Promoting a positive body image in our tweens and teens starts with regard.
Awhile back I was talking to a client who has a tween son. She said to me, “Sports have started up and OHHHHH my god, the smell!” She told the story of how he came home from practice and she was like, “Ewww! You smell!” Later on, she and her husband had a talk about their growing son. He said to her, “Don’t walk by him and say things like ‘Ewwww!’ He’s going to have enough people making fun of him. Let’s not add to it.”
I was impressed with dad. I could totally understand mom. And how awesome that the two of them talked about how to address their growing son’s bodily changes.
I get it. The smell can be a shock to us at first. When our sweet-smelling-let-me-take-in-a-wiff-of-you babies start to smell ripe, it can be a shocker. It’s commonly “allowed” in our culture to joke with developing boys about their changing bodies – body hair, being too skinny, their smell. It’s so common-place and socially accepted. But let’s take a step back for a moment. What does that joking do to a person – “even” a boy? These little comments can impact a boy’s self-esteem. He’ll laugh at it and joke around, too. But think about it: middle school is an awkward time. Our tweens and teens want to feel good about themselves and they have these bodies that are all of a sudden changing. They have emotions they haven’t felt before, they are starting to be attracted sexually to their peers. It’s all a sensitive time for figuring out who they are and how they feel about themselves.
My client wanted to know how to talk to her son about his body in ways that didn’t make fun of him. “How do I relate to him in a healthy way?”
And what about our tween and teen girls? How do we promote a positive body image with them?
I have worked with teenagers and parents in psychotherapy and coaching. While promoting a positive body image for girls is more on our radar, we still have a long way to go before positive images that promote a positive body image for our girls is the cultural norm.
How do we promote a positive body image in our tweens and teens?
- Always start with regard. Keep regard on the forefront of your mind. Bring regard into the words you say. How do you do that? Just ask yourself, “How would I feel if….(someone commented on my weight, the way I smelled, etc.)?
- Don’t compare their bodies to their peers’ bodies. This goes for both boys and girls.
3. Don’t make comments about their weight. If you are concerned about their weight, sit down and have a conversation with them about it. Don’t comment on how skinny your tween son is or how your teenage son hasn’t “filled out” yet as he steps out onto the field. Do I need to mention to not tell your daughter how she looks too fat or too skinny in an outfit?
5. Don’t look disgusted or say, “Ewww! You smell!” Instead, pull them aside and just be matter-of-fact and considerate, “Hey Love, you may want to put on deodorant.” Or “I noticed a bit of an odor.” Use your own language, be helpful, and be kind.
6. Do talk to them about changes happening in their bodies. This isn’t the “once and done” kind of sex conversation. Have on-going conversations to normalize their bodily changes and desires.
7. Do work on your own issues. Most of us have body issues. And we get triggered when our children’s bodies start to change, they start liking or dating another person, or they are the age when something happened to us. It’s wise to have someone alongside you. You can check out psychotherapy (for local clients only) or personal coaching (via Skype).
8. Talk to them about sexual consent. I wrote an article for Upworthy, 5 everyday ways to teach your child about consent from a young age and on.
Body stuff brings up a lot for everyone. Our children just want to be regarded, they want their inner experiences normalized, and they need us to be mindful of helping them form a positive body image. We can do this!
Here’s another article I wrote on Upworthy: How to teach kids to love and respect their bodies.
Positive body image and body safety is one of the nine lessons that I’ll be sharing about in my inaugural online course, Regarding Our Children. You can find out more here. I hope you’ll join us. I’m sharing from my clinical experience working with parents in psychotherapy and coaching as well my personal experience being “in the trenches” as a mom.