Body image and self-esteem

teenagers exercising


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A poor perception of body image in teenagers is an issue for mental health and well-being. We look at some behaviour for parents to be mindful of and provide tips to help improve self esteem.

Body image and self-esteem

Teenagers have always struggled with their body image. Puberty and external influences can lead to self-esteem issues and poor mental health. The situation is becoming more acute as shown in a recent survey by Stem4, a youth mental health charity. In November 2022, Stem4 surveyed 1,024 teenagers. The results raised concerns about the impact of social media sites such as Tiktok on self-esteem and body image. The survey found that three out of four children as young as 12 dislike their bodies and are embarrassed by their appearance. Eight in 10 young people aged 18 to 21 disclosed they are self-conscious and unhappy with the way they look. 

The research cites social media as the leading cause of poor body image and low self-esteem. Teenagers admitted they feel pressured to live up to the unobtainable appearance of influencers. It is also concerning to see that nearly half of those questioned admitted to excessive exercise or self-harm. The full report from Dr Nihara Krause, consultant clinical psychologist and founder of Stem4, is available here.  Dr Krause demands that social media companies take action. She wants these platforms to change their algorithms. She is concerned about the nature of the content young people see online.

It is clear that our society relentlessly focuses on appearance. How can parents discuss these topics without upsetting their children?

Teenager looking in mirror of a vehicle
Puberty can be a stressful time for teenagers and body image; this can be worsened by social media.

How do I know if my child has body image concerns?

Teenagers are often very private and hide their worries. If your child is not vocal about their feelings, other indicators of body image worries could be that they:

It is increasingly common for teenagers to become obsessed with exercise and healthy eating. Orthorexia is an unhealthy obsession with eating “pure” food. It can often be masked with a sudden commitment to healthy eating, for example becoming a vegan. Orthorexia is used to cope with negative thoughts or to feel in control. People who use food in this way might feel anxious or guilty if they eat food they consider to be unhealthy. Not all young people who eat healthily are orthorexic. It can be a positive step if a young person makes changes to their diet. Keep an eye on the situation and if you feel that it is becoming an obsession seek support.

The media has traditionally focussed on the effect of social media on teenage girls. Recent research shows that the prevalence of muscular male bodies on social media has a toxic effect on the self-esteem of young men. Boys compete on TikTok to be “buff” leading to anxiety, stress and body dysmorphia. A recent New York Times article reports that so-called bigorexia, which includes an excessive focus on protein diets and intense muscle-building goals, has hit concerning levels. If your child is developing an unhealthy relationship or obsession with exercise, help them to establish some boundaries. Limit the time they work out each day or encourage less intense activities.

teenagers exercising
Parents should also be mindful of obsessive exercise with teenagers.

What can I do to help my child improve their self-esteem?

If your child talks negatively about themselves, keep the dialogue open. Practise active listening rather than dismissing their concerns. Let them know it’s normal for people to feel different emotions about their bodies and that most young people struggle with their appearance. Avoid focusing on their weight or body shape, especially around puberty, as this can have detrimental effects. Suggest things you can do together to make a positive change. If they are worried about their weight, offer to exercise with them for example walking, jogging or even an activity like yoga.

If your children spend too much time online following unhealthy role models, limit their screen time and ensure they do other activities to support healthy connections. Suggest positive accounts to follow, such as @s0cialmediavsreality. This account compares real images to their filtered posts.

If your child is overeating, then decide as a family to choose healthier options. Don’t buy junk food or snacks. Treats should be an exception rather than a rule. Cut out fizzy drinks and make jugs of water filled with fresh limes or lemons instead. Involve your children in the cooking process and let them pick out recipes to cook together at the weekend.

Black teenager smiling
Encourage your children to be kind to themselves.

3 ways to promote positive self-esteem:

  1. To combat negative self-talk, remind your children that they would never describe a friend that way. Encourage your child to be kind and respect themselves.
  2. Focus and praise non-appearance-based qualities in others so that they can recognise and value their own. For example, highlight when someone goes out of their way to help someone else.
  3. We can all lose perspective at times. Remind your child that most people are so busy worrying about themselves that they don’t notice as much as you might think.

Small changes can make a big difference…

A haircut or a new skincare regime can make us feel more confident. Talk to your child about the parts of their image they are worried about and see what healthy steps they can take to address them. For example, if your teenager is struggling with acne do not ignore it to avoid offending them, offer to take them to the doctor to seek support. Clothes make a big difference too. If we wear outfits we like and feel comfortable with, we feel more confident. Take your child shopping and find styles that suit their shape.

Adolescents are heavily influenced by their peers. Help your child find supportive friends who don’t put them down. If you are concerned that they are being bullied online or in a toxic friendship talk to them about it or seek advice from their school.

Parents need to model body confidence. Above all, avoid criticising your appearance in front of your children. If we feel shame about our bodies, our children will pick up on this. If you are worried about your weight and need to improve your health use this as a way to demonstrate healthy weight loss to your children. Discuss how you feel with your children and focus on improving your health as the main motivation rather than appearance. Avoid fad diets or restrictive eating; we cannot expect our children to rise above societal pressures and feel confident in themselves if we fall into the same traps. 

If you are concerned there is lots of support available online. Stem4 has developed a new app called Worth Warrior. Worth Warrior helps young people overcome negative body image and low self-worth.

Other resources

We hope this blog was helpful. Please feel free to get in touch with us should you have any questions about your child and their body image or self-esteem. We enjoy talking with parents and helping our students by tailoring learning to their individual needs.

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