I recently met a family whose young child had survived a car accident. I saw marks of her survival, including several evident scars. The parents told me that they plan for her to eventually have plastic surgery. In the meantime, they were looking for ways to help their daughter cope with her changed appearance right now. Although this instance is unique because of the car accident, these parents aren’t alone in their quest. Almost every parent will find that at some time or another, their child will have negative feelings about their appearance. What can parents do to teach kids how to have a positive body image?
Our twenty-first century is a time when magnificent and exciting developments in science and technology take place daily. However, culturally and sociologically, not everything is changing at such a rapid pace. Our planet is still marred by the judgment, bullying, or ostracism of people who look even mildly different from modern standards of attractiveness. Social media—the technological platform for advertising, social interaction, and entertainment—perpetuates beliefs about appearance and its link to happiness. And these beliefs influence and shape even the youngest observers.
Dangers of a Poor Body Image
Body image and self-image begin to form at a very young age. Toddlers in general may not notice or be deterred by physical or social differences in their peers. But by late preschool age, the story begins to change. And by the time a child enters elementary school, bullying may take place in earnest. A child may be judged and targeted for even the most subtle or inconsequential difference in appearance. It may be the size of the child’s ears or the position of their teeth. Perhaps others draw unkind attention to a child’s hairstyle or lack of coordination, or their height, weight, or race.
Without help, a child can be decimated by these rejections. They may begin to feel ashamed of their appearance and hate themselves. And the isolation caused by shame breeds terrible, lifelong consequences.
In 2016, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill conducted a study about the link between social relationships and health. Researchers measured three types of social relationships: social support, social integration, and social strain. Then they studied their relationship to common risk factors for mortality such as blood pressure, waist circumference, body mass index, and systemic inflammation as measured by levels of C-reactive protein. Their findings are fascinating. The more social ties the test subjects had at an early age, the better their health throughout their lifespan.
What does this mean for parents? That the best opportunity to prepare their kids for body image issues is before they start school. How can parents teach kids positive body image?
Conversation is Key
Most parents know that an easy, natural way to start a conversation with kids is to read a story together. When the story discusses an important topic, parents can learn through discussion how their kids feel about that topic. I wrote The Tortoise and the Hairpiece to address topics about body image and insecurity. The story is about a little turtle who wants to look like everyone else. He is afraid no one will like him because he looks different (no hair). He eventually learns that who you are on the inside is more important than how you look, and that true friends know that. The story includes questions at the end to help start conversations about self-image. This story can be helpful for children of any gender.
Parents can use the story to help children to cultivate a positive attitude about how they look. Kids can learn to appreciate their own unique qualities. Maybe they can even learn that they don’t have to look a certain way in order to be considered attractive.
Teach Kids Positive Body Image Through Example
Admittedly, it is incredibly hard for even adults to handle the pressure from the media to look a certain way. But as parents, we’d like to do our best to help our kids deal with that influence in a healthy, positive, happy way.
I’ve compiled a few ideas you could try using to help your kids develop a positive perspective about their appearance. These ideas may also help kids form a positive attitude about the way other people look.
- After meeting a new person, once you are alone with your child, point out positive, appropriate things you noticed about that person’s appearance. Mention the color of their eyes or their nice smile or anything else you appreciated. This will help children learn to look for the good aspects of other people’s appearances and not just to focus on the unexpected. Training them to be able to see others this way will help them learn to see themselves in the same way—appreciating the good things about their appearance.
- Refrain from making negative comments about other people’s looks in your children’s hearing.
- When you see someone who looks happy and content, even a stranger in a crowd, if it is possible to do so in a discreet way, point that person out to your child. Draw their attention to the idea that a person looks attractive because they look happy. This could help children realize that attractiveness is not necessarily dependent on physical features.
- Set a good example. Don’t let your children see you hating things about your own appearance. Show them through your words and actions and the comments you make about yourself that you are comfortable with who you are. Even if there are things about your appearance that you would like to change, let them see that these are not the most important things on your mind.
The Tortoise and the Hairpiece and its helpful questions are only a jumping-off point. Each child is different and might have different concerns. So use the questions to help your children explore their thoughts and feelings on the subject of self-image. You may learn something new about them, and it will bring you closer together!
Cardboard Box Adventures picture books are great for shared reading and can help parents establish a strong preliteracy foundation for their children. Check out the CBA Catalog for a full list of award-winning picture books, chapter books, and resources for parents and educators. Visit my Amazon author page for more information.