How to talk to your teen about negative body image

Dr. Nicole Beurkens

Dr. Nicole Beurkens

Child psychologist

Talking to your teen about negative body image

Body image issues are a fact of life for most of us these days in some way, and that includes children and teens. Up to two thirds of kids struggle with some aspect of body image, ranging from weight, to acne, to specific physical features, and more. While girls struggle with negative body image more than boys, it is a problem across all genders and ages. These challenges start much younger than most parents realize, and can impact children even before they reach school age.

There are many factors that contribute to the way children view themselves and their bodies as they age, including time spent on social media.

How does social media affect body image?

Social media has its benefits for children and adults, but when it comes to body image there are some concerns parents need to understand. One issue revolves around comparison in general, and appearance-related comparison specifically. It’s easy for kids to assume that the way people are portrayed in photos and videos online is “normal”, and that if they don’t look the same way there is something wrong with them. 

Of course, in a world filled with filters, photoshopping, and special lighting and camera angles, most of the faces and bodies children see on social media platforms are anything but typical. However, kids often don’t realize this and compare their very real bodies and features to the fantasy and unrealistic images they see online. In their minds they always come up short.

Social media reactions and teen body image 

There is also the issue of likes and comments on these platforms, and children trying to make themselves look a certain way in order to get more positive feedback from peers (and even strangers). A recent survey showed that 41% of girls report using social media to “make themselves look cooler”. I’ve had teen patients tell me that if they don’t get a certain number of likes or positive responses to a photo within a few minutes, they start feeling badly about themselves, assume it’s not a good photo of them, and take it down.

Parents need to also be aware of the amount of overt body/appearance-shaming and bullying that happens on social media. From critical comments, to distorting of photos and sharing them for others to see, this unfortunate aspect of social media can have highly negative consequences for children and teens when it comes to how they view themselves and their bodies

What can negative body image lead to?

While most people experience some challenges around body image during the childhood and teen years, there can be more significant consequences if these issues become more intense and go unsupported. At a minimum, negative body image can lead kids to feel more stressed about their appearance, hypervigilant about social interactions, and feel badly about themselves across the board. 

Unfortunately, negative body image can also lead to symptoms of depression, anxiety (including social anxiety), eating disorders, and even suicidality. We’ve all heard the tragic news stories about young people who have taken their own lives after periods of unrelenting criticism and bullying online

While it’s uncomfortable for parents to face, these things are happening at an increasing rate and we need to be aware of the very real psychological impact of negative body image (and negative self-perception more broadly) on our children. It should also be noted that negative body image can lead to problematic physical health issues as well, including:

  • malnutrition 
  • injuries from over-training via exercise
  • poor sleep
  • the impacts of chronically high stress levels.
how to talk about body image with your teen

How to spot the signs of negative body image in your teen or young child

One of the ways parents can support their children around this issue is by watching for signs that indicate negative body image is becoming a problem. Here are some specific things to be aware of:

  • Notice if your child makes frequent comparisons between themselves and others, especially if it’s accompanied by critical or negative talk about their body and other attributes. Be on the look-out for increased comments about their weight and physical appearance, including comparisons to peers in real life and/or online. Body-focused comments about others (ex: “She’s so fat!” or “Look at how ripped his muscles are!”) can also be an indicator of their thoughts around body image in general.
  • Mood or behavior changes, such as increased irritability or refusal to participate in social activities, are also signs that there may be a problem to address.
  • Eating and/or exercise habit changes that seem unhealthy or obsessive are definite concerns, and can include restricting food intake, exercising more than is typical or healthy, and frequent talk about food and exercise.
  • Looking at what is in your child’s social media feeds can also provide important clues. Do they have a constant stream of unrealistic make-up or fashion videos, pictures of social media influencers, dieting or weight lifting accounts? Their feed shows what they are being exposed to regularly, and can be an indicator of what they are thinking about themselves and others.

Talking to your teen about negative body image

Whether you think your child is having problems with negative body image or not, open communication and education around this issue is beneficial. 

1. Provide factual information about the ways we are influenced by the media to think about our bodies. Explain how what we see online and in other media is typically heavily edited, and that comparing themselves to these standards is not only unfair but unhealthy.

2. Share your own experiences with negative body image when you were their age or even now (as appropriate). This helps normalize the issue and helps them feel less alone and more understood.

3. Weaving this topic into natural conversation can be effective, as it doesn’t need to be a “formal” conversation to bring benefit. Make a positive comment about someone you see in public, on TV, or on social media. Tell your child something you saw online about body image that piqued your interest or concerned you. 

A good conversation starter can be to ask them about a photo or video they saw online recently and what they think about it. Ask whether they think that’s what the person would look like if they ran into them on the street, and share your thoughts as well.

4. As with all sensitive topics and kids, effective parent communication generally involves a lot more listening than talking! You may need to initiate the conversation, but then be conscious about giving them the floor and really hearing what they’re saying. Ask questions to get them to open up more, and then stay quiet to listen to their responses.

5. Let your teen know that you are always available to listen and provide support if they find themselves struggling with this issue. Assure them that there are ways to improve self-image and get help around this if needed, and you will support them.

6. Any time you have specific significant concerns about your child’s physical or mental health related to body image, raise it with them empathically and directly. They may not agree that it’s a problem, but you should express your concerns/observations and talk through a plan to support them in this area (including accessing professional support if appropriate).

How parents can help promote a more positive body image

One of the most important ways parents can promote a more positive body image in children is by their own modeling. This includes making positive comments about your own appearance and body, avoiding things like “diet talk” and self-deprecating comments in your child’s presence, and generally speaking kindly about yourself. 

This also extends to how children hear us talking about others’ bodies. Kids internalize the ways we talk about ourselves and others much more than we realize, and our self-talk often becomes their own without us realizing it. 

Making positive comments about your child that extend beyond appearance is also beneficial. Compliment them on personal attributes and behaviors that have nothing to do with how they look. Talk about food and exercise from the standpoint of physical and mental health and wellness, and not around losing weight or looking a certain way.

Finally, make sure you are aware of and regularly reviewing your child’s use of screen time and social media so you can address issues around body image that may be arising from those sources. This includes using parental controls, such as Qustodio, to set and enforce age-appropriate limits on content and time spent on specific apps. 

It also means having intentional conversation with your child about what they’re seeing, which accounts they’re engaging with, and how they are feeling about themselves when they see certain things or after they’ve spent some time on social media. All of these efforts will help ensure your child develops and maintains a healthier and more positive body image, and you may find that you feel better about yourself, too. Benefits for everyone!

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