Body image is just one facet of human psychological development. But our perception of our physical body – and how we feel about that image – is tied to many elements that make us who we are.
Self-esteem, self-confidence, and how we think and view ourselves when around our peers can be impacted by our body image. And when a body image is positive, this can add to our self-confidence and enable us to better understand and appreciate diversity in the people around us.
Children with a healthy body image naturally feel good about how they look, how their body moves, and the things their body can do. And this is because body image is integral to a child’s full self-image. Poor body image can take away from a child’s self-image, lower their self-esteem, and lead to other problems if body positivity isn’t nurtured during the most formative years.
Let’s face it, parenting is hard. And it can be difficult to approach sensitive issues at times. So, how do we foster body positivity in children? How can we show our children that our bodies are beautiful and capable of wonderful things – and that being physically different from others is, OK?
Why Is Body Positivity in Children Important?
One’s awareness of being physically different from other begins to arise at a very young age. And according to Meghan Seradsky, LSW, Psychotherapist with the Lukin Center, “Most kids start to become aware of physical differences starting at school age, usually around six or seven, and that awareness develops further as they age.”
While infants or toddlers may not even be cognizant of their bodies, as we grow older, this awareness grows, many questions can arise, and we begin to compare ourselves to others. Adds Seradsky, “I work with kids as young as seven and eight who are already comparing their bodies to other people. And that’s kind of on the younger side, but not entirely uncommon,” she says.
As mentioned, children develop self-esteem and confidence in their abilities, often comparing themselves to their peers at a young age. And if body positivity is poor, according to Meghan Seradsky, “Kids can begin struggling with a variety of things, including the meaning of the term ‘healthy.’ In fact, there is sometimes a spoken or unspoken idea that having a particular body shape equates to being healthy or unhealthy. And that can get skewed pretty easily based on how kids are exposed to different appearances and how they relate them to healthiness,” she offers.
When referring to body positivity, there is also a myriad of physical features that children may question, such as:
Hair (and where it should grow)
These features and characteristics merely scratch the surface. But there are many ways for encouraging and nurturing body positivity at an early age – and throughout childhood.
5 Ways to Foster Body Positivity in Children When it comes to fostering body positivity, according to Seradsky, “The most helpful tools are parents or caregivers, how parents and caregivers talk about their own bodies, and how they talk about other people’s bodies. This is going to be the number one factor in how kids perceive their own bodies,” she states.
As adults, we can often become trapped in our own ideas of body positivity. And what we project onto our children will become a model that they’ll use to understand their own bodies – and the physical
appearances of others.
1. Using Body-Positive Language
The more a parent can model body positive language, the likelier it will be that a child will develop a healthy body image. And according to Seradsky, “The more that parents or caregivers can talk about bodies in a positive or even in a neutral way, and focus less on their own appearance and more on what their bodies can do for them, the healthier a child’s idea of body image will be,” she says.
For example, if you work in construction, Seradsky states you can say that your body allows you to lift heavy things, instead of focusing on having big muscles and other superficial qualities.
2. Encouragement Beyond the Physical Level
We as humans recognize when we receive compliments and praise. It feels good, and it can work wonders for our self-esteem. But it’s also important to balance this out with praising other distinguishing qualities as well in order to enhance healthy body positivity in a more well-rounded way.
According to Meghan Seradsky, when a child gets compliments about their appearance, it’s important for parents to jump in and add other elements to the conversation that emphasizes more than physical qualities alone. For example, “Yes, my child does have a really beautiful smile, and also, he just got an A on his math test because he studied so hard,” Seradsky says, offering this scenario as a way to focus on abilities rather than appearances.
3. Help Children to Identify Their Body’s Strengths
Most of the time in the adult world, the focus is placed entirely on the physical appearance of the body rather than the unique ways in which our bodies move and allow us to perform different functions. And if the focus remains on appearance alone at a young age, this may hinder the development of a healthy and whole-body image.
For example, Seradsky states, “For some children with body image challenges who are in gymnastics or in any type of sport, I ask them what parts of their bodies help them to do all of those amazing things, in place of focusing on what their body looks like.”
The key here is to adjust the focus so that a child can better appreciate what their body does for them instead of focusing on how it looks, on comparisons, or on other superficial qualities.
4. Normalize the Fact that All Bodies are Different
With so much emphasis placed on appearance, it’s also important to help a child normalize diversity – the fact that bodies come in all different shapes, sizes, colors, and types.
“The more exposure a child gets at a young age with diversity, with different body types and characteristics, the more this can help to normalize that being different is OK,” Seradsky says.
In fact, Seradsky recommends a book titled Bodies Are Cool, by Tyler Feder which explains to children all the different forms that bodies can come in, and that anyone can still be “cool” no matter what type of body they have. And this also can help to normalize differences and diversity – even among children.
5. Tap Your Child’s Interests
Children have many interests. But it’s their specific interests that make them unique which we as parents can leverage when attempting to foster body positivity in children.
“Meeting a kiddo where they’re at, and using their interests to guide the conversation towards celebrating their strengths and differences can be a great tool in helping them to develop body positivity,” Seradsky says.
For example, if a child is really good at drawing, talking about how their hands’ work, and how their hands make it possible for them to create artwork can nurture an appreciation for their body at a very basic level. And this can carry over into other interests and parts of the body as they age.
Body Positivity in Therapy
If a child has a challenge with body positivity – with who they are or how they perceive their body – therapy can offer many tools to help bring them back into a more positive perspective on how they feel about their body.
Additionally, therapy also offers a safe space where kids can be heard and learn more about their bodies – and about the beauty of diversity.
“Having a platform where kids can talk about their bodies, instead of always trying to correct them, can help give kids the opportunity to talk about what they’re thinking about regarding their bodies,” Seradsky offers.
At the end of the day, “we want our kids to be able to come to us as parents, caregivers, or therapists when these kinds of questions and challenges come up. Because if they have these conversations with others their age, they may not get the support that they need,” Meghan Seradsky, LSW states. And being there for our children and guiding them toward a healthier outlook on life is exactly why we’re here.
Could you use help talking to your child about developing body positivity? Reach out to the Lukin Center for Psychotherapy and speak with an expert today.
Konstantin Lukin, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist psychologist and founder of Lukin Center for Psychotherapy in Ridgewood, Hoboken, Montclair, Jersey City, Englewood and Westfield. He has extensive clinical and research experience spanning individuals of all ages, in both inpatient and outpatient settings. He specializes in men’s issues, couple’s counseling, and relationship problems. His therapeutic approach focuses on providing support and practical feedback to help patients effectively address personal challenges. He integrates complementary modalities and techniques to offer a personalized approach tailored to each patient. He has been trained in cognitive-behavioral, dialectical behavior, schema-focused, and emotionally focused therapy, and has also been involved with research projects throughout his career, including two National Institute of Mental Health-funded studies. He is a member of the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies, New Jersey Psychological Association, Northeast Counties Association of Psychologists, New York State Psychological Association, The International Centre for Excellence in Emotionally Focused Therapy, The New York Center for Emotionally Focused Therapy, the International OCD Foundation, the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science (ACSB) and a regular contributor to Psychology Today.
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