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Tweens & Teens: Body Image Issues

In this world of social media, YouTube and streaming services, our tweens and teens are bombarded with images of what society values as beautiful. The constant barrage of those images can lead kids to believe they have to live up to this impossible standard of beauty. It’s a slippery slope none of us want our teens sliding down.

Sara Pyatt, a licensed mental health counselor and the owner and program director of Mindful Me — a private therapy practice in Carmel that provides outpatient treatment to clients struggling with eating disorders — answers some questions regarding this important topic.

What are some signs that my child might be struggling with body image?

The most obvious sign is an increased focus on physical appearance. This could be displayed through comments made about body, weight, appearance or attractiveness. If they are using negative language about their body, this would be a clear indicator there is a body image issue. This could also be exhibited through looking in the mirror more, sometimes referred to as “body checking”, or an increase in the amount of time it takes to get ready in the morning. Body insecurities often lead to more time spent “trying to get it right.”

What steps should I take if I’m concerned?

First, try to start a dialogue. Sometimes, a general question is best. For example, “How are things going?” or “Has something been bothering you?” would be enough to ease into more serious topics.

The most important thing is to provide a safe space for your child to share. You don’t want to anger or scare them away. In the discussions you have, try to stay calm, be open-minded, ask how you can help and be supportive.

Early intervention is crucial to help prevent potentially severe eating disorders, so if unsure about what to do, err on the side of “better safe than sorry” and get an expert opinion from a trusted professional. You might be able to talk with someone who treats disorders to get an idea of how best to move forward, but it is likely that you will need to set up an eating disorder assessment with a therapist and/or a dietitian. They will ask several questions to get a better idea of the situation, and then they will typically make recommendations on the appropriate treatment plan.

What can I do to help foster a positive body image in my teen?

Reduce or eliminate all discussions about people’s bodies and attractiveness. Focus on other positive qualities, such as achievements, successes and personalities. If you can model a positive body image, they will be more likely to develop a positive body image.

Point out things you see that feed into diet culture, and discuss why these things might not be accurate or important. Also, find examples that go against these norms and show these to your children. Help them by creating a more balanced and inclusive environment when it comes to what they are watching and reading.

Focus on health versus weight when it comes to eating and exercise. Try to provide a variety of different types of foods. Help them to see that salad AND cake can have a role in their life. Balance is the key. No diet talk should be happening around your children. Additionally, rather than force exercise or sports, try to encourage different types of physical activity and movement. Variety and enjoyment is the key to forming a healthy relationship with exercise.

Be a family that communicates and welcomes the expression of different emotions. Body image and eating disturbance can also partially be manifestations of trouble regulating or expressing emotions. Help your children learn how to do this and feel safe doing it.

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