Self-esteem and body image – a parent's guide

Glenys Jackson
Clinical Lead for Mental Health at Bupa UK
13 May 2019

Particularly from the start of their teenage years, it’s very common for children to go through periods of feeling insecure about who they are and how they look. This is a time when so much is changing – their bodies, social lives and school environment – so it’s no wonder that things can feel unstable.

As a parent, it can be worrying to see these changes happening. You might be wondering what you can do to help. Here, we’ll look at the signs a child might be feeling low in themselves or bad about their body, as well as some practical suggestions about what could make a positive difference.

Picking up on self-esteem issues

Some children are naturally more confident than others. Being somewhat shy, for example, may simply be part of a child’s character rather than a self-esteem problem. What you might notice, though, when a child is feeling bad about themselves is that they may:

  • often say negative things about their character or how they look
  • worry that they aren’t doing as well as other kids, for example at school
  • doubt themselves regularly, and hesitate to try new things

On the other hand, at times when they have better self-esteem, your child will probably appear more confident. They may be proud to talk about things they’ve achieved and act in a more relaxed way.

Boosting self-esteem

It sounds simple, but one of the best things you can do to boost your child’s self-esteem is to keep a good attitude towards communicating with them. There’s strong evidence that parents who are positive, encouraging and actively interested in their children can help to build high levels of self-esteem. On the other hand, parents who are often disapproving, seem uninterested or are unresponsive are likely to do the opposite.

Think about what you could do to foster more of this positive attitude, even if you feel like you’re pretty good at it already (and you probably are). Could you spend less time on your phone and more time showing an active interest in what your child is doing? Or could you praise them more often? Saying a few encouraging words – for the effort that they put into things, and not only the results they get – can go a long way. Try to focus on what your child is doing well and help them feel good about that.

Other things that might help your child to boost their self-esteem include:

  • learning a new skill or starting a new hobby – whether that’s dancing, arts and crafts, playing an instrument, or whatever genuinely interests and excites them
  • exercising and becoming more involved in sports that they enjoy
  • getting involved in activities where they can see they’re helping others, such as volunteering
  • being able to spend more time around their friends

Young couple jumping into a lake

Understanding body image

A common cause of self-esteem problems in young people is worries about their appearance. You’ve probably heard the term ‘body image’, which simply means how any of us feel about our own body. Having a positive body image means generally feeling comfortable with your looks. On the other hand, having a negative body image means regularly feeling self-conscious, worried or ashamed about your body, or a certain part of it.

While boys are affected too, teenage girls in particular have been shown as likely to struggle with their body image. Survey results suggest that most teenage girls aren’t happy with how they look. One found that seven in 10 young women, aged between 18 and 24, said they would consider having cosmetic surgery.

In some cases, negative body image may be made worse by seeing ‘picture perfect’ photos of people on social media or TV and feeling that these represent the norm. There are also other factors that can play a role, including the attitudes and opinions of friends and family members, and the wider culture that we live in.

Supporting a positive body image

As a parent, you can set a positive example with your own attitudes.

  • Try to be positive about your own body size and shape, and those of others. Show that you appreciate diversity and make a point of noting how different everybody is. All of us have features that others want, even if we don’t realise it.
  • Encourage a healthy attitude towards food and eating. For example, referring to some foods as ‘bad for you’ or saying you’ve ‘been good’ by eating a small meal may give out the wrong message.
  • Remind your child that a lot of images in the media are edited or framed in a certain light, and encourage them to think critically about why people and companies do that. They might also find it helpful to tune out from TV shows and unfollow social media accounts that make them feel worse about themselves.

Helping your child through

It can be tough seeing your child go through the ups and downs of adolescence. We want our children to feel secure, happy and optimistic as they grow up. It can help to foster resilience in your child if they can see that their parents deal with their own challenges and move forward.

You may also want to think, if you notice your child struggling with their self-esteem, about situational factors that could be contributing to these feelings. Perhaps you’ve moved to a new area, there’s been a major change in the family, or they might be going through problems at school such as bullying or exam stress? For tips about having conversations with your child and keeping an eye on what might be upsetting them, the Young Minds is a valuable resource.

You know your child best, so if you feel like something’s wrong, speak to them, their school or their GP as you feel necessary. Keep communicating with them and reassuring them, and don’t hesitate to seek help yourself if you’re finding things tough – a happier parent can contribute to a child being happier, too.

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Here at Bupa we understand how important your family is. So with our family health insurance you can rest assured knowing that eligible treatment and support is available to you and your loved ones when you need it.

Glenys Jackson
Glenys Jackson
Clinical Lead for Mental Health at Bupa UK

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