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What to say to your teen when they tell you they hate their body

Positive body image is associated with better self-esteem and mental health both during adolescence and later in life

Mum and teenage daughter hugging by a window
Mum and teenage daughter hugging by a window

Many teens struggle with their body image as they go through puberty and adjust to the changes in their appearance.  

The Butterfly Foundation 2022 Body Kind Youth Survey, supported by nib foundation, found that over 90% of young people aged 12-18 reported some level of body image concern, and 2 in 5 kids are either very or extremely concerned about their body image. Those reporting their gender as anything other than male reported a higher level of concern about their body image (>40% very or extremely concerned). 

Positive body image is associated with better self-esteem and mental health both during adolescence and later in life. Helen Bird, Manager of Education Services at the Butterfly Foundation, opens in a new tab shares her top tips for helping teenagers, opens in a new tab navigate body image concerns. 

How can you foster a positive body image in your child? 

“The home and family environment – and more specifically the messages children receive around body image, healthy eating and physical activity – is one of the most significant influences on a child’s developing self-esteem and body image,” says Helen.

How parents talk about their own or other people’s bodies, including the value they place on appearance, weight, shape and size, can all transfer to their children.

The good news is that many parents recognise the important role they need to play in helping their children receive healthy messaging about their bodies, eating habits and physical activity. “Family dynamics can even help buffer some of the really strong sociocultural influences on body image, including social media and peers,” explains Helen. 

Here’s what parents can do to help their children develop a positive relationship with their bodies, opens in a new tab

  • Encourage your child to talk to themselves the way they would to a friend – with kindness and respect. They wouldn’t say negative things to their friends, so why say it to themselves? 

  • Help them admire non-appearance-based qualities and strengths in others and themselves, such as curiosity, creativity and integrity.  

  • Celebrate diversity and acknowledge that all bodies are supposed to be different. Support your child to accept their body more and compare themselves less. 

  • Be mindful of the language you use and reduce the commentary and narrative around appearance. 

  • Try to stay connected to your child and understand their reality. Who and what is influencing their values and attitudes towards appearance, eating and physical activity? 

  • Keep lines of communication open and do your best to be available to talk when they are. 

How can you mitigate the effect of social media? 

Parents play a vital role in supporting their child to navigate social media in a positive way – and understanding the various platforms is a great place to start. 

“This will help parents empower their children to choose what and who they see and follow, and to create a more diverse, positive and balanced feed,” explains Helen.  She also suggests the following: 

  • Establish boundaries early, set up safety measures and discuss all things social media upfront. Prevention is better than cure! But keep in mind that banning or heavily restricting social media may not be the best approach because it may then become a forbidden fruit. 

  • Encourage your teen to become aware of how being online makes them feel. Does it motivate and inspire them or lead to criticism and negative body comparisons? If it’s not making them feel good, suggest they take a break, unfollow, block or press mute. Fear of missing out (FOMO) is a very real thing for teens, so taking a break may be challenging. 

  • Help children challenge the messaging behind posts and the tricks used to create images so they develop a critical eye when looking at social media. 

  • Encourage your teen to ‘post’ themselves as a whole person, including their interests, hobbies and passions, rather than just body parts or appearances. 

  • Role model what you want your teen to do. Adults aren’t immune to the pressures of social media! 

What should you do if your teen says they hate their body?  

In addition to creating a home environment that fosters positive body image, healthy eating and physical activity, parents should be aware of the warning signs of body image issues and intervene early. 

“It can sometimes be difficult to know if a young person’s attitudes and behaviours towards food, exercise or their body are typical or a sign of something more serious,” says Helen.

The ‘warning signs’ will also look and sound different for each person. 

“Generally speaking, if your child has a preoccupation with eating, food, body shape or weight, and it’s negatively impacting their relationships, schoolwork, self-esteem, exercise behaviours or everyday life, these may be signs that they’re developing serious body-image concerns.” Other signs and symptoms to watch out for include: 

  • Being overly critical about their body size or shape and being worried or anxious if it changes 

  • Comparing their body and appearance to others more often 

  • Spending more time in front of the mirror or taking photos and looking for imperfections 

  • Weighing themselves frequently 

  • Changing the way they dress or their grooming behaviours (they may be either more or less focused on these) 

  • Avoiding activities because of how they feel about their body or appearance 

  • Exercising more often, compensating with exercise after eating, or feeling stressed or irritated if they can’t exercise or train 

  • Hiding food, eating in secret or linking food with guilt or shame. 

Young girl with curly red hair studying her face in the mirror

If your teen won't open up, where can you turn for help? 

“If you’re concerned about your child’s eating or exercise behaviours, their language or attitudes about their body weight or shape, or their mental health, it’s always better to seek support sooner rather than later,” advises Helen. “Know the signs and act early.” Although body image issues can be challenging, there’s lots of help available. Parents can seek support from: 

Please note: The tips throughout this article serve as broad information and should not replace any advice you have been given by your medical practitioner. 

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