Kids of all ages can have negative body images, so how can parents help kids with body positivity?
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In addition to disordered eating, teens with a negative body image may experience anxiety, low self-esteem, or mood disorders such as depression. Negative body image may also contribute to body dysmorphia—a mental health disorder in which someone can develop a distorted perception of their appearance and fixate on “flaws,” real or imagined, to the point where it affects functioning in their lives.
Body dysmorphic disorder affects about 1.7-2.4 percent of the general population, according to Melissa Horowitz, Psy.D., director of Eating Disorders and Weight Management Program at the American Institute of Cognitive Therapy in Manhattan. Researchers have found that symptoms can develop in early adolescence, although the average age of onset occurs in middle adolescence. The cause of body dysmorphic disorder is not entirely clear, but factors include genes, personality traits, temperament, and the environment.
Signs Your Teen Has a Negative Body Image
In general, there are several red flags parents should be aware of when it comes to body image and disorders. Teens who are struggling with body image may:
- cover up certain body parts
- make increasing negative comments about specific body parts, including talking about surgery to change their bodies
- have decreased interest in school, hanging out with friends, and other activities
- spend significant time scrutinizing themselves in the mirror or refuse to look in the mirror
- avoid looking at pictures of themselves or being photographed
- have increased irritability or other changes in mood
Parents should also take note if their teenager abruptly cuts out certain foods from their diet they were previously eating, such as dairy, meat, or carbs, or begins paying significant attention to calories or grams of fat. Mysko notes that eating disorders are often preceded by dieting.
If parents have concerns, a crucial first step is to seek out a mental health professional who has expertise in supporting teens with developing a positive body image and a healthy relationship with food and exercise. “Sometimes it might be difficult for a teen to open up to a parent, but they might trust an external source more,” Barton says. Parents can also turn to their doctor or a pediatrician or reach out to a nonprofit group that can provide resources. Dr. Horowitz, however, cautions against over-pathologizing comments teenagers make about their bodies. For example, if your teen says, “I hate my stomach,” don’t jump to conclusions. This is first and foremost an opportunity for the parent to start a conversation with their teen.
Body Positivity Resources for Parents
In addition to discussing concerns with a child’s doctor or pediatrician, who can provide recommendations for psychiatrists or local treatment centers, parents can also turn to the following resources:
The National Eating Disorders Association: NEDA offers a screening tool, helpline, and a database of treatment centers around the country.
- The Body Positive: This is a nonprofit devoted to helping individuals work toward body positivity. The website includes a number of online resources.
- Health at Every Size: This site has a list of resources, including blogs, podcasts, and online groups.
- NYC Well: The 24-hour hotline (888-NYC-WELL) is staffed by mental health professionals. Plus, it has additional resources listed on the website.