Do’s and Don’ts: Promoting Healthy Body Image in Teens

Adolescence can be a tricky time for teenagers and their parents, and one challenging aspect is body image. Teens who have negative thoughts about their bodies are at higher risk for self-esteem issues, depression, anxiety and eating disorders.

“Teens go through a lot of changes, hormonally and physically,” says Camden Matherne, PhD, a licensed psychologist who specializes in treating eating disorders at UNC Health. “As teens’ bodies change, they think more about how they look and what they wear. There’s also the effect of social media, which places a huge emphasis on appearance.”

Teens are increasingly influenced by their peers at this stage of development.

“In adolescence, social networks become really important,” says UNC Health psychologist  Christine M. Peat, PhD, who is director of the National Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders. “If someone in a teen’s peer group is negative about their body, that can affect the whole group.”

Drs. Matherne and Peat share ways that parents can help teens with their body image, as well as some behaviors to avoid, during this developmental stage.

Do: Find ways to have conversations with your teen.

As teens gain independence and become more involved with friends and activities, spending time with family isn’t always a priority. It’s necessary, however, to dedicate time to learning more about how your teen is feeling.

“We can fall out of normal patterns that facilitate conversations, such as family dinners,” Dr. Matherne says. “Make those opportunities to talk. Have a routine and set the expectation of a weekly game night or meal. Ask direct questions that require more than a yes or no response.”

Keep in mind that you can’t fix some of the challenges your teen is facing and dismissing concerns could cause your teen to stop communicating.

“If a teen heard a hurtful thing about their body, parents have the impulse to jump in and say, ‘That’s not true,’” Dr. Peat says. “Don’t swoop in with specific advice. Sit down with your teen and show a sense of curiosity. You will learn more if you say something like, ‘I haven’t heard you speak this way before. Here’s how I might feel if I heard something like that. How do you feel?’”

Dr. Matherne adds, “Listen and show that you can tolerate these kinds of conversations. Acknowledge and validate rather than shut down the conversation when your teen is telling you how they feel. Then you might say, ‘I’m sorry you feel that way. I don’t see you that way. How can I help?’”

Do: Educate your teen about what is on social media.

Drs. Peat and Matherne agree that images and information on social media can be damaging to a teen’s body image, but banning use of apps won’t help.

“Social media is interwoven into a teen’s social life, and it can be positive for finding community. It’s not as simple as saying, ‘Don’t look at it,’” Dr. Peat says. “Instead, help your kid think critically about the media they consume. If an influencer is talking about what they eat in a day, ask your child what makes that person an expert. They should have some curiosity about who is behind these accounts.”

Dr. Matherne encourages parents to spend time each week looking at social media with their teen.

“One guideline parents can set when they give their kids a phone is that there will be some monitoring,” she says. “Talk about the content on their feed in an open-ended way. Ask what they think of certain images or why they follow certain accounts. Point out that people don’t post photos when they’re sad and alone; they post pictures when they’re out and having fun. Directly confront some of the images that can make a teen feel bad.”

Do: Lean on professional support.

If you have concerns about your teen’s body, you should consult your teen’s doctor.

“If you notice dramatic weight loss or weight gain or if there are marked changes in how the child is eating, talk to your pediatrician,” Dr. Peat says.

Don’t make comments about your child’s weight directly to your child, Dr. Matherne says. “A pediatrician can determine what’s appropriate for their stage of development and provide suggestions,” she says. “Parents should support those suggestions, but it doesn’t work to be the food police.”

Dr. Matherne says it might also be appropriate to engage a therapist for a teen with weight concerns.

“Don’t assume that struggles with weight have a simple fix related to eating and exercising,” Dr. Matherne says. “It’s rare to struggle with weight without an effect on your mood.”

Don’t: Put your teen on a diet.

Unless your child’s pediatrician makes a recommendation about nutrition, children don’t need to be on any kind of diet.

“Teens need three balanced meals and two to three snacks per day,” Dr. Matherne says. “They should be eating from all the food groups. Restricting any one food or food group can exacerbate body image issues and lead to disordered eating.”

Be mindful that how you speak about your own diet can influence your child’s feelings about food.

“It’s important to demonstrate balance with food,” Dr. Peat says. “If the only thing you eat is kale, you have just as much chance to be malnourished as if you only eat cookies. Parents need to model flexibility and show that you can eat a variety of things.”

If you are following certain nutritional guidelines for your health, such as reducing saturated fats to lower cholesterol, you should explain those choices to your teen.

“If there are going to be changes in how you’re eating, talk to your child about why,” Dr. Matherne says. “Talk about how you’re fueling your body according to what it needs, but point out that your teen doesn’t have that particular need. At their age, their body is still growing and changing.”

Don’t: Make negative comments about your own body.

You might know to avoid commenting on your teen’s body but still talk about your own in a way that’s impactful.

“Sometimes parents will say, ‘If you have a second helping, you might end up looking like Mom or Dad,’” Dr. Peat says. “It’s meant out of a sense of compassion or protection, but it sends the message that something is inherently wrong with the parent’s body, and kids frequently see themselves reflected in their parents’ bodies. They may think there’s something to fix or change about how they should look.”

Dr. Matherne adds, “Kids are extremely observant of how parents eat and behave. If a parent is constantly talking about going on a diet or going to the gym to lose weight, their child will hear that. If you’re engaging in more physical activity, don’t talk about it in terms of weight. Talk about how bodies need to be active.”

If you have questions about your child’s health and nutritional needs, talk to their pediatrician. Need a pediatrician? Find one near you.