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Building positive body image in kids

5-minute read

It’s important that kids feel good about their bodies. Having a positive body image will let them develop stronger self-esteem, resilience and healthier behaviour. It doesn’t matter what your child looks like, there are ways you can help them feel good about their body.

What is a positive body image?

If a child has a positive body image, it means they can accept, appreciate and respect their body. Even if there’s a part of themselves that they don’t like, most of the time they feel will comfortable and happy about their body.

It’s important for everyone — both adults and children — to feel good about their body so that they have better self-esteem and are more resilient to illnesses such as eating disorders and depression. A child with a positive body image means your child will be more likely to have a healthy outlook on life, to exercise, to eat more healthily, and to be happier within themselves.

Body image is important even for the youngest children. By the age of 3 or 4, children start to realise that their bodies belong to them and that they are different from other people. When they start school, many children compare their bodies to those of other children. Research has shown that children as young as 8 may start to develop poor body image if they do this.

What can affect a child’s body image?

Everyone can feel dissatisfied with their body from time to time. Children may be upset both about things they can change and things they can’t — whether they are fat or thin, whether they have freckles, how big their muscles are, their appearance, height or how fast they can run.

The way children feel about their bodies is influenced by many things, including how their parents, relatives, teachers and friends talk about bodies. Teasing or making comments about your child’s body can make them feel worse about themselves.

Constantly talking about losing weight, dieting and criticising your own body can also lead to your child developing a poor body image, even if they have nothing to worry about.

Children are bombarded with messages from the media, including books, TV, magazines, the internet and advertising, all of which contribute to their idea of what a body should look like. They may not be old enough to understand that these images aren’t real life.

Girls are more at risk of negative body image than boys, especially as they grow older, although many boys are also unhappy with their bodies. Children who have a larger body size are also more at risk.

Ways to build your child’s positive body image

One way to build a positive body image in your child is to make exercise fun. Children love to use their bodies and learn what they can do. You can make physical activities like swimming, kicking a ball around outside or riding a bike pleasant family activities.

If you hear your child criticising themselves (‘I suck’, ‘I hate my nose’), encourage your child to think instead about the things they like about themselves.

You can teach your child to appreciate everything their body can do – it can breathe, move and think. You could encourage them to look around at other people at the shops, and appreciate that people come in many different shapes, sizes and colours.

It’s important to build your child’s self-esteem. Praise your child’s achievements — not how they look — and make sure you praise their friends too. Give your child lots of love and cuddles and focus on their strengths. Talk to the school if you think your child is being bullied.

Dealing with weight

If you are worried your child is overweight, or if they are being teased about being overweight by others, you can help them achieve a healthy weight by increasing the amount of physical activity they do and offering them a wide variety of healthy foods. Make sure you limit foods with added salt, sugar or fat.

It’s important not to comment on your child’s weight or to criticise their body. Rather than commenting on their appearance, find something about their character to comment on, for example, how kind they are or how hard they try.

You can also talk to them about the media. Explain that the images they see on the internet or in magazines aren’t real – those people have stylists, special cameras and computers to make them look like that.

It’s important to try not to make food and weight a moral issue. For example, avoid using words like “good” or “bad” to describe food, and don’t totally ban some foods – it will just make you child want them more!

If you’re dieting yourself, or worried about your own body image, make sure you don’t involve your child. It’s a good idea to eat meals together as a family, hide your scales, and make sure you don’t let your child know if you are on a diet.

Where to go for help

If you are worried about your child’s body image, you can talk to:

  • your doctor
  • their school or your child’s teacher
  • a child health nurse
  • a dietitian
  • a psychologist

For more information about children and body image, visit these websites:

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Last reviewed: July 2019

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The information is not a substitute for independent professional advice and should not be used as an alternative to professional health care. If you have a particular medical problem, please consult a healthcare professional.

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