The way you talk and behave matters from the moment they are born.
As parents we have a huge responsibility to try our best at promoting positive body image from as early as possible. Recent research has shown that children as young at 2 can begin to develop ‘body issues’, which makes our role in this even more paramount. To discuss this, and more, Raemona sat down with Clinical Psychologist, Catherine Frogley.
Dr Catherine Frogley is a Clinical Psychologist at The LightHouse Arabia. She has worked with children, adults and families for over 10 years specialising in anxiety, feeding and eating difficulties, trauma and attachment. She works both with families and/or individually with children, adolescents and adults.
Dr Catherine believes that relationships form a key part of psychological well-being and resilience, and therefore is passionate about nurturing these within her work.
How early do children become aware of their bodies?
From the moment a child is born, they are developing a story about who they are based on their experiences with the people around them. However, it is not until about two years old that children start to develop what we call a ‘sense of self’. This begins with them being very curious about their bodies. They start to notice changes in their bodies and others and they are interested in the idea of ‘growing up’. They will typically ask lots of questions about their body and others; noticing differences between themselves and others.
What age is the most crucial?
At around 5-6 years old, children begin to develop an awareness about their appearance and how this contributes to their self-identity. This is an age where they may start to experience feelings and beliefs about their body, hair and skin. This is influenced by the experiences they see around them including the media images of beauty that they see (e.g. Disney), their family and their peers. This is a time where you might hear a child talk about dissatisfaction with their body or other aspect of their physical appearance.
Is it the same developmental stage for girls and boys?
Yes; boys and girls will develop an awareness of their body and physical appearance at the same time. However, the fact that we often see a young girl focusing on her physical appearance more than a young boy is often due to their growing awareness of gender identity or what it means to be a boy or a girl. Once again, an individuals gender identity is heavily influenced by their experience - in their family, culture and society. Gender stereotypes often emphasis physical appearance and ‘thinness’ in women whilst men are usually expected to be self-confident and ‘strong’.
What is the best way to instill body positivity in children - how early should we be doing it?
It starts with us. A child’s beliefs about their physical image and abilities are developed from a very young age and are heavily influenced by the people around them. This means that you have a key role to play.
We need to show our children what a healthy relationship with our body looks like. So, consider what are your own beliefs about your body and how does this impact you? How do you talk about your body in front of your children? How do you treat your body? How does your view of your body impact what you do (I can’t do that) and what you wear (I can’t wear that)? Are you often on a diet or trying to change your body?
It is also important to consider how you as a family talk about bodies in general. Giving a child lots of positive reinforcement about how their body looks is also unhelpful as it promotes a belief that to be worthy or likeable means you have to also have a good body. In actual fact, we want a child to grow up believing is that their body is just a small part of who they are and that there are many other fantastic qualities that they have beyond their appearance.
If a child develops body dysmorphia or issue, what is the best thing to do to support them as parents?
How we look and feel about ourselves is an important part of who we are. However, if that dissatisfaction moves from being something which happens every now and again to an intense, persistent and pervasive dissatisfaction then this is likely to cause high levels of distress and have a significant impact on a child’s mental health. For some, this may even develop into a mental health disorder such as body dysmorphia.
If your child does have concerns about their body, listen to them and acknowledge how hard it is to feel this way about your body. You might want to let them know that you have also experienced this, and together try to find ways that they can connect to their body in a positive way e.g. dance, yoga, sports or other forms of movement and self-expression.
If their distress persists or worsens, I would recommend consulting with a qualified mental health clinician who can support you and your child further.