July 18, 2024

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Daily Dose – Navigating Teen Body Image: A Practical Guide for Parents to Support Healthy Self-Perception

4 min read

Navigating the teenage years can be challenging for both teens and their parents, particularly when it comes to body image. Adolescents are in a phase of rapid physical, emotional and social development, making them vulnerable to body image issues. Dr. Shamieka Dixon, division chief of adolescent medicine for Atrium Health Levine Children’s in the greater Charlotte region, explores the challenges teens face regarding body image, the role parents and caregivers play in supporting healthy self-perception and when your teen should seek professional help.

The challenges of teen body image

Teenagers are particularly vulnerable to body image issues due to hormonal changes, peer pressure and the influence of media. Dixon says teens are constantly bombarded with images of what they “should” look like which can lead to unrealistic expectations and negative self-talk.

“This reality has not changed over time, however, what has changed is the impact and access to social media and effects it has on body image,” Dixon says. “The number of filters, alterations and unhealthy practices teens are exposed to have only multiplied and reinforce the stereotype that all teens should look a certain way or be a certain size.”

Dixon says that while social media can be a useful tool for factual or educational information, it can be used to spread misinformation and support society’s often unrealistic definitions of beauty standards. It also allows influencers to promote disordered eating behaviors under the guise of “healthy eating.”

“This may lead to worsening self-esteem, distorted body images, and eating and mood disorders for teens,” Dixon says. “It’s crucial for parents to understand the impact of these influences and provide a supportive environment at home.”

How parents and guardians can help

  • Foster open communication. Creating a safe space for open conversation is essential. Dixon says it’s important to encourage your teen to share their thoughts and feelings about their body without fear of criticism.

“Listen actively and validate their emotions,” Dixon emphasizes. “Let your teen know that it’s okay to have insecurities and assure them that having moments of self-doubt is a normal part of growing up.”

  • Promote healthy habits. Emphasize the importance of a balanced diet, regular physical activity and getting enough sleep. Dixon suggests rather than focusing on appearance, parents can frame these habits as ways to feel strong, energetic and healthy.

“Parents can encourage fruit and vegetables early and regularly, and limit the amount of sugary beverages and processed snacks in the house,” Dixon says. “Also try to prioritize homemade meals and lunches, and help teens find movements they enjoy, such as sports, dance, walking or exercise.”

  • Be a positive role model. Your behavior and attitudes towards your own body can significantly influence your teen. Dixon encourages parents to demonstrate self-acceptance and avoid negative comments about your own appearance.

“Parents should not criticize their own body around their children,” Dixon says. “We want to serve as role models for our children and encourage a strong and healthy body.”

  • Limit social media influence. Encourage breaks from social media and discuss the unrealistic portrayals often seen online. Help your teen understand that many images are edited and do not represent real life.

“Have conversations about the impact of social media,” Dixon suggests. “Help them understand there may be a difference between what is reality and what’s portrayed online.”

Advice to teens

Dixon says when she meets with her adolescent patients, she reminds them that beauty does not need to be a specific size or shape.

“When I meet with patients, I often inquire about their goals so we can come up with a plan together to help them achieve them in a healthy fashion,” Dixon says. “I discourage dieting or extreme behaviors, like skipping meals or eliminating food groups. And I emphasize the importance of learning how to take care of their bodies.”

When to seek professional help

If body image issues escalate to the point of affecting your teen’s mental health, Dixon encourages parents and teens to consider seeking help from a professional.

“Some children hide their weight loss under excessively baggy clothes. But pay close attention to if your teen is starting to skip meals, return home with uneaten lunches or insist on eating alone more frequently,” Dixon says. “Intervene if you hear them disparage their own bodies or those of others.”

Dixon adds that while exercise is important, some can take it to the extreme.

“Be mindful of the amount of time and frequency children are exercising,” Dixon says. “For my competitive athletes, I remind them and their families that they must eat more to support their bodies.”

If parents are concerned that body image issues are impacting their teen’s mental health, Dixon suggests scheduling an appointment with their child’s pediatrician or primary care provider.

Understanding and addressing teen body image is a complex but crucial aspect of parenting. Every small step toward supporting your teen’s body image journey can make a significant difference in their overall well-being.

If you have concerns or need professional guidance about supporting your teen with body image issues, find a trusted pediatrician near you who can help.

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