How to support your teen with their body image through puberty

A young teen girl with long dark hair (left) looks happy as she sits on her bed talking to her mother (right).

Puberty is a time of growth, exploration and development, but the physical changes young people go through at this time can sometimes cause them to experience self-consciousness and loss of confidence.

This guide will cover:

  • why teenagers experience body image issues during puberty

  • warning signs to look out for

  • tips on communicating with your teen about healthy body image

  • how to be a good ‘body image’ role model for your teen.

Why do teens experience body image issues during puberty?

As teenagers go through puberty, they experience many different physical and emotional changes that can affect their body image.

Body image isn’t about your appearance or perceived attractiveness. Rather, it’s about the relationship you have with your own body, and the way you think and feel about it.

More than a third of young people have serious concerns about how they look. In addition to the physical changes that occur with puberty, there are lots of environmental factors that can trigger or exacerbate these concerns.

For example:

  • increased vulnerability from peer pressure

  • bullying

  • increased exposure to unhealthy body and appearance ideals in the media and on social media.

Warning signs that your child might be having body image issues

Sometimes it can be difficult for us to recognise whether a child’s behaviour is usual for a teenager going through puberty, or if it’s a sign of a deeper or more serious body image issue.

Some warning signs that a young person may be developing an unhealthy relationship with their body can include:

  • Constantly comparing themselves and their bodies to others

  • Consistently criticising themselves and their bodies

  • Regularly commenting on their weight or talking about ‘needing’ to lose weight

  • Changes to eating patterns or skipping meals Linking food to feelings of guilt or shame (e.g. ‘I feel bad for eating this because I need to lose weight’)

  • Asking for or regularly bringing up cosmetic surgery

  • Talking about or spending time looking for physical ‘imperfections’

  • Social withdrawal from family and friends and avoiding social events

  • Loss of interest in hobbies.

Teenagers who have a negative body image are more prone to things like depression, low self-esteem, nutrition or growth issues, and eating disorders.

Communicating with your teen about body image

Communicating with your teen about their body image is essential, but it can be a delicate or difficult topic to broach.

Here’s some tips on how to communicate with young people effectively about the topic of body image.

Be attentive and validate their concerns

It’s important to be aware that your teen is going through rapid and difficult changes with puberty, so they are likely to feel pretty overwhelmed. Make sure to be patient with them and sensitive to their feelings, and practise active listening when they are opening up to you about how they are feeling.

Make sure to acknowledge that how they feel is important. Even if you think something isn’t a big deal, remember that it’s important to them, so take it seriously and validate their feelings.

Focus on body functionality, not looks

Reinforce positive messages by focusing on what your child’s body can do, rather than how it looks.

Focusing on the functionality of bodies, rather than their appearance, can help to reinforce positive messages about health in a teen’s mind, reminding them that being healthy is more important than anything else.

Some examples of how to practise this include encouraging your teen to think about how food nourishes their body (and discourage talk of certain foods as being ‘good/bad’ or as affecting weight). Also encourage them to acknowledge – but to reframe – any negative thoughts they might have about their body and their appearance. You can learn more tips about implementing body neutrality and focus on functionality here.

You can also make sure to regularly praise your child for things not related to appearance. Try to be descriptive in your praise. Rather than just saying, ‘Thanks for your help at home’ or ‘Well done at school’, it’s a good idea to verbalise why something they’ve done is good, helpful, impactful or an incredible achievement.

This helps your child to think more deeply about other aspects of themselves, rather than just about their appearance, and encourages them to explore and be more considered in the way they view themselves, their body and their actions.

For example:

  • Place value on their personal qualities, skills, talents and interests.

  • Tell them you’re proud of them for their participation at school, and for their success in certain projects.

  • Encourage them to explore certain subjects and praise their efforts when they try new things.

  • Encourage them to explore their hobbies, and celebrate when they try something new or succeed in their hobbies in some way.

  • Celebrate their sense of humour, and let them know your favourite joke of theirs or how hilarious you find their humour.

  • Celebrate their good character, and praise them when they do something good for someone else. Encourage them to participate in community events or to volunteer, and verbalise to them how wonderful and important this is.

  • Praising them for their help around the house. Rather than just say, ‘Thanks for your help’, describe why it was so helpful and how their help and thoughtfulness have impacted you.

Things to avoid

  • If your teen makes negative comments about their body or the changes they’re experiencing with puberty, don’t encourage the negative talk. Instead, encourage them to think about their body in a more positive or functional way.

  • Don’t comment on foods as being ‘good’ or ‘bad’, or relate your teen’s eating habits to their weight. Instead, focus on nourishment and how foods can benefit them and the changes their body and mind are going through.

  • Try to limit how often you mention your own body/appearance, and don’t encourage talk of diet culture or of weight being related to health or happiness. Hearing this sort of negative body image talk can lay mental foundations for your teen, and can impact the way they think and talk about their own bodies for the rest of their life.

  • Avoid placing value on appearance as portrayed by media or social media. For example, discourage discussions that focus on celebrities’ looks, body shape or weight loss.

Being a role model for healthy body image

Your children look up to you as a parent and use you as a blueprint for how they should behave, so it’s important to be a role model when it comes to body image and self-worth. Modelling a positive relationship with your body will help them to understand what types of messages they should be sending to themselves.

Try to:

  • Talk openly about loving yourself and other people, without connecting it to appearance.

  • Be open and honest when communicating with your teen about body image.

  • Practise food neutrality – it’s best to talk about food simply as being nourishment for our bodies. Rather than ‘good’ or ‘bad’ foods, suggest that different foods are just different types of fuel that help our bodies to accomplish different things. Don’t encourage things like fad dieting or a regular focus on weight loss in your home.

  • Emphasise ways in which both you and your teen can show gratitude for your bodies: including cooking healthy meals, practising yoga, meditation and mindfulness, and participating in hobbies and physical activities together.

Body positivity vs body neutrality

There are two schools of thought about healthy ways to speak about and view our bodies: body positivity and body neutrality. Some parents prefer to talk with their teenage children about body image using the concept of body positivity, while others prefer body neutrality.

Body positivity is loving one’s body regardless of its appearance. It promotes the idea that the ideals of beauty are created by society and shouldn’t determine someone’s worth. Therefore it determines that we should love the way we look and create positivity about our bodies and self-worth by other means.

Some people find body neutrality a more helpful concept for talking to teenagers about their bodies, as it shifts the focus away from appearance and towards function. It can therefore be particularly helpful for young people struggling with body image issues, as well as with eating disorders and body dysmorphia.

Which of these approaches you choose to use when talking to your teenager about puberty and their body image is a completely personal choice between you and your child. You can learn more about body positivity and body neutrality here.

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