Author: Emma Langham
Understanding how our bodies work and what they are capable of doing is an unfolding journey of discovery throughout childhood. Accomplishing new feats, from taking first steps, jumping on a trampoline for the first time, or riding a bike, all contribute to self-belief which leads to confidence and a healthy self-esteem. Just as falling over and landing in a heap or having a first stack off a bike assist in learning limits and help form mind maps of how our bodies work and to problem solve avoiding that move next time. Our children’s bodies get an incredible amount of direct physical feedback from navigating the physical world which helps develop a sense of their physical body. But how do our kids develop a sense of what their bodies look like and how do they develop feelings and thoughts about their bodies? The mental image we have of how our bodies look and the thoughts and feelings we have about that image is referred to as Body Image.
How we respond and appraise children as parents and teachers is incredibly pivotal in how children develop an understanding, or self-narrative of their world – what we say helps them connect a story to understand their experience. These new understandings then evolve over time into the thinking patterns that fuel children’s subconscious self-talk that then guide what they imagine themselves being capable of. That is, understandings become thoughts become beliefs become the ‘template’, or mind map from which our children navigate the world. As a result, positive beliefs lead to optimistic thinking and an ‘I’ve got this’ approach to life. Negative beliefs lead to thoughts of self-doubt and behaviours that are an over cautious, ‘I can’t do that’ approach to life.
For instance, if a 3 year old has their first game of soccer and stumbles and trips over the ball just as they are taking aim to kick a goal, how the important adults in their life respond from the sideline or after the game will determine how the child interprets this experience and then forms a ‘map’ for how they approach the next soccer game, as well as likely other physical challenges.
Hearing “great work babe, you were so amazing out there using your strong legs to run and kick like that! You bounced up so quickly after tripping over, that was pretty fantastic!” is going to lead to a very different set of beliefs around their physical skills than if they hear “never mind, you tried your best, maybe soccer just isn’t for you… ”. The latter comment could lead to this child developing a belief that they aren’t strong enough, or ‘good enough’ to play soccer, that giving up after making one mistake is expected, and perhaps even feel a sense of shame for ‘failing’.
In order to try and support healthy body image development, The Pretty Foundation has created a parent guide and set of resources to assist us learn what we can do to promote positive body image in our kids. And whilst girls’ body image is the focus of the Foundation, these tips are universally helpful for all children to assist them to have healthy views about bodies – their own, and others’, as well as healthy eating behaviours, and promote self-esteem. Don’t tune out if your child is a boy, these strategies are just as helpful for boys, both to help their own healthy body image develop, as well as for them to develop healthy views about girls too. But if you are a parent of a girl, you may be alarmed to learn that over 50% of preschool aged girls are dissatisfied with their bodies in some way. So how we communicate and teach our kids about their bodies is important to set up healthy views of their body image for the future.
Please note that the term ‘child’ has been used in the following tips, however the author prepared these tips aimed at girls, referring to ‘daughters’ (as developed by The Pretty Foundation).
LANGUAGE TO PROMOTE HEALTHY BELIEFS
Who you are is more important than how you look. Emphasise your child’s qualities that are not related to their appearance, like their personality traits. e.g., “you are generous, kind, thoughtful”.
Everybody is special and deserves respect. Communicate unconditional acceptance to let your child know that they are valued for who they are, not what they look like.
Having fun is more important than being the best. Communicate that it is more important to have a go and have fun, rather than to be the best and win or look a certain way.
Everyone is different, and that’s a great thing. Celebrate diversity by explaining that everyone is different, and that differences are natural and healthy.
Healthy bodies come in all shapes and sizes. Help your child to understand that there is not just one ‘ideal’ type of body. All different body shapes and sizes have value, beauty and can be healthy.
Everybody is special and different in their own way. Show your child that everyone has something special to offer and should be respected regardless of their size, shape, appearance and abilities.
Health is more important than looks. Encourage your child to eat fruit and veggies to ‘be healthy’, ‘feel good’, and ‘have energy’, rather than lose weight or avoid getting fat.
Sometimes foods and everyday foods. These terms can be used rather than labelling foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or something that will make you fat.
Everybody has their own strengths. Help your child to develop their confidence in their skills and abilities that are not related to their appearance. E.g., “You are very good at counting, drawing, imagining etc.”
LANGUAGE TO MINIMISE
Try to minimise using words that make fun of, or are negative about your child’s appearance, particularly their weight.
Try to minimise speaking critically about other people’s body shapes and appearance.
Try to minimise the word dieting in your house. Try to make this a more positive message by saying ‘you are looking after your health by eating nutritious foods’ rather than focusing on weight loss.
Try to minimise making critical comments about your own weight or appearance because this may encourage your child to develop the belief that the certain body types are unacceptable.
Be aware that you are a role model.
Try to minimise talking about exercising for weight loss or muscularity. Instead, communicate a positive message by saying ‘exercising for health, feeling good and having energy’.
Try to minimise labelling foods as “bad”, “junk” or “foods that will make you fat”. Explain to your child the difference between “sometimes foods” and “everyday foods”.
A great way to start some of these conversations for both girls and boys is to introduce them to The Pretty Foundation’s story books, these are a favourite with my own 4 year old son! ‘Cassia and The Fire Dragons’ is now a short animated movie which is well worth a watch.
For more information see https://prettyfoundation.org/resources/
So next time you make a comment about how your child looks, how they’ve performed, or how they physically compare to other children in their sporting team, be mindful!
Emma Langham is a Clinical Psychologist who works with children and families with a passion for making a difference in the lives of those she meets by making some contribution, however small, to help the trajectory of their lives follow a more positive path.