going through and remember not to judge how they may be feeling.
  • Give lots of compliments. The importance of giving a teen a compliment about their looks may really be more important than we think it is. As a parent, it feels as though your teen would rather have compliments from their friends but they actually value and crave adult acceptance which makes these compliments important and much needed to help teens with their self-esteem. Compliments on appearance are necessary but remember to be sincere. Also make an effort to compliment them for other qualities, such as positive personality traits. 
  • Compliment what's inside too. It is important for teens to be recognized for their positive personality qualities such as when they care for a friend that needs them or include their sibling in an activity. Notice how hard your teen works, maybe for the neighbors or in school, it’s important to make sure these assets don’t go unnoticed.
  • Talk about what appearances mean. When possible talk to teens about what appearances can mean or convey to others. Talking to teens about how certain types of clothing can express different meanings and how, whether it’s fair or not, can be read. 
  • Set reasonable boundaries. It’s always important to remember to be patient with kids, but it is also important for teens to be reminded there is an appropriate amount of time to spend on dressing and grooming. This time should not get in the way of any responsibilities and kids should learn how to manage time and be considerate of others’ needs. 
  • Be a good role model. Sometimes this one can be hard when there are parts of yourself you’d love to chop off and replace with someone else’s. Having your teen hear that you view your own body in a positive will make a much larger impact than seeing you highlighting the parts of your body you don’t like.

It’s not always easy to have a healthy body image; liking our own bodies, appreciating it, and being grateful for all it can do despite its imperfections. Focusing on the fantastic things our bodies can accomplish instead of what they can’t can make a difference for our kids that are watching and learning from us. 

I know I’ve caught myself many times starting to go down the negative road about myself, but I try to stop that sort of thinking. I try to talk about the importance of getting food that offers nutrition and eating foods that aren’t so healthy in moderation instead of declaring certain types of food as off limits. I also try to offer a positive message about exercise and physical activity so our bodies stay strong.

Michigan State University Extension has many programs to help families with health, nutrition and physical activity. 

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