How to help your teen navigate their body image issues

More than nine in 10 young Aussies report body image concerns. Here’s how you can help your teen feel more comfortable in their own skin.

Body image issues affect people of any age – and factors such as puberty and peer pressure only make it tougher for young people to feel positive about their bodies

Over 90 per cent of 12- to 18-year-old Aussies report some level of body image concern, according to the Butterfly Foundation’s 2022 Body Kind Youth Survey (BKYS), and females are most affected.

So why does body image matter, and what can parents do to help?

Why a negative body image is cause for concern

Psychology researcher Dr Veya Seekis says body image issues can be the beginning of something more serious.

“When body dissatisfaction starts to be experienced on a daily basis and it affects other areas of one’s daily life, then there is cause for concern,” Dr Seekis says.

“High levels of body dissatisfaction may become a symptom of eating or body dysmorphic disorders.”

According to the BKYS, feelings about their bodies frequently stopped young people from engaging in life activities such as going to the beach or a social event, or doing physical activity.

While there’s no single, clear cause of negative body image, social media can play a big role.

In fact, 50 per cent of BKYS respondents said social media made them feel dissatisfied with their bodies.

“The culture of social media means that peer pressure follows young people 24/7,” Dr Seekis explains.

How to help teens navigate body image concerns

Whether you suspect your teen is struggling with body image concerns or want to promote a positive environment at home, here’s how to help as a parent:

Stay curious

You don’t have to be overbearing, but Butterfly Foundation education manager Helen Bird says parents should stay curious about their teen’s life.

“Try to stay connected to what’s going on in your child’s world,” Helen says.

“Keep the lines of communication open, and be ready to talk when they are.”

Helen says it’s also important to notice signs of potential body image concerns.

“Look out for signs such as your teen becoming preoccupied with their body, shape, weight, size or eating habits, or if their eating and exercise habits are all about trying to modify their body or appearance,” she says.

Be a role model

A parent’s behaviour and actions – including the way they talk about their own bodies – can have a big influence on their child.

Recent Flinders University research shows “fat talk” used by mothers and sisters (using phrases such as “I’m so fat” or “I look big in that outfit”) contributed to body dissatisfaction in young women.

“Parents can do so much just by (being) positive role models in the home environment,” Helen says, adding it’s important for parents to reflect on their own behaviours and values.

“Consider what’s driving your values around your body and food, and exercise behaviours,” she says.

“You can always reach out for help for yourself if you’re not in a good place.”

Keep it positive

Positive conversations are a step towards a healthy body image.

“Don’t focus on appearance but rather (on) what the body can do,” Dr Seekis says.

“How it helps us heal, move, sense, express, rejuvenate, and communicate – it is precisely these things that play a significant role in shaping our self-worth.”

This emphasis on the non-physical can promote less appearance-based comparison.

“By encouraging children to see themselves beyond their appearance, parents can foster the understanding that bodies are all made to look different,” Helen says.

“This helps young people see themselves as a whole person, and to know that they are so much more than their appearance.”

For help with body image concerns, contact the Butterfly Foundation or call the national helpline on 1800 334 673. Find further information and resources at Body Kind Families.

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Written by Hayley Hinze.