Written by: Amanda Levison, M.S., LMHC, LPC, CCBT
Loving yourself can be difficult, and there is no blueprint, right or wrong, or a one-size-fits-all way. Additionally, it is often challenging to love yourself when you feel like other people don't love you or worse, when you experience bullying from others. Many adults struggle to balance loving themselves and being loved by others while dealing with the psychological effects of bullying such as low self-esteem and a negative self-image.
We often tell children to love themselves without considering how much pressure it can be, especially when they work so hard to be themselves as parents raise them to be and try to fit in. In reality, it's not easy to love oneself, especially when there's so much societal pressure to look and act a certain way.
Society constantly works to convince us of a specific standard of beauty and markets for anyone outside of it to morph their bodies into it. As a result, many children struggle with body image and self-esteem issues. However, as parents and guardians, there are several ways that we can promote body positivity in our children.
Here are some tips and strategies for raising body-positive kids:
1. Understand the Definition of Body Positivity
To effectively promote body positivity in your children, it's essential to understand what it means. Body positivity is embracing and celebrating one's unique body shape and size. It's about rejecting societal pressure to look a certain way and accepting yourself for who you are. Therefore, it's crucial to view body positivity as a journey toward self-acceptance rather than something that can be achieved overnight.
Activating this in your home requires parents to be comfortable having conversations with their kids about their bodies. Say something when your child jokingly says they are fat while holding their tummy after eating. This is a great moment to talk about how it is normal to feel full and even look bigger after finishing a meal. You can also show them your belly to settle in on the thought that "all bodies are beautiful even if they are different."
Being timid around the subject can be more of a hindrance than you think. Kids will begin to feel shame or discomfort due to how you present the information. Normalize the average body in your household, and it won't be a shock when they begin to see society's ploys to get them to conform.
2. Begin at a Young Age
Children are susceptible to media messages that promote unrealistic beauty standards even at a young age. Consequently, it is crucial to combat this early on by teaching children that all bodies are beautiful and valuable.
You can begin by buying toys and books that reflect diverse body types and encourage children to appreciate and love their bodies. The earlier you teach your children about body positivity, the easier it will be for them to cultivate positive self-images.
No age is too young to present positive self-body talk. You don't have to be so detailed with a two-year-old, but you do have to be honest with them so they don't feel different or left out if their bodies don't match the ones they see on TV or at the daycare.
Creating this foundation makes it easier to communicate healthy, effective communication about pressing topics as a teenager.
3. Encourage Positive Self-Talk
Children need help learning how to speak kindly to themselves. Positive self-talk, or self-affirmation, is a powerful tool for building confidence and self-esteem, which parents can nurture from a young age. Encourage your child to say positive things to themselves, like, "I am strong and capable," or "I love my unique features." This can help them reframe their internal dialogue and reduce self-criticism.
You can put it into your daily routines! Put sticky notes on their mirrors and have them recite the positive affirmations as they wash their face and brush their teeth. Have them say them in the evenings before bed. When they make a negative comment, challenge them to combat it by saying something positive. You never want to invalidate their feelings, but you can reframe their thinking to have a solid balance when discussing their bodies.
It also helps teens to encourage them to recognize that the bodies they see on social media are only one type of acceptable body image and that wanting to look like someone else will only prevent them from accepting and loving themselves for the diverse and unique individuals they are.
4. Emphasize Health Over Appearance
While there's nothing wrong with talking about appearance, it's essential to prioritize health over looks. Encouraging your children to be healthy and active supports positive body image as it focuses on physical activity and the result of activities like fitness and energy levels rather than unrealistic beauty standards.
Teach your children that exercise and healthy eating are expressions of self-love and are not mandatory to maintain particular body shapes.
For toddlers, many mom groups suggest teaching children about the amount of food that should be on a plate and having them help make plates at dinner so they can practice and increase their knowledge.
5. Foster Confidence in Your Children
Confidence is a crucial factor in helping children build a healthy self-image. Encourage your child to take on new challenges, express themselves, and strive for their goals. If your child fails, support them and encourage them to try again. Doing so will help them feel more confident and capable, boosting their self-esteem.
Teaching a mindset of progress over perfection can be the difference between your child feeling like a failure and quitting or failing and continuing to learn. Emboldening your child through challenging tasks is essential to building their self-confidence.
6. Set a Positive Example
Children learn through observation, and it's critical to lead by example. If kids do nothing else, they will model their parents' behavior. You can also lead by example in this situation. Living a body-positive healthy life is a great way to show your kids it is attainable. Be kind to your body in front of your children, and talk about how much you appreciate and are thankful for your unique features, so the child can adopt a positive body image by seeing it in you. Avoid negative comments, especially about your weight or any flaws you see in yourself.
You can also model healthy habits, like eating a balanced diet and being physically active without overwhelming your child. When practicing healthy eating, it is important to remember that how you share your information with your children can also affect them, either negatively or positively. An overly zealous parent may signal to their child(ren) that certain foods are unacceptable and that if they were to eat these foods, they would feel unaccepted by their parents. For instance, a parent who forces a child to eat a cupcake minus the icing because they want their child to eat "healthy" is missing the point and sending mixed messages to the child.
Either have the cupcake or not have it, but if the child is already eating the cupcake, what difference does it make if they are also eating the icing? This can put unnecessary pressure on the child. On the other hand, a parent who allows their child to over-eat the wrong foods is also sending messages that are not healthy. Parents often don't realize they are saying or doing these things.
7. Encourage Diverse Representation
Children need to see diverse representations in media to adopt a healthy body image. Be mindful of the different media your child is exposed to, like television shows, online platforms, magazines, and books. Do your research and make it a point to seek the content representation of bodies in all shapes and sizes.
Show them that beauty standards aren't black-and-white nor follow a one-size-fits-all approach, which helps dispel the myth of perfect/ideal to them. And again, this is how you can encourage your teen by enforcing that all bodies are different and that wanting to have a body like someone else is unrealistic and does not allow them to recognize and appreciate their unique qualities.
8. Build Self-Awareness
Encourage your child to develop self-awareness by helping them understand their feelings and thoughts. Ask open-ended questions like, "How do you feel about yourself today?" It invites conversation about their thoughts, feelings, and what's been happening around them.
Furthermore, using open-ended questions helps build self-awareness, which is essential for optimal mental and physical well-being. It must also be said that actively listening to your child's response when you ask these questions is what seals in the awareness and confidence they will need as they get older.
Raising Kids with a Healthy Relationship with Their Bodies
Raising body-positive children requires a deliberate and sustained effort. It will take the willingness and effort of a parent who desires to instill these characteristics. It's essential to start early and invest in your kids by encouraging positive self-talk, diversity in media representation, and valuing health over appearance. A positive body image lifestyle can set a positive example for your child.
If your child is struggling with body image issues, seeking help from a licensed counselor in Harrisburg PA can be a helpful step. The Neurofeedback Counseling Center of PA, located in Harrisburg, offers child counseling services that focus on promoting a positive body image, building self-awareness, and fostering confidence in your child. A counselor can work with your child to identify underlying factors contributing to their body image concerns and develop strategies to address them. Don't hesitate to reach out for support for your child's mental health and wellbeing.
When building self-awareness and fostering confidence in your children, you promote self-love, acceptance, and a strong sense of self. These skills help develop healthy relationships with the environment and the people they interact with, creating a well-rounded and fulfilling life.