By Natalie Nation
During puberty, your teen’s body is under construction, and there’s no telling what they’ll look like or feel like when they come out the other side. As anyone who’s been through it knows: puberty is emotional, stressful, and unpredictable.
You, as a parent, will likely notice your teen’s changing body alongside all the other changes they experience. It can be tempting to make comments about what you notice.
But did you know body comments can be harmful to your teen’s mental health?
Now, it might seem like your teen has selective hearing when it comes to anything you have to say. But believe this: Kids listen when you talk about bodies.
Comments about your own body, their body, other people’s bodies—your teenager internalizes them all. Why? Because physical changes in puberty can lead teens to feel insecure, especially about things they don’t have control over, like height, weight, physical appearance, and more.
As they try to understand the changes transforming their bodies from child to adult, your teens naturally turn to friends, family, and social media for information. They may worry about being perceived as “pretty,” “attractive,” or “cute” by their friends and classmates or concerned about bullying because of how they look. Your goal here is to not exacerbate their worries further.
What Science Says About Body Talk
The way parents talk about bodies can and does have a huge impact on their children. According to a 2018 study in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, parents who speak negatively about their own, their child’s, or other people’s body weight are more likely to have children who struggle with disordered eating, compared to parents who do not speak negatively about body weight.
When teens overhear criticism (and even praise) about someone’s appearance, they may try to use this information as guidance for what they believe their own body should look like.
When a parent says: “Uncle Brian gained a lot of weight last year. He needs to start taking better care of himself.”
Your teenager hears: “If I gain weight, that means I’m not taking care of myself.”
When a parent says: “Wow, I wish I was fit like you, you look great!”
Your teenager hears: “If I’m not fit, I don’t look good. Maybe I need to work out more.”
Those internalized thoughts are counterproductive; they can provoke a teen to try to change or modify their bodies through dieting, restriction, unhealthy exercise, or other harmful behaviors and habits.
So, how do we help our teens?
We want our teens to appreciate and respect their bodies, no matter what they look like. This is a critical part of developing a positive teen body image. One way parents can help their teens cultivate a positive body image is by teaching them how to care for their bodies, without focusing on physical appearance. Regardless of height, weight, or body type, every teen can find ways to care for their physical and mental health.
Teens can care for their bodies in a number of ways. For example:
- Food Choices: Eating a wide variety of nutritious foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, proteins, and dairy.
- Mindful Eating: Minimizing distractions like TV or phones during meals so they can pay attention to their body’s natural hunger and fullness cues.
- Hydration: Hydrating with plenty of water and other fluids throughout the day, especially when it is hot and humid outside.
- Nighttime Routine: Establishing a nighttime routine that helps them wind down in the evenings and get plenty of sleep at night.
- Physical Activity: Regularly engaging in physical activities they enjoy, like walking, biking, dancing, yoga, or organized sports.
- Self-Care Routine: Caring for their emotional and mental health by finding a self-care routine that helps them relax.
- Communication: Talking about their feelings with trusted friends and adults when feeling anxious or stressed.
Minimize body comments around your teen.
Another way parents can help teens build positive body image and self-esteem is to stop making comments about other people’s appearances. For many parents, this can be a hard habit to break!
Take this opportunity to have a family discussion about body image and how body comments impact all of you. Parents can help their kids understand that the “perfect body” only exists in the media in order for big corporations to sell their products and services. Parents can discuss body diversity and celebrate and appreciate differences in body shape and size, as well as race, ethnicity, age, gender identity, sexuality, and physical ability. Include all of your kids in conversation about why making body comments is not okay anymore, and make an effort as a family to hold each other accountable.
Stop allowing other people to make comments about your teenager’s body.
Body talk is so ingrained in our society that you may find it uncomfortable to speak up and confront family and friends when they talk about your teen’s body, regardless if their comments are meant to be flattering or not. Still, it is your parental duty to advocate for your teen’s physical and mental wellbeing, and sometimes that entails challenging cultural norms. When you hear relatives or friends making comments about your teen’s body, their weight, their eating, or their exercise habits, you might try politely asking those people to stop. You can say things like: “We’re trying to shift focus away from physical appearance and weight” or “Let’s talk about something else. Can I brag about her for a minute?”
You also can empower your teen to stand up for themselves. Encourage them to speak up when they’re made to feel uncomfortable. Teach them respectful and assertive ways to speak to family members and friends who make body comments. For example, “Mom, remember how we said we’d stop talking about other people’s bodies like that?” and “Please stop talking about my body, Aunt Linda. It makes me uncomfortable.”
The Bottom Line.
Body comments can be harmful to your teen’s mental health and may increase their risk of developing an eating disorder. However, parents and guardians can help build their teen’s confidence by shifting focus away from appearance and toward caring for their bodies as a whole.
If you or your teen has concerns about their body weight, growth and development, or mental health, schedule an appointment with your family doctor or primary care provider.
Resources for parents: