A positive body image is important for both mental and physical well-being, but teens today face more challenges than ever in feeling good about their bodies. According to Common Sense Media, teens now spend an average of nine hours per day using media for entertainment and tweens spend an average of six hours. Modern media’s mixture of filtered and photoshopped images, extreme influencers, and instant, often critical, feedback is toxic to teens’ body image. Recent research indicates that 77% of teen girls and 43% percent of teen boys experience body dissatisfaction, which is linked with anxiety, depression, and self-harm.
The good news is that parents are still a powerful influence on the way teens see themselves. Here are six of the best strategies we’ve found to promote body positivity with your teen:
Provide diverse, body-positive media, and start young. Kids who see themselves represented in the media they consume have higher self-esteem, and kids who are exposed to diverse, inclusive images show more empathy and acceptance of themselves and others. It’s never too early to emphasize diversity and body positivity… one study found that children as young as three already identify thinness as the ideal body shape. You can’t combat every damaging media message, but you can provide kids with role models of all shapes, sizes, ethnicities, abilities, ages, sexual orientations, and gender identities living happy and healthy lives.
Prioritize inner awareness over outside messages. Because teens are naturally concerned about how others see them, they tend to evaluate themselves based on outside factors like physical appearance, performance, or feedback from others. Help teens cultivate and prioritize their inner awareness instead. Teach them to listen to their thoughts, feelings, and sensations. Talking to them about how they feel lets them know that it matters to you. You can also help them notice when they’re elevating the opinions of others over their own experience. Mindfulness practices to calm the mind and cultivate compassion for themselves and others help teens keep outside influences in check. With this “inside-out” focus, teens can more easily filter out messages that might make them feel bad.
Be aware of how your own body image affects your teen. Most parents are careful not to criticize their child’s body, but how often do you criticize your body? Research shows that parents transmit a negative body image to teens even if their critical comments are only about themselves. It’s not the appearance, weight, ability, or physical condition of your body that matters; it’s what you feel and say about yourself that affects your teen’s body image. Making self-critical comments, even in a joking way, teaches your teen to do the same. But luckily, teens whose parents have a positive body image are more likely to feel good about themselves. The bottom line? Loving your body helps teens love their bodies, too.
Eat meals together. When families are busy, it’s tempting to skip meals or let everybody grab whatever they can on their way out the door. But a recent study from the University of Missouri found that eating breakfast and other meals together promotes a positive body image among adolescents. Researchers say that sharing meals with at least one parent benefits teens by promoting a healthy relationship with food and providing meaningful, consistent connection. Eating breakfast more frequently is associated with a more positive body image, too. If it’s not something you already do, ask if your family could try having breakfast together once or twice a week to start.
Help them find fun in physical activity. Physically active teens are more likely to have a positive body image, but too much pressure to achieve can backfire, making teens feel inadequate and even leading to extreme diets and exercise. Parents can help their teens find balance with activities that are a good fit for their personalities and interests. If team sports aren’t their thing, maybe a martial arts or dance class would be a better fit. Whatever they choose, look for a welcoming, inclusive coach, club, or class that prioritizes a growth mindset and teamwork over scores and rankings. You can also plan active family time, like weekend hikes or backyard soccer games–anything that gets you moving and having fun together is a win.
Seek out body-positive media. The flip-side of social media’s appearance-obsessed trend is a rise in body-positive activists and influencers. Check out tennis star Serena Williams or style blogger Shira Rose for inspiration. Online communities now celebrate bodies that, not so long ago, were never represented in a positive light. Fill your own feed with images and messages that promote a positive self-image and talk about them with your teen. Encourage teens to seek out media that is diverse, inclusive, and that makes them feel good about themselves.
It may feel challenging to overcome the external influences in your teen’s life when it comes to body positivity, but remember that parents still play a powerful role in influencing the way teens see themselves. How you practice body positivity through family conversations and activities can have a lasting impact on your teen’s body image.