The Parenting Project, Boosting Your Child's Self-Image
Not long ago, a co-worker of mine told me something shocking: Her 5-year-old niece came home from school and asked her mom: “Am I fat?”
Where did that come from? She’s only 5-years-old! We’ve all heard about studies that show a clear link between a young girl’s self-esteem and the media. But even the most resourceful parent can’t block out all the negative things kids hear and see. In addition to television and movies, children also hear negative messages at school and on the playground. And as parents, we’re often guilty of making off-the-cuff comments about our bodies: “Man, these jeans are really tight, and make my hips look huge!” While it’s impossible to shelter our kids completely, there are still steps that we as parents can take to help.
UW Health Clinical Psychologist Katie Watermolen notes that kids today are spending more time in front of the television and online. Plus, there’s no doubt there are more magazines than ever before that focus on fashion and teen culture, which plays a big role in how young people envision the perfect body. To combat these potentially negative images, Watermolen says parents need to open the lines of communication.
“I think parents need to sit down with their kids and ask, ’What are you reading?’ ’What are you watching?’” she says. “You can ask them specifically, ’What did you think about how that person behaved on that TV show? Or, ’What did you think about what that girl was wearing in that magazine?’”
Yet, Watermolen believes that parents have the biggest influence on children’s self-image. “I think it’s important for parents to check themselves for how much they might be modeling or influencing a child’s self-esteem or self-image,” she says.
If children have real concerns about their image, she suggests parents try to shift the focus. “Whether the child is thin or overweight, athletic or not, focus on their strengths. Do they succeed in music, dance or art? Are they a good reader or good at math?” And when it comes to dinner and snacks, focus on helping kids make healthy lifestyle choices. Encourage your kids to eat healthy foods, not because of the way they make you look, but because they are good for your body and taste great.
Watermolen does stress that just because a child comes home and asks, “Am I fat?” it doesn’t necessarily mean he or she is going to develop an eating disorder. But she says if your child is having an issue that’s interfering with school or family life, it may be time to talk with your child’s doctor. Also, if you see a major change in your child’s behavior, such as isolation, more tears than normal or unusual acting out, it may be a sign that something more is going on.
Kim Sveum is the Parenting Project reporter/ producer for WKOW-TV. She has two sons, ages 3 and 1.