- In a poll, two-thirds of parents said that their kids felt self-conscious about how they looked.
- They reported that their children’s self-esteem had been affected by those feelings.
- Additionally, many kids were treated badly because of their looks.
- Experts say this is a common feeling during childhood and adolescence.
- However, there is much that parents can do to support and educate their children.
According to a new poll conducted by the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor, MI, 64% of parents said their children are self-conscious about some aspect of their appearances, such as their weight, skin, or breast size.
The nationally representative poll included 1,653 parents with at least one child between the ages of eight to 18.
The parents who took part in the poll said they observed these feelings more often in teens than in younger kids. Seventy-three percent of teen girls and 69% of teen boys felt this way versus 57% of young girls and 49% of young boys.
In 27% of cases, they reported that their child’s self-consciousness had affected their self-esteem in a negative way while 20% said their child didn’t want to participate in activities because of their feelings.
Nearly as many (18%) had refused to be in photos, and 17% had tried to hide their appearance with clothing. Additionally, 8% had engaged in restrictive eating.
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Many respondents said that their children had often been treated badly because of how they looked by other children (28%), strangers (12%), family members (12%), teachers (5%), and healthcare providers (5%).
Two-thirds of these parents felt that their child was aware of how they had been treated.
Mott Poll co-director Dr. Susan Woolford, MPH, a child obesity expert and pediatrician at the University of Michigan Health C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, said that these findings are important.
“A negative body image can contribute to poor self-esteem and ultimately impact emotional well-being,” she noted. “Thus, it is important to help children and teens to have positive perceptions of their body.”
According to Eileen Anderson, EdD, director of education in bioethics and medical humanities at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, these feelings are common among children. “Most teens feel uncomfortable or self-conscious in at least some contexts of their lives,” she noted.
Anderson explained, “Developmentally, adolescents are bringing online parts of their brain that allow for increased comparison of where they fit relative to others in their social worlds.”
She added that they are better able to handle abstraction at this stage in their development, which allows them to imagine themselves in various scenarios and make comparisons between their developing bodies and those of others.
“Body image issues have long caused adolescents self-conscious discomfort in many societies, cultures, and subcultures,” said Anderson.
She further noted how the ubiquity of social media is complicating this issue.
“Not only are they comparing themselves to — and being compared with — others in their immediate worlds, but also they have instant, constant, and filtered images from national and global media with which to contend.”
“They are often looking at idealized, edited images of someone’s best moment and comparing their worst,” she added.
She also pointed out that the ideals of attractiveness are constantly changing, so children can never achieve those ideals.
Furthermore, she explained, they have to worry that someone might capture them in an off moment and post it on social media, where the photo could live on forever.
Both Woolford and Anderson say there is much that parents can do to help their children through this difficult stage in their lives.
Model what you preach
Anderson explained that it is first of all very important that parents “model what they preach.”
“The mom that disparages herself in front of the mirror and then expects her daughter to feel good about herself, or the dad who talks about his physical shortcomings but expects his son to feel confident, [those parents] model behavior the kids tend to absorb over time,” she said.
She suggests that parents praise character qualities in children rather than their looks. “‘You really showed up for your friend when she was upset’ packs a better punch than, ‘Well, you girls still look so beautiful.’”
Talk with them about their feelings
Woolford additionally suggests that parents open a dialogue with their children about what’s happening to their bodies, explaining that the things that they are uncomfortable with can change over time. She adds that parents can let them know that most people feel self-conscious at some point, which will put the pressure they are feeling into context.
“It is also important to talk with children about the unrealistic images they see in the media and to discuss the importance of diversity,” said Woolford. “This will help children understand that we are all unique and that these differences are to be celebrated and embraced.”
Anderson added that parents should listen closely to what their teens are saying, without being dismissive or making assumptions, and ask follow-up questions. She advises proceeding “in the spirit of Ted Lasso: Be Curious, Not Judgmental.”
Get a handle on social media
When it comes to social media, there is much that parents can do to educate their kids about the realities of filters, “photoshopping,” and image angles as well, said Anderson. Also, it can help to direct them toward body-positive social media feeds and influencers.
She further advises that parents should not post photos of their children on social media unless their children have approved them.
“There is so much out of control in adolescents’ lives, and especially on social media, to give them control and respect over what their own family posts is important,” she said. “As a mother of three adolescent girls, I feel the pain of this one myself, but in the long run, it pays off in your relationship and in the children’s feelings of being respected and in control.”
Put them in supportive environments
Finally, Anderson said, “If parents are concerned about their teen, they can offer resources such as counseling or opportunities to get together with a trusted friend or family member.”
She also suggests finding out where children feel most “themselves” and trying to foster those environments as a confidence booster for children.