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Rebecca Chicot PhD
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Child development expert with a Phd from Cambridge University. She has worked on several best-selling books and BBC documentaries. She is the proud mother of three children.
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Teenager Mental Health & Wellbeing

Supporting your teenager’s body confidence

Teenagers go through a huge physical and mental metamorphosis during puberty. Some teenagers are early developers, and some are late, and it’s hard to be the first or the last in the group. Parents need to support their teenager’s body confidence through the physical upheaval of puberty and act as a model of good adult body confidence.
In Short
Remember your teenager will likely share your physical traits so don’t criticise yourself.

Focus on what you and your teenager’s bodies can do rather than what they look like.

The language you use around food, weight, bodies and beauty will have informed your teenager’s attitudes to body confidence from childhood.

Use positive words such as ‘strong’,‘beautiful’ and ‘powerful’.

Even if your teenager is lucky and has blemish free skin, athletic prowess, and a perfect physique and try not to constantly praise how they look.

Bond over physical activities with your teenager.

Remember your teenager will likely share your physical traits

The chances are that your teenager will have inherited many of your physical traits and may be developing just the way you did as a teenager. Whether that means large breasts, big feet or being a slight framed late developer, she will absorb how you talk about your body and recognise your similarities. This is a golden opportunity to be kind to yourself and your teenager by talking about your body with the respect and love it deserves. If you find this difficult, try to do it for your teenager, or at least avoid criticising your body in front of her.

As a parent, a negative body image can be quite a lot of baggage to unlearn. The good news is that once you learn to use respectful and loving words about the bodies of you, your family and the people in your lives, it really begins to change your own perspective. This can help you to heal your negative attitudes that you may have picked up as a child – maybe from your own parents.

You probably remember hating parts of your body as a teenager and with the wisdom of age and experience, you will be better able to see that you were amazing then, and that your teenager’s body is also wonderful, young and strong.

Focus on what your teenager’s body can do rather than what it looks like

Even if you are unable to join in and be active with your teenager, there is a lot you can do to support your teenage daughter’s body confidence in the way you discuss (or don’t discuss) her changing body.

Try to focus on what your teenager can do physically, rather than what she looks like. When your teenager goes through a growth spurt she may become more clumsy and may lose confidence, especially if she is struggling if they do dance or play sports. Read our article on why teenagers are clumsy and how to support your teenager’s confidence through a clumsy period.

Mind your language

The language you use around food, weight, bodies and beauty will have informed your teenager’s attitudes to body confidence from childhood. Even if you’ve been negative in the past, your child’s adolescence is the perfect time to change. Be kind and warm to yourself, your teenager and those people around you and your teenager will be more likely to feel the same.

Using positive words such as:

‘strong’

‘beautiful’

‘graceful’

‘powerful’

These words help us feel positive. Negative words can be so damaging so try to avoid words like ‘disgusting,’ ‘pathetic’ and ‘gross’ when discussing your body, your teenager’s body or anyone else’s body. Ideally, don’t talk about bodies in this negative and disrespectful way if you can avoid it. It doesn’t help your mindset, and it certainly doesn’t help your listening teenager.

What if my teenager looks perfect?

Even if your teenager is lucky and has blemish free skin, athletic prowess and a perfect physique try not to constantly praise how she looks. It can lead to an unhealthy obsession with looks. There are popular teenage Instagram stars saying how the pressure and obsession with selfies and the whole tyranny of #fitspo and unrealistic lifestyle and image obsession has overwhelmed them. Try to be a haven from that world to your teenager.

Even if your daughter is blessed in the looks department, there is always a new craze to worry about from thigh gaps to thick eye-brows and it’s amazing how these can demoralise teenagers.

This is not just about teenage girls either. There has been an increasing image obsession amongst teenage boys who are expected to have six packs and an upper body musculature that is difficult for teenagers to achieve as they do not tend to fill out until young adulthood.

Bonding over physical activities with your teenager

Teenagers still love to play games with their parents and siblings on occasion, whether it’s playing ‘one on one’ basketball in the garden, throwing a frisbee on holiday or deciding to do a 5Km run for a shared charity. Try to stay active and keep playing with your children and teenagers for the good of your physical confidence and the bond between you.

There are lots of local groups trying to encourage parents back into sports, so this can be a great opportunity to take up a game that you used to play when you were a teenager.

I am lucky to have developed good body confidence, and I owe it mainly to my mum who didn’t talk about looks or thinness. Instead, when I was a teenager she loved playing tennis, jumping in the waves and showing us how to juggle. I always saw her body as strong and agile and like all children loved my mum’s face, soft skin and cuddles.

Body confidence quiz

Take our parent body confidence quiz as it might identify ways in which you can be kinder to yourself and help your teenager to learn positive attitudes to her body and other people’s bodies. The issues are the same whether you have a teenage boy or a teenage girl.

1. When you look at your reflection in the mirror do you:

a) Groan, pull at bits of your face or body you don’t like and announce how ‘fat’ ‘ugly’ or ‘terrible’ you look?

b) Spend a lot of time checking yourself in the mirror but only complain on ‘bad days.’

c) Use the mirror briefly and don’t make negative comments about myself; sometimes I might even say something positive!

2. How do you discuss physical activity around your teenager?

a) I treat exercise like a miserable chore and say that I have to do some exercise as I’m so ‘flabby’ ‘hideous’ ‘out of shape.’

b) I quite like exercise but will often explain that I need to lose some weight before say a wedding or holiday

c) I enjoy exercise and explain that it’s good to be strong and fast.

3. Do you have play sports with your teenager?

a) No, when we are on holiday that’s my chance to kick back with a latte and a magazine while the children play in the sea or whatever.

b) I will sometimes play if I’m begged but try and get out of it.

c) One of the best things about having a teenager is that now she is old enough to play games like tennis, basketball and soccer with. It gives me a push to mess around like ‘a child’ once in a while, while I still can!

4. How do you talk about food around your teenager?

a) I talk about the food in very polarised terms; there is good, healthy food and bad, naughty food that will make me fat. I discuss food like it’s a drug and I’m an addict.

b) I try to educate my teenager about good food and bad food and explain that some food makes you fat.

c) Food is both a fuel and a joy. I am very enthusiastic about a huge range of food and explain that our body needs food as fuel, and we need to listen to when it tells us that it’s hungry or full. I am teaching my teenager how to cook meals from scratch and encourage her to try new foods.

5. Do you discuss other people’s bodies with your teenager?

a) I admit that the first thing I say to or about people is ‘have you lost weight’ or ‘she’s looking awful now she’s put on that weight.’ I also comment on their hair, clothes, skin you name it!

b) I always compliment people if they have made an effort and try not to be too bitchy but sometimes criticise her friends.

c) I like to boost people’s confidence but don’t just focus on the body. I’m just as likely to tell them they have a lovely voice or that they’ve been kind than say anything about their appearance.

6. How do you discuss your teenager’s body?

a) I’m really worried about her gaining too much weight so I already limit her portions and tell her that she ‘doesn’t want to get fat’ or ‘get a big tummy.’

b) I tell my teenager she’s beautiful all the time and say she is going to be a supermodel when she grows up.

c) My teenager’s body is amazing, strong, fast. My teenager is enjoying his or her new strength physical strength, and I spend as much time talking about how her other developing abilities and interests.

7. How do you discuss your shared characteristics?

a) My teenager knows I hate my hair. She has inherited my hair too.

b) We both have the same bottom, but I’ve told her if she exercises it might not get as big as mine.

c) One of the ways I’ve fallen in love with my body is seeing the shared characteristics in my teenager. I show her our shared features in the mirror, for example ‘Look! Our eyes are the same colour of green!’

Mostly a’s – You seem to have low body confidence and perhaps without realising you are transferring lots of negative ideas about your body, her body and the role of food and exercise in our lives. Try to be kind to yourself. Ban yourself from criticising your reflection and try to enjoy a healthy balanced diet and activity with your teenager.

Mostly b’s – like most people you have your ups and your downs when it comes to your body. You probably had your body confidence knocked as a child and are trying to make sure it doesn’t happen to your teenager. Try to be kind to yourself and your adolescent and not focus so much on how your bodies look, instead, focus on what your bodies can do. Learn to reconnect with your lost love of physical activity and nourishing food.

Mostly c’s – you probably had parents who instilled a strong sense of body confidence in you by lots of activity and fun rather than focussing on appearance. You are pretty happy with your body and love to see your characteristics appearing in your teenager as she develops new skills, strength and flexibility.

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DISCLAIMER
This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. Essential Parent has used all reasonable care in compiling the information from leading experts and institutions but makes no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details click here.