Instill Body Confidence in Your Tween
It can be heartbreaking when you first hear your tween critique their body negatively: they’re fat, their breasts are too small, they’re too scrawny or they aren’t curvy enough. It’s hard to know how to react, especially when you feel they are perfect. It’s also nostalgic to think back to your fearless toddler and wonder what happened to that confidence.
Unfortunately, this stage is all too common in tweens, particularly when their bodies start to significantly change as they go through puberty. Dr. Matt Hersh, a clinical psychologist with a focus on mindfulness, shares: “As your children’s bodies are developing, their minds are also prone to making comparisons to unattainable cultural standards of the ‘perfect body’ and to comparing themselves to what their friends and peers look like. Although social comparison is developmentally normal, equipping your children with the skill of self-compassion can go a long way in boosting their resilience and confidence.”
In that spirit, we’ll dive into some tips on how to instill your tween with confidence and how to cope if they are starting to struggle:
Watch What You’re Saying
Since birth, your tween has looked to you as a model for behavior. So naturally, if you complain about your thighs in a bathing suit, it’s sending the message that being self-critical is OK and thicker thighs are not good to have.
Silence that inner voice when you start to have your own insecurities (which of course are totally normal as well). While it’s perfectly fine to care about your outward appearance, negative talk about your body is something to avoid. Setting more of your focus on inner strengths, such as good character, creativity or intelligence will demonstrate what you cherish most about your tween, and they will hopefully learn to highly value these traits about themselves as well.
Focus on Feeling and Health Over Size
How did you feel after that run: Strong? Fast? Powerful? When exercise is seen as a way to make your body feel good rather than as a means to keeping yourself thin, you’re sending the message of what you value about being active. Similarly, commenting on how good your body feels after drinking a vitamin-packed breakfast smoothie portrays a stronger message than sharing the nutrition facts.
Health comes in many shapes and sizes. Sharing the importance of fitness and nutrition outside the realm of weight and waist-size is an important lesson that your tween can carry into their adulthood. There are many organizations such as ASDAH (Association for Size Diversity and Health) that embrace the HAES (Health at Every Size) approach. This information is helpful to review with your tween, particularly if they have trouble understanding that health and size do not always go hand-in-hand.
Prepare Them to Be Bullied
At some point, someone will negatively comment on your tween’s body, whether it’s intended bullying or not, and it’s important to arm them with the skills to handle it. Dr. Kathleen Hart, a licensed psychologist specializing in the treatment of eating disorders, recommends discussing this with your child well before their teen years. “Bullying comments about bodies are like verbal arrows. If you prepare your child that one day, they will encounter someone who will shoot a verbal arrow in their direction by criticizing their body, then they will be better equipped to handle it.”
But how? Dr. Hart recommends making the clear distinction that these words are verbal attacks. “Coaching your tween to think, ‘Oh I’ve just been targeted by a bully’ rather than ‘So-and-so thinks I’m fat’ will prevent bullying comments to seep into your child’s emotional life and gradually erode their body-esteem.”
Teach Them to be Critical of the Media
We live in a world obsessed with physical attributes and portrayed image. The rise of Instagram, Snapchat, and “the selfie” are not exactly helping this, and are particularly popular with this tween/teen age group. Between filters and the ability to re-take a picture countless times, a friend’s “casual shot at the beach” could have taken an hour to produce before posting. It’s important to underline to your tween that what is portrayed on social media is a crafted perception of life, not life itself. It should be looked at through this lens from the start.
In general, the media needs to be examined with a critical eye. I admire people like Kristen Bell who show what it really takes behind-the-scenes to look like perfection at a red carpet event. Most celebrities have a team of people to establish their “look”, never mind a personal trainer and/or chef, and while certain establishments are thankfully moving away from this, much of what we see in magazines are still photo shopped.
Outside of Hollywood, Dr. Hart recommends that parents “teach their kids to be critical of businesses that make billions of dollars making teens feel bad about their bodies. Diet and health industries are aggressive enterprises that reap monetary benefits when teens feel insecure about their bodies.” It’s OK to question things in front of your tween as you watch TV or see a headline on a magazine. This will help normalize it so they start to do the same.
Honor Their Bodies
Why are bodies different and what does that mean? That’s a loaded question, but a lot of it has to do with our heritage. Educating your tween about their heritage will hopefully help them look at the traits of their bodies in a different way. “I’m often surprised when teens don’t know about their ethnic backgrounds,” Dr. Hart explains. “Help them understand that their bodies have ethnic histories and usually, about strong and resilient ancestors who emigrated to America.”
Outside of ancestry, helping your tween think about the different parts of their bodies that make them special and unique is important. Perhaps your daughter’s muscular legs make her the track star she is today, or your son’s petite frame give him the ability to excel at gymnastics. Similarly, sometimes it’s what makes us different that makes us special. Tyra Banks is known for saying that while she was made fun of for her high forehead, it’s actually what helped her become the fashion model she is today. Helping your tween embrace these unique parts of themselves will only aid in their body confidence and overall self-esteem.
What If Your Tween is Already Showing Signs of Body Negativity?
Just remember that this is an unfortunate part of growing-up and it’s quite normal for your tween to at least be questioning things about their body. If they’re starting to talk about dieting, head on over to a previous Phase2Parenting article here. Or, if you suspect an eating disorder might be coming into play, we have another article here for your reference, as well a comprehensive list of local and national resources here. If you’re tween is showing signs of a more serious problem that you just can’t put your finger on, try the following:
- Ask Questions
Why do they feel this way? Did someone say something at school? Getting to the bottom of where these feelings are coming from can help you figure out the best solution.
- Consult a Professional
If you feel like the situation is worsening, and your tween is showing signs of distress, contacting his/her physician or a therapist specializing in this area should be your next step.
I still remember the pain I felt when a girl in middle school asked if I was anorexic. (I wasn’t.) But I was skinny, with little shape, and hadn’t gone through puberty yet. While I remember wishing my body was different at the time, I was reminded what was great about my body and I was educated on how my body was in the middle of changing. This education, as well as some confidence boosters from loved ones, helped me move past this comment.
Watching your child’s self-esteem suffer is a hard part of parenthood. Helping your tween boost their confidence about their body and equipping them with the tools to handle criticism from others is a wonderful gift you can give them as a parent.
WRITTEN BY PHASE2PARENTING
PLEASE NOTE: The writers of this article are not medical professionals. The information in this column is not intended and should not be construed as providing medical or psychological advice, but rather to offer readers information and provide a perspective to better understand the lives of themselves and their children. Articles on this website may be opinion based. The articles are not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist, psychotherapist or other licensed medical professional. If you do have health or safety concerns, please get in touch with a healthcare professional.