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Mental Health|28 June 2022

How to Instill Body Confidence in Kids

Written by Pragya Lodha
The Mumbai Program Director & Clinical Psychologist at The MINDS Foundation. Honorary Associate Editor for the Indian Journal of Mental Health with over 100 National and International publications

What is body image?

Body image is the way one feels about their own body. The society we live in today has an image-driven culture which lays emphasis on unrealistic standards of beauty and physical characteristics for people of all ages, genders and ethnicities. These unrealistic standards are not only proving to have a negative impact on adults, but are also impacting children with alarming consequences. 

Body Image in Kids

Negative or derogatory words about an individual’s own body can be upsetting to hear from anyone, but they can be especially hurtful when they are directed towards kids. Recent research shows that some children begin to worry about their physical appearances and body weight as early as 3 to 5 years of age. Additionally, many children also openly express their unhappiness about their bodies (Pacey, 2016). Children who have a healthy body image feel good about themselves and their bodies. They are happy with the way they look, how their bodies move and grow, and what they can do. A child’s body image is a part of their whole self-image. Having a good body image can help kids feel more confident and can also add to their self-esteem. Those with poor body images don’t feel good about their looks or body and this in turn can lower their self-esteem and confidence. 

A healthy body image usually starts in babyhood and develops over time. It builds as kids grow. Instilling body confidence in kids through this process is important in shaping their total body image. At every stage, parents or caregivers can help support the child’s healthy body image.

Instilling Body Confidence in Kids

Here are some of the ways in which you can teach your kids to have a positive and more confident body image while also developing healthy habits for life:

  • Watch your words: It is very common for children to listen and learn from those around them. Against this background, we should be cognizant of what we say and avoid saying things like ‘I look so fat in this.’ If children hear adults speak negatively about their own bodies, they may be influenced by how they see themselves in turn. Make sure to show confidence in your body as well as about yourself.
  • Be a role model to your child: Kids tend to mimic the behaviors and actions of those around them. To combat this, you can work at being the role model your child needs to see. State positive things about yourself in front of them and acknowledge that your limitations or imperfections are fine and part of who you are. You can also talk to your child about topics like body diversity and unrealistic depiction of body image in the media. 

    For example: if your child is old enough to use social media, spend some time with them and understand the images they have access to. Explain that often, people post images that are filtered and edited. This knowledge will help them to not compare themselves to what they see online, which often creates a negative body image. 
  • Developing a healthy relationship with food: An important tool in improving your kid’s relationship with food is by moving away from the binary ‘bad’ or ‘good’ foods. These labels can lead to anxiety around food and also consequences including food restrictions and feeling like they’ve done something wrong having eaten a ‘bad’ food. Promoting healthy eating and allowing children to make choices about the food they eat can help in developing a healthy relationship with food. 

    For example: allow your child to eat small quantities of the foods they like without negative labeling, but explain the value of nutritious food and the importance of having a balanced diet to them as well, in terms they can relate to.
  • Focus on healthy habits: You can start off by emphasizing eating healthy and the importance of exercise over their weight. Some other ways you can achieve this is by spending quality time with them doing activities like going to the park, playing outside and riding bikes. Teaching your children how to read nutrition labels and choose healthy foods can help promote healthy eating habits. 
  • Scan their toys: Often overlooked but children’s toys can influence them in many ways. Take a look at the dolls, action figures or other toys in their toy chest. Try to edit toys that depict unrealistic body images like perfect proportions or  bulging muscles and replacing them with more realistic representations of the human body. You can also go one step further and have puzzles, books or brain building board games instead. 
  • Promote body positivity: You can start off by talking about body stereotypes and gender in media and ads. View media content with your child that’s appropriate and address when you notice issues like overly sexualized or gender-biased ways in commercials, TV shows and movies. You can talk to them about what’s wrong or missing in these situations. 
  • Celebrate your child’s physical and non physical attributes: Teaching children to think more positively about their traits and themselves can help develop a positive self-image which doesn’t completely focus on appearance. You can give this a try by practicing stating what positive attributes they have and what they are capable of becoming and doing.

    For example: What are the things that your child likes about their bodies? Do they like their smile, or how their body helps them to throw a ball? It is important to not forget your child’s non-physical attributes as well. This could include traits like are they smart, kind, funny or talented at specific tasks? Inculcating a regular practice of saying such affirmations can reduce negative self-talk while also building your children’s confidence.
  • Teaching your child such body positivity and healthy habits can have a lasting impact on their self-esteem, self-perception and how they interact with an image-driven culture. Helping your child develop a positive body image can prove to be a challenging task at times, but it is an important part of raising a kid, especially today, where children are exposed to imagery and body-shaming from popular culture and media. However, with proactive efforts, you can head off the often negative messages kids often get from the outside world about “ideal” bodies and instill body confidence in them instead. A positive body image is beneficial at every stage of life, and if children are given the right tools at a young age, they are much more likely to maintain this confidence throughout their life. Often, the most effective way to influence your child’s positive behaviour is by modeling it yourself, so make sure you are embodying body confidence yourself by practicing healthy habits and self-acceptance, as detailed above.

The views expressed are that of the expert alone.

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