It seems like just yesterday that you had to coax your daughter to bathe. But then she turned 11 and started spending hours in the bathroom and sizing herself up in every mirror she passes. She seems consumed by her looks.
What happened? And is it healthy?
As they approach the teen years, it’s common and natural for kids to become more interested in appearances. Their bodies are going through some big changes as they grow and go through puberty.
As preteens change physically they become more aware of how they look.
Body image can be especially vulnerable during the preteen and teen years because appearances change so much and cultural messages that fuel dissatisfaction can be very strong. Being criticized or teased about appearance can be particularly hurtful at this age.
Preteens and teens often compare their looks with others or with media images of the “right” way to look. In cultures in which looks seem to matter so much — and ideal images are so unrealistic — it’s common to be dissatisfied with some aspect of appearance.
But feeling too self-critical about appearance can interfere with body image. And poor body image can hurt a teen’s overall self-image.
In most cases, the focus on appearance is a very natural and common part of becoming a teenager. Typically, these expressions of frustration resolve quickly and don’t warrant concern — just plenty of patience, empathy, support and perspective from parents.
Still, it can be frustrating when looks seem to matter so much to your child. It can be a delicate balance to help your preteen feel confident and satisfied with her looks while encouraging her not to be overly concerned with the superficial.
It’s important to encourage teens to take pride in their appearance but also to emphasize the deeper qualities that matter more.
Boosting your teen’s body image
As your preteen tries on different looks, you can help by being accepting and supportive, providing positive messages, and encouraging other qualities that keep looks in perspective. Be sure to:
- Accept and understand. Recognize that being concerned about looks is as much a part of the teen years as a changing voice and learning to shave. You know that in the grand scheme of things your daughter’s freckles don’t matter, but to her they might seem paramount. As frustrating as it can be when they monopolize the bathroom, avoid criticizing kids for being concerned about appearances. As they grow, concern about their looks will stop dominating their lives.
- Give lots of compliments. Provide reassurance about kids’ looks and about all their other important qualities. As much as they may seem not to notice or care, simple statements like “you’ve got the most beautiful smile” or “that shirt looks great on you” really do matter. Compliment them on other physical attributes, such as strength, speed, balance, energy or grace. Appreciating physical qualities and capabilities helps build a healthy body image.
- Compliment what’s inside too. Notice out loud all the personal qualities that you love about your kids — how generous your son is to share with his little sister, the determined way that your daughter studies for her tests, or how your son stood by his best friend. Reassure them when they express insecurity. When you hear “I hate my hair” or “I’m so little,” provide valuable counterpoint.
- Talk about what appearances mean. Guide your kids to think a little more deeply about appearances and how people express themselves. Talk about the messages that certain styles might convey. One outfit may send the message “I’m ready to party!” while others might say “I’m heading to school” or “I’m too lazy to do laundry.”
- Set reasonable boundaries. Be patient, but also set boundaries on how much time your kids can spend on grooming and dressing. Tell them it’s not OK to inconvenience others or let chores go. Limits help kids understand how to manage time, be considerate of others’ needs, share resources, exercise a little self-discipline, and keep appearances in perspective.
- Be a good role model. How you talk about your own looks sets a powerful example. Constantly complaining about or fretting over your appearance teaches your kids to cast the same critical eye on themselves. Almost everyone is dissatisfied with certain elements of their appearance, but talk instead about what your body can do, not just how it looks. Instead of griping about how big your legs are, talk about how they’re strong enough to help you hike up a mountain.
Having a healthy and positive body image means liking your body, appreciating it, and being grateful for its qualities and capabilities. When parents care for and appreciate their own bodies, they teach their kids to do the same.
© 2012. Article adapted from The Nemours Foundation/KidsHealth®. Used under license.