5 Subtle Warning Signs Your Child Is Struggling With Body Image

And what parents can do to encourage a healthy relationship with their body and food.

Do you remember your child’s delight when they discovered the baby in the mirror, that uncomplicated joy in recognising their own reflection? As kids grow, this delight turns into exploration: How high can I jump? How fast can I run? Curiosity can also lead to comparison with the bodies of others. How do I stack up? Am I taller, bigger or stronger than my peers? I remember my daughter beaming with pride when she informed me that she had earned the title of “most flexible-ist” in the first grade.

We want our children’s bodies to bring them joy, but comparing their bodies with other kids, in real life or on screens, can lead to them feeling that they don’t measure up in some way. At its extreme, distorted body image can lead to self-harming behaviours such as disordered eating.

Here, experts reveal early signs that your child may be struggling with their body image — and ways that you may be able to intervene.

1. They isolate themselves.

“If a child becomes less social or intentionally isolates it could be an early warning sign that fear of judgement/criticism has gotten so intense, they choose to be alone,” Crystal Williams, a psychologist in California, told HuffPost.

To see if this is the case, you might try asking open-ended (as opposed to leading) questions about why they prefer to stay away from a particular social event or gathering.

2. They make a radical change in their diet.

There’s nothing wrong with your animal-loving child deciding to go vegetarian, but big shifts in diet can sometimes be a sign that they’re struggling with the way their body looks, Williams said. In addition to restricting their food intake, eschewing certain items (like bread or sweets) or whole food groups (like carbs) can signal a problem.

3. They don’t want to have their picture taken.

A child might avoid having their photo taken if they’re unhappy with the way their body looks.

“Covering and concealing the body to a significant degree may be another sign,” Heidi Schauster, a nutrition therapist and the author of Nurture: How To Raise Kids Who Love Food, Their Bodies And Themselves, told HuffPost.

While “a preoccupation with their body and appearance” is to be expected during adolescence, Schauster recommended that parents consider whether it is becoming excessive, “especially in a negative and disparaging way,” she said.

4. They become rigid or inflexible.

If a child feels the need to stick to a strict schedule regarding eating or exercise, you may note a new lack of spontaneity around food and activities.

“If you notice a child is preoccupied with food or getting rigid about their fitness schedule, this could be a sign that they are using food or movement as a way to find a sense of control over their body (or life) and struggling with body image,” Schauster said.

5. They seem obsessed with social media.

Body comparisons can happen anywhere, but social media provides infinite opportunities for kids to examine others’ bodies and scrutinise how their own may be different. In addition, there’s no shortage of troublesome diet-related content, such as the popular “What I eat in a day” videos. Social media may not be the cause of a child’s negative body image, but it’s likely to exacerbate any insecurities already brewing.

In a 2017 TED Talk, Stephanie Zerwas, a psychologist in North Carolina, explains: “In our survey of young people we found that it was body comparison. It wasn’t the number of friends that people had, it wasn’t the amount of time they spent online. It was body comparison that was an incredibly strong predictor of starting to hate how you look or starting a really risky diet. It’s a really incredibly dangerous thought pattern to get into when you’re scrolling through your online feed.”

To understand whether your child is engaging in body comparison, you’ll have to ask them what they gravitate toward on social media, what they think about this content and how it makes them feel. If it seems like certain apps are detrimental to their well-being, you may want to talk about taking a break or instituting time limits.

How parents can offer support

The first step to helping your child overcome body image issues is to engage them in meaningful conversations with open-ended questions, and, most importantly, to listen to what they’re telling you.

“I would encourage parents to be curious,” Williams said. She suggested the following questions:

  • What do you like about your body?
  • What do you dislike about your body? What makes you think this way about your body?
  • If you could change any part of your body, what would you change and why?
  • How does it feel to be tall/short/etc.?
  • What are some good things your body does for you?

If you suspect that a kid is feeling uncomfortable, you can ask about it in a nonjudgmental way. Schauster gave the following example: “I noticed you squirming when you tried on that shirt. Would you like to find something that feels better to wear?” In this situation, she suggested that parents “focus on the outgrown clothes as the thing that is ‘wrong’ versus the body being wrong.”

All of these little interactions add up to some pretty high stakes. Body image informs overall self-image. If your child’s body “does not match the cultural ideal, then this can lead to feelings of not belonging, not being acceptable, or not being loved,” Schauster said. In our image-driven culture, she continued, “negative body image can lead children and teens to feel badly about themselves as a whole person.”

One of the best things parents can do to help their children with body image is to have a positive body image themselves. Obviously, this is easier said than done, and may take a lot of effort and support. One thing parents can do, even if their own body image is a work in progress, is to refrain from making negative comments about their bodies. Sometimes parents think these comments won’t impact their kids, but Schauster explained that they can be just as harmful: “Keep in mind that your kids are likely to look like you someday, so saying negative things about your body in front of them can make them wonder if you are telling them their body is wrong, too.”

It’s also important to remember to comment on all of the parts of your kid that aren’t about their appearance. “Focusing on the strengths and inner qualities of your kids is also a fantastic safeguard against poor body image,” Schauster said.

Other ways that parents can help include minimising chances for kids to scrutinise their bodies. It’s usually not medically necessary to have a bathroom scale at home, or excessive mirrors, and while it’s easy to snap photos these days, it’s equally important to put the camera down sometimes.

“I see little kids getting into ‘poses’ when they see a phone camera ... they clearly feel on display,” Schauster said. “I encourage parents to put the camera down and enjoy the sweet things that their kids are doing.”

“Being active and engaged with children is so much more important than taking their pictures.”