A couple of weeks ago, I reached out to my friends in the computer to talk about our kids and their body image. I’ve noticed, particularly with my eldest child, who is approaching her tween years, more and more aware of her body image. And it is less than positive.

Ask the experts

I took to Instagram to talk to other parents about their experiences and it would seem that we are all in a similar boat, with similar concerns. I am so thankful that I have such an amazing online tribe, among you, we have three professionals who offered their opinions and answers to your questions, so without further ado, let me introduce you to our experts:

Tamarah Johnstone-Robertson Botha – I’m a mom and Psych student (majoring in child psychology). As a mom, I have a pigeon pair, as a human and woman, I’ve dealt with body confidence all my life. I blog over at Mutants & Mayhem.

Melissa Cawood – I am firstly a mother to a three-year-old little girl, a wife and currently a registered counselor. I am also completing my educational psychology internship this year, with the plan to qualify as an educational psychologist. I started a private practice as a counselor in 2018 in Kempton Park and currently work with a wide range of individuals, including children teenagers, young adults, and adults. I can be contacted at:
Cell: 071 871 5692
Email: Melissa.counsellor1@gmail.com

Alexa February – I am just about to hand in my Ph.D. in Education which studied self-image in adolescents and ways to improve positive self-talk amongst teens. I’m also a teacher with experience in counseling. I’ve run a series of parent-education workshops on topics such as technology, sexuality, and self-esteem in children and teens. For matters relating to this particular field, it is best to contact me via email on allycatwellness@gmail.com (but you can also find me talking about nutrition and fitness on IG through @allycatwellness or doing essential oils education over at @allyspureoils.)

1. What is considered normal in terms of negative self-talk?

Tamarah – It’s important to differentiate between normal and healthy. We use the terms interchangeably, but they are not the same thing. It is normal to dislike parts/aspects of yourself or your situation, but it is unhealthy when that dislike or dissatisfaction becomes so internalized that it evolves into a negative view of self. Eg. It is normal to dislike the size and shape of your nose, it is unhealthy when you believe yourself inferior/unlovable due to your “unsightly” nose.

Melissa – This is a difficult question to answer, and I would say that we need to notice the difference between negative self- talk and self- talk that is criticizing. Our self- talk is often based on the feedback that we get from external influences. These influences include significant individuals in a child’s life, feedback from social media, celebrity (critics), peers, etc.
Negative self- talk is sometimes necessary for children to help them find themselves and find their likes and dislikes, which forms their character and gives them agency. Negative self- talk can also form the foundation for motivation and decision making and perhaps understanding and identifying themselves versus how the world identifies them. The basis is however that there needs to be a balance between positive and negative self- talk.
Critical self- talk, however, I would say is when children are not able to find the balance between negative and positive self- talk. This is when children internalize the negative feedback and find it difficult to “give a voice” to their own views of self.

Alexa – I think it’s very dangerous to try to measure your child against any kind of norm in this regard. All human beings engage in a level of negative self-talk. What matters is how we allow that negative message to affect our intrinsic beliefs about ourselves or if it impacts our behavior. A key marker that there may be a cause for concern is often change. If your child displays an increase in negative self-talk, a decrease in their willingness to take risks (try something new or interact with certain groups of people) perhaps citing a perceived inability to cope with the risk, then you need to consider that your child’s level of negative self-talk might be outside of the normal range for them. Any negative self-talk should not be brushed off but rather gently interrogated in conversation.

2. At what age will a child normally start to show signs of poor body image?

Tamarah – This is different for all children but most common around puberty. Poor body image can strike any time after self-awareness kicks in. When a child becomes aware that they look different, or do not excel in the same ways that other children do, eg. an overweight child struggling to participate in racing games/tag.

Melissa – Based on developmental theories teens (12- 18 years) need to develop a sense of self and form an identity when they fail to do this they often do not know who they are and experience, what is called role confusion. In this stage of development, the external feedback (especially from peers) are very important. We need to however consider the impact of social media (and other aspects of current times) and the fact that children are exposed to social media from a much younger age. Social media creates a platform for criticism and negative feedback (e.g. cyberbullying) as well as projecting false images of perfection.
During these times, children often start to show signs of poor body image if they feel that they do not fit the mold for the perfect body.

Alexa – There have been eating disorders documented in children as young as 4 years old. Whilst this is not usually the pattern, I think it’s important to note that it’s possible for a child to experience some sort of a disturbance in their self-image at any age. The most common age for the onset of negative body image is adolescence because this is when their body will start to change (often slower or faster than their peers) and they may be dissatisfied with the results. This is also the time when the child’s most important influencers, in your child’s opinion, shifts from parent to peer. This was typically always an adolescent phenomenon but with the rise of social media and other mod cons, this shift has been happening at an earlier age. Poor body image may be triggered by a number of other issues (changes in home circumstance for example).

3. How do we as parents, counteract the negative things other kids say to our children that could impact their body image?

Tamarah – A baseline confidence is the most effective way to counteract negative comments. As with most problems, prevention is better than cure. It is important to instill general confidence in our children regarding all aspects of self. It is also important to explain to our children that sometimes people say negative/nasty things due to hurts of their own and that those hurts are not yours to carry. This lesson can be easily incorporated into simple activities such as watching movies and reading fairy tales.

Melissa – I believe parents need to be vigilant about setting the example of how they portray their own body image. Simple examples such as a mother (or father) step on the scale and have negative reactions to the results, or mentioning that “I am on a diet” or “I can’t eat that….”.
My framework is that each person has a set of strengths, and parents can focus on these strengths within their children. A simple example of this is that we need to realize that sports, academics, and culture are not single all or nothing entities. A child for example that is much taller than her peers, might be great at playing basketball. There will always be an area in which a child can perform, this needs to be emphasized and supported by parents, even if it is not what parents wanted for their children initially.

Alexa – I think it is vital to understand that self-image (and body image) is not created at any single moment. It is the sum of a child’s experiences and various forms of feedback they receive about what they do and who they are. The aim for every parent is to foster in their child a self-image which is both stable and resilient enough that individual hurtful statements are easily recovered from. That being said I think that it is important to walk through a negative event with a child and ask a series of questions; “What was it about the statement that you find hurtful?” “Do you believe the statement to be true?” “Why do you think the child might have made that statement?” “What would you like to say to that child if they were here now?” These questions help the child to interrogate their own feelings as well as the hurtful statement in question. You are essentially teaching your child an important aspect of emotional intelligence and conflict resolution and creating an opportunity for you to redress whatever negative message was delivered by reminding them that they are valuable as they are.

4. How do help our children accept how they look?

Tamarah – A focus on our bodies’ strengths and purpose is always a good tactic. We as adults are so focused on society’s emphasis on looks, that we carry that over to our kids. What a pretty girl you are. Don’t you look cute in that dress? Such a handsome boy. We are in a position to change that narrative to focus on strength and ability. What strong legs you have. Look how fast you are. Such a great jumper. Further to this, it is important to teach our children to enjoy and appreciate the variety. Pointing out someone’s beautiful smile, their striking hair, their sparkling eyes, even if they are not “traditionally beautiful” is a good way of teaching children that there is beauty in diversity and in all of us.

Melissa – I would say by emphasizing their strengths. Helping them understand the concept and value of diversity. There are a number of resources on Pinterest that can help with this. Parents once again need to be vigilant of their own actions and opinions. Parents who struggle with poor body image often tend to engage in negative self- talk which often leads to children becoming critical about how they look.

Alexa – There are actually many things a parent can do but I’m going to focus on one very practical tip. We live in a society where appearance matters. It’s vital to counteract that belief by showing your child that there are attributes about them that matter more. Praise their effort, their heart, their resilience. Point out positive attributes in others that are not physical. Ensure that your conversations with and around your child focus on their personality and abilities rather than their appearance. A child will be more willing to accept themselves as they look if they believe that how they look is less important than how they treat others. You also need to be very careful of what you model to your child. If you are always on a diet or commenting on your body, they will learn very quickly that these things are important.

5. How do we go about positively using words like fat & thin when so much of societies narrative is negatively based on those words?

Tamarah – I would rather avoid those words altogether. We can talk about body types and health concerns without using words with negative connotations. Fat is a tissue type and it is a normal and healthy part of the human body when the right amount – not too much, not too little – is present. It is OK to discuss being healthy and taking care of our bodies. More than OK, important. BUT should we use words like fat, thin, skinny? Are they really the only options available to us? Again, talk about health, strength, ability, fun.

Melissa – My opinion is that health should be promoted and not weight, there are too many influential factors that are often out of our control that contribute to weight. The values that are taught to children start at a very early age and these values are not always consciously carried over to our children, but rather unconsciously.

Alexa – These words are inherently loaded and I’m not sure they are ever really necessary or relevant to describing a person. If someone else labels your child in such a way, have a conversation similar to that suggested in response to question 4.

6. Boys and girls would both be affected by body image and self-esteem, do we need to differentiate between the two genders when dealing with these issues?

Tamarah – Both genders are affected and for baseline confidence, the same tactics would work, the language might just differ slightly. Once children reach puberty, the exact issues generally differ, with girls focused on being skinny, pretty and concerned about their bodies growing in strange ways. For boys, the concerns come in with their sudden lack of coordination and body awkwardness. Their focus now also starts shifting to being “masculine” in the sense of muscular and attractive.

Melissa – Both boys and girls are believed to experience challenges with self- esteem and body image, it might be based on a different “criteria”, but the impact is still significant. Sexuality and gender roles often play a role in this aspect. There are different expectations for each gender, e.g. boys need to be “buff” and girls need to be thin.

Alexa – Whilst boys and girls might typically experience body image and self-esteem differently I don’t think the fundamentals of building a stable and resilient self-image through positive feedback and open dialogue are going to be different. What will change from child to child is the individual experiences and concerns of the child. If we listen to our children, we’ll meet them where they need us.

7. What are some of the warning signs we as parents could look out for? (excessive exercising, calorie-cutting in our children)

Tamarah – Negative self-image manifests in many ways. Self-harm, withdrawal, overcompensation, calorie cutting, over-eating. The trick is really to know your child well enough to recognize changes in behavior. With puberty, this can be quite a challenge, but open lines of communication always help. Each child will manifest differently, but if you are in tune with your child, you will notice warning signs.

Melissa – There are a number of signs that parents need to look out for, and most of these signs are focused on activity levels, negative self- talk and nutrition. The following can be seen as significant signs to look out for

Criticizing other’s bodies
Eating less
Focusing more on their physical appearance
Show guilt when they ate “unhealthy”
Turn down favorite snacks
Social withdrawn
They start exercising and it becomes (obsessively) important to them
Comparing their physical appearance with others

Alexa – Again any change is usually indicative that something is going on and a parent’s gut instinct is worth so much in these situations. Typical warning signs might include: ritual around meals, a reluctance to eat in front of others, a sudden interest in exercise or diet, wearing bulky clothes even in the heat, avoiding social situations, heightened emotionality (in context of course), anxiety around clothes, food or social interaction, being disinterested in activities that previously were loved.

8. And how do we deal with those warning signs?

Tamarah – It is so important that children know they are safe to speak to the adults in their lives. Give them the opening to speak to you, but try to avoid forcing the issue as this can result in further shut down. If they don’t take the bait, you might need to sit them down and talk about your concerns. You mention your 9-year-old exercising excessively in secret, you might ask whether she is preparing for an event or trying to get fit for a specific reason. Try to keep questions open and to a minimum and rather engage in conversation, if at all possible.

Melissa – Severe signs such as obsessive behaviors and extremes of the above factors might require professional support.
As parents, we can do the following
– Pay attention to the way we talk, not only about ourselves but also about others and the values that we pay to physical appearances.
– Monitoring social media is another important thing that we can pay attention.
– Engaging with children and showing interest in them and their feelings can play a big role.
– Emphasizing strengths
– Encouraging a healthy lifestyle without focusing on weight specifically
– Encouraging interests

Alexa – If the response suggests negative beliefs about the body, open a discussion about whether or not their beliefs are true, and if they are indeed true, why that would be a bad thing. Help your child to look at their negative self-image objectively to see that whatever their fault, it does not take away from who they are as a human being. My research suggests that helping a child to speak about self-image both in general terms and particular to themselves, teaches them to think more positively.

Any parting words of advice?

Tamarah – Two things:

1) Sport/physical activities are a great way of building confidence in children. We’re not all going to enjoy or excel in the same activities, but we’re all good at something, whether the traditional rugby/netball/hockey/athletics, or whether it’s dancing/fencing/martial arts/horse riding. When your body is in use and healthy, your focus is on your enjoyment of what your body can do, rather than how you look

2) Children are extremely adept at spotting hypocrisy. How can you tell them to accept themselves just as they are, when you don’t accept yourself, or the lady in the store or the guy in the office? When we, as parents, focus on running to lose weight or not having a slice of birthday cake to avoid gaining weight or saying something like “maybe have the salad?” or “That one could use a burger”, we tell our children that bodies are not OK and that others have the right to pass comment and affect how we see ourselves. We have the ability to change the narrative. “I run in the mornings because I like how it makes me feel” “I exercise because I enjoy being strong” “I don’t eat treats all the time, because I want to be healthy and have fun with you, but on special occasions, I’m totally having some”. How we talk about ourselves informs the way our children view their ability to perceive us. Which informs how they perceive themselves. Change up the language and be mindful of how you speak about your own and other people’s bodies. Someone is always listening. That bodybuilder doesn’t float your boat? Fine. Can you respect the work and determination that went into achieving their physique? Absolutely! Change the narrative and it will change a lot in self-perception.

Melissa – Parenting is challenging at times, and living in our modern times have posed even more challenges. Be “in tune” with your child, engage, joke, talk, spend time (not necessarily money) with them. As parents, we often put a lot of pressure on ourselves for creating “perfect” children, but we can rather focus on the unique qualities that each child have.

Alexa – Keep the dialogue open. Self-image does not change with the wind – it is the sum of our experiences. As a parent, you have a great ability to impact how a child deals with various situations and you can empower them by giving them tools to think differently too. The more you show them and tell them (both are powerful) that they are valuable and that how they treat others is more important than how they look, the easier it will be for them to hang onto that when those beliefs are challenged by the world.

Thank you, Tamarah, Melissa, and Alexa!

So many parents engaged with me on this topic over on my Instastories and it seems it’s a very real concern for all of us, irrespective of our children’s gender.

If you have a question, and it hasn’t been addressed here, please ask it in the comments section and I will send it on to our experts.