Boosting body image in kids

Oct 19, 2022 | Podcast

Worried about your kid’s self esteem and body image? Clinical psychologist Amy Talbot joins host Amelia Phillips to discuss the warning signs, how to respond to your child’s negative self talk, strategies to boost body image and how to not pass on your own issues. 

Below is an unedited transcript of the podcast episode:

The other morning, it was one of those typical busy weekday mornings we’re trying to get out of the house in a hurry, and then Charlotte walks out of the bathroom with this sad look on her face and she said, Mommy, I hate my freckles. And I just had that moment. Oh my goodness. This is the first time she’d actually spoken negatively about her appearance, and I fumbled along.

I said something like, Oh darling, we all have something unique and special about us. And then I said, I had freckles when I was your age, and my dad used to call them fly poo. And then she was like, Ew, fly poo. And I thought, Oh goodness. That probably wasn’t the right approach. But it just hit me that this is the beginning of Charlotte’s awareness of her physical self.

And I thought, Oh my goodness. At six years old, it has begun.

This is Healthy Her with Amelia Phillips. Recently I talked to endocrinologist Dr. Gary Lee Young about what to do if you suspect your child is overweight. It’s a fascinating episode and well worth a listen. So I really wanna carry on from this and delve into body imaging kids their food behaviors and their choices.

As moms, if we see signs of poor body image or negative talk in our kids, how can we nip this in the bar before it amplifies? And if we have our own body image demons that we’re battling with, how can we ensure that they’re not passed onto our kids? Dr. Amy Talbot is a clinical psychologist and director of the Talbot Center, a clinic specializing in body image and associated eating behaviors.

She holds a doctorate in clinical psych. And was awarded the Australian Psychologist of the Year in 2018. Thank you for joining me today, Amy. Thanks for having me. You set up the Talbot Center, a clinic that specializes in body image, self-esteem, and eating behaviors in children. So I imagine you would see both ends of the spectrum from eating disorders on one end, such as anorexia or bulimia to overweight children at the other end of the extreme.

Yeah, so we see children and young people with a really wide range of body types. Um, just like adults have a wide range of body types. Children have a wide range of body types as well. And I think it’s really important for us to be mindful that the size of someone’s body isn’t what tells us whether they’re healthy, um, and whether they have a positive relationship with food and exercise.

So it’s possible to have an eating disorder at any shape or size, and to have relationship with. Kind of regardless of what our body looks like. Oh, absolutely. I mean, disordered eating behaviors can be rife in the healthiest looking bodies. The body might be a normal size, but emotionally the child could be struggl.

I wanna hone in on body image and self-esteem for a moment, but most of the moms listening today, their kids won’t have the severe issues that you might be dealing with in the clinic. So what are some early signs that negative body image, self-esteem, and disordered eating patterns might be developing?

Yeah, that’s a really good question. Particularly because we know that early intervention is the most beneficial in helping people to get on top of that relationship with food and to feel good about themselves. So some of the things that you might look for are things like you were talking about earlier, Amelia.

So. Things like being critical of your body, making critical comments or negative comments about your body. Lot noticing that your child is comparing more to other people’s bodies. So, um, saying things like, Oh, my body looks like this, and your body looks like that, or That person’s body looks like that. Um, and usually the comparison might have a negative tone towards their own body.

So any kind of comparison is, is normal and natural if it’s a curious comparison. But when there. This other person has something better than my body, that there’s that negative tone to it. Um, It might be things like not wanting to do things or try new things or go to certain activities or wear certain clothes because of a worry about the way that they look.

So perhaps not wanting to go to swimming or not wanting to join in with peers in a swimming based activity. Um, or even kind of going to a restaurant or something cause they’re concerned about how they look. Um, you know, frequently looking at or talking about or checking in the mirror. Certain parts of the body.

So looking at, um, non-preferred body parts or even talking about their body a lot in parts rather than as a whole, can be an indicator. Um, and then I think the other thing would be,  if they experience negative emotional states in the context of food, um, or talk about themselves in a negative way based on what they eat.

So, you know, I shouldn’t have eaten that. I’m so, I’m fat because I ate that, um, or talking about good foods as good and bad. So moralizing food, I ate good today, or I ate well today, so therefore I’m good, or I ate bad today and therefore I’m bad. And you are giving a lot of physical examples here, but I can imagine when it comes to self-esteem, this could manifest itself as things like, I’m dumb, I’m lazy.

It doesn’t actually have to be physical for self-esteem. It could also be just negative Self-talk in general, can’t. Yes, definitely. So if we’re not talking just about body image, we’re thinking more broadly about self-esteem. Then you’re definitely looking at any kind of negative self talk, just like the examples you gave, but also, um, not wanting to try new things, so you know, people who are not feeling very good about themselves, or children who aren’t feeling good about themselves.

They’re generally not willing to put themselves forward to volunteer for things, to try things that are new in case they make a mistake or they don’t do a good job of it, and so you can see them being more hesitant to participate or to try new things as well. But some of these things you talk about, I can imagine, are relatively common occurrences.

At what point would you worry that, okay, this is starting to exacerbate and I might wanna seek help? Yeah, I think that’s a really good question. My advice would be that, If it’s continuing to occur, so you’re seeing a pattern over a period of time where it’s not improving through implementing kind of some general strategies that we might talk about today, um, or where.

It’s starting to really interfere in your child’s capacity to actually do their day to day activities. So you might be seeing a reduction in their willingness to engage in things that they used to enjoy or you’re not able to do things anymore as a family that you used to be able to do because your child is, is unable to participate in them.

Those are starting to be indicators that you should seek additional help. But my advice to parents is always that. If you have concerns, there’s no harm in talking to someone about it. No one is, you know, no one is going to say, um, oh, you shouldn’t be coming to talk to me about this. It’s not that serious.

Um, the support that you’re going to get, even if it’s just one or two sessions, is someone who will understand and listen and give you some, some advice about what you can do to make sure it doesn’t. More of a concern and to help you assess how concerning it is at the time, so you can put your mind at ease as well.

So using my freckles example earlier with Charlotte, if your child makes a comment like that, or I’m fat, I’m scrawny. I hate my skin color, I’m not good at sports. How do we respond in that situation? , I didn’t do a very good job of it. I can tell you. I think actually, um, what you described is probably very similar to what most parents would do.

So I think the natural response as a parent when you hear those things is to want to dismiss it and say, No, you’re not, or, I love your freckles, or something along those lines because, you know, it’s so painful to hear a child say something so negative about themselves, particularly when you don’t view them in that way and.

My advice would be to start by asking a curious question, so really trying to hear them and understand where their experience is coming from. So you might say something like, Oh, why do you say that? Um, and let them talk a little bit more about where this idea has come from, that this part of themselves is not good.

If they’re saying something like, I’m dumb then, and you say, Oh, you know, why do you say that? They might tell you about something that happened at school that day, like that they didn’t know an answer to a question and everybody else seemed to know. And if you can get a little bit more context, then it’s an opportunity to help them gently correct how they’ve interpreted that context into something more helpful.

So in that example, when they say, You know, I’m dumb, and then they tell you about the story at school. You can then kind of gently ask them about, You know, what about other times are there times when you do know the answer to questions and, um, maybe, maybe it’s just this one time that you didn’t know. So helping them to kind of gently challenge the conclusion that they’ve drawn from that situation is one option.

Another option that might come out of it is to, as you did, kind of give them some education about individual differences and why it’s valuable to be an individual. So talking about how everyone has things that are unique about them and helping them to identify what some of the positives are about having individual differences.

Uh, but we want to be careful not to do that too fast, um, before listening to them first, cuz that can fall into that kind of dismissive response if, if we go straight in with that. And then the last thing I would say is to truly try to help your child to focus on the things they do like about themselves.

So reorienting them to generate positive examples about who they are and what’s great about them and what their strengths are so that they can be really looking for those examples in day to day life as well. What about the flip side? What about when you have a child that doesn’t show any sign of self-esteem issues, They think they’re fabulous, They might be overweight, they might be a normal weight.

As you say, it doesn’t necessarily matter, but let’s say that they are making poor food choices, such as always going for the junk food. How do you coach them without damaging self-esteem? Because I know I speak for a lot of moms who get so frustrated and they might fall down the trap of saying, Stop eating that, or you’ll get fat.

Mm. Yeah, I think this is a really challenging situation for parents who are often coming from a space where they’re really concerned about their child’s health and wellbeing, and they want to do the best thing for their child. I think it’s really important to start with that. We don’t talk about the child’s weight.

Um, any conversation about the child’s weight is just going to promote an unhealthy relationship with their body and an unhealthy relationship with food. , we know that having an unhealthy relationship with food doesn’t facilitate a healthy body. Focusing on weight, uh, and giving feedback about their weight or about their physical appearance is not going to be the most helpful thing to do if you have concerns about the food choices that your child is making.

So we wanna think about, well, what should we do instead? Well, the best option is to focus on how to develop those healthy behaviors and a positive relationship with food for the whole family. So rather than singling out one child that you think, Um, particularly poor choices around food. We want to be thinking about a whole family approach to that positive relationship with food and exercise.

And so you might do some of the things that we talked about before, Thinking about how do we make foods that I might want them to incorporate more into their diet? How do I make those foods enjoyable? How do I find ways that those foods are more palatable for the child? Children will naturally select the foods that they most enjoy, um, and in fact, adults do that too.

Everybody kind of leans towards the foods that are most enjoyable for them. Unfortunately, it’s often hot chips or ice cream. Well, I mean, these foods are good. They’re just good in moderation. The same as, you know, carrots and broccoli. They’re good, but they’re good in moderation. If you have a whole diet of carrots and broccoli, that’s not going to be very healthy for you either.

Um, And so that’s definitely part of the message we want to give to our kids is that, you know, all foods are good foods. All foods provide fuel for our body. It’s about thinking about how to fuel our body effectively. And the other key thing I think, is that we select foods more if we feel that we’re not allowed to have them or deprived of them.

So foods become more just like other things, they become more interesting to us and more appealing the less we’re allowed to. Them. Yeah. You always want what you can’t have. Exactly. Exactly. So what we want to do with our kids is be setting appropriate healthy boundaries around food. So things like you might prepare for dinner, what you believe as a parent is a healthy meal for dinner, and then it’s about allowing the child to select the way that they like to eat the dinner that you’ve prepared and how much of that they’re going to eat.

So as a parent, Certain responsibilities around the food, around what foods you provide for your child, um, what snacks are accessible for them. Um, and then they have some responsibilities around their relationship with food as well around how much of that they’re going to eat and, and those sorts of things too.

I wanna jump into the age brackets and I wanna talk about not to fives, five to tens and teenagers as well, and the best strategies for boosting body image and those healthy eating behaviors. So let’s kick off with the naught to fives. And as you said earlier, you know, prevention is better than cure in many ways.

So what are some of. Great body image strategies we can be fostering with our kids. So we definitely want to avoid any kind of teasing about weight or appearance and where possible. We also want to avoid reinforcing that weight and appearance are what’s important. So if we make a lot of comments about our child’s weight or about their appearance, then that’s likely to teach them that.

That’s what’s important to us. That’s how they get their value. And so we really want to be focused on, you know, you, you hear people say things like, Oh, you’re such a pretty little girl. And that automatically reinforces the idea that my worth comes from what I look like. And so instead, we want to be saying things like, Um, or you’re such a kind person or you know, you’re such a helpful person.

You really helped mommy out there when you did X, Y, and Z chore. Or, um, you know, I love when we laughed together. So really kind of commenting on the things that are more about the, the child’s qualities, uh, rather than about what they look like or things that might be outside of their. When we talk about bodies, it’s best to talk about the functionality of our body.

So things like, when you hug me, you’ve got such strong arms and I really love how tight your hugs are. So kind of really talking about how their bodies allow them to do the things that are enjoyable, um, and that fosters that positivity towards their body as. . And then one of the other things that I think is really important is how we model what we say about our own body and other people’s bodies to our children, and how we model our eating behaviors.

So if we’re saying these things to our children, like everybody looks different, everybody has. Different bodies. This is a great thing. Our bodies can do these wonderful things, but then in the background, our children are hearing us say things like, Oh, you know, I really hate my stomach, and Oh, I shouldn’t have eaten that because now I’m gonna have to go for a 5K walk.

You know, if they’re hearing these messages, it’s not consistent with what we’re saying to them. And children are quite intuitive and they. These differences and they pick up on what’s really important to us as adults, um, or even making comments about other people’s bodies. So running into a friend and saying, Oh, you look great.

You’ve lost so much weight. Um, when children are hearing these things, they’re learning that what’s important about. These other people is their weight. Um, and then if I can just add one more, my last point for this age group would be really facilitating that intuitive eating behavior. So children are actually born with better attunement to their hunger and fullness than, than we probably have now as adults.

Because as adults we’ve gone through this process of there being all these rules and things applied on top of our signals, but children will actually just eat when they’re hungry and stop when they’re full if we allow them. . And so we really want to be avoiding that moralizing of food. So foods aren’t good and bad, but encouraging our kids to eat in accordance with their hunger.

So if they’re hungry, having something to eat, um, and if they’re full stopping their eating as well. What about when we get to the five to 10 age bracket where there’s a lot more outside influence? And I have to tell you that. I was at a gathering a party with lots of kids the other day, and I heard a kid running around calling other kids fat.

Mm. Just as a, I don’t know. You could have used any word. He could have said, you’re a silly Billy or whatever, but he was just, he was a seven year old. , I can imagine that kids are getting all sorts of signals as they start school. Yeah. I think that it’s particularly challenging, as you said, because the, as there’s more exposure to things that are outside of your control as a parent, then.

You know, children are, are getting exposure to a lot of different messages and I think that’s particularly why the way we set up our conversations with them and the things that they learn in that under five age bracket is so important. And you know, as they continue to get older, all those things I said before are still important.

So we need to continue those things. And then I think it’s about facilitating really open conversation and dialogue with your kids so that you hear about those things. And if you’ve set up a really good framework for your kids in understanding that, you know, in our family, this is what we think about people, this is what we really instilling those values about how we care about people’s worth and we focus on their qualities and people aren’t good and bad for making different food choices.

And then we start asking those curious questions. Your children are likely to then share with you, Well, this is what was happening at school. Or they’ll even come home and say, Oh, mom, like there was a child today telling everybody that they were fat. Why were they doing that? You know, because for they’ll know that.

This isn’t how we do things in our family. This isn’t how we talk about things. And so, you know, if you foster that curious conversation and foster those strong messages about positivity towards bodies, then I think that can be a buffer to some of those things that they might experience in that age group.

But the other thing I think that’s particularly important in this age group is starting to have conversations, probably not so much at five, but definitely as you get a bit older about preparing for puberty. Puberty is a time when you know, lots of changes happen in our body and. . If we’re not prepared for them or we don’t kind of realize what’s happening or we don’t understand what’s happening, then that can be a problem.

From a body image perspective, our body makes so many changes and we have to learn to accept the differences that we now might have. We might look different than our friends because we might go through puberty at a different age or have growth spurts at different ages, and so there’s increasing body awareness at this time as.

Yeah, I mean, that would be one of the hot times. I know I struggled big time because I was an under developer, so I was the last person in my class to hit puberty, and it was an issue for me, and it stays with me today. So I, I, I really understand how that can. Kind of hit your trajectory of body images, you’re going into teenagehood, and I didn’t really talk to my mom about it at all.

I, I kept very private about it. How do you foster those conversations? I mean, I do love this idea of asking curious questions and having that open, curious conversation. Is it also, I guess, just always being available when they are? Ready to talk to you? Yes, definitely. It is about, you know, facilitating that knowledge that they can talk to you about anything.

I think what is particularly challenging for parents is that these conversations are challenging for them to have as well. They might not have had a good role model from their own parents, or they might have had challenging experiences as you described, a and so. In those contexts, sometimes these conversations can be very painful or challenging to have and bring up lots of difficult emotions.

And so I think when we’re not sure what to do and we don’t want to do the wrong thing, we tend to do nothing and. As a result of that, we are probably not having the conversations early enough that it just feels normal for our child to come and talk about those things, or to ask questions about things, to ask questions about the world and about their experiences.

I think we really want to be fostering that as early as possible and making it such that our children know that there isn’t any conversation topic that’s off limits, that they can. Their own curious questions about anything that they want to know about and that this idea of, you know, puberty questions aren’t taboo.

Um, I think sometimes taboo topics or things that feel uncomfortable, as I said, we avoid them and as a result, our children don’t know that it’s safe to talk about them. Okay, so that’s five to 10. Let’s talk about teenagers. If we haven’t had those conversations yet, how do we jump in and get started? So there’s a few different things you can do.

I think it probably depends on how open your teen is in general. So if your teen generally talks to you about lots of things, but you haven’t had these particular conversations, then I think it’s probably reasonably. To just open up the conversation and say, Hey, you know, I’ve been having to think about some of the things that might be going on for you and some of the challenges you might have, you know, at the moment, at your age.

And then just asking some questions about, you know, I know this is a concern for some of your friends or for some people your age. How do you feel about this? Do you have any questions? So if, if your teen is already quite open, you can probably just go in. Like asking and inviting them to have that conversation.

They might give you some funny looks like this is really awkward. Mom don’t wanna be having this conversation . And so, you know, if you get the sense that they don’t want to continue, you can always just say, Look, it’s okay. We don’t have to talk about it now. But I just want you to know that if you do have questions, it’s okay for us to talk about these things.

If your team. Maybe they’re, they’re a bit more of a closed book and they’re not very open about talking about things. This is probably not the first thing I’d go in with. Um, I would suggest starting by trying some strategies to get them to talk about more in general. So really working to create that safe space.

Where they can tell you a bit more about their life and let you let you in a little bit more to what’s happening in their, in their mind and in their life. And so I gently ask about some maybe less awkward topics first, and when they start kind of opening up a bit more, um, Then you can kind of move into some of these more challenging topics.

Uh, and if you’re not sure how to start with having conversations, the best way for a teenager is doing another activity that they enjoy that you can do together where you’re not looking at each other. So I think teenagers find it very confronting to have like a lot of eye contact and direct body oriented towards them.

Um, it’s much better to do the side by side, um, chatting in their context of another. Yeah. Going for a walk together in the car, um, going for a bike ride together, et cetera. Exactly. And still on teenagers. What are some other strategies to boost their body image? Well, I think teenagers in teenage years, we become, uh, less reliant on the relationship that we have with our parents is still important, but the relationship and the influence of our peers and particularly social media as well, becomes more, um, impactful.

And so, When we’re thinking about developing positive body image for teenagers, we really want to be thinking about what are they consuming, Uh, what messages are they getting from social media? What messages are they getting from the things that they’re watching on tv, the things that they’re reading, what messages are they getting from their friends?

you might want to be thinking about, uh, looking through some of their social media feeds, things like Instagram in particular, anything with visual content. Are they looking at a whole bunch of accounts where all the bodies look the same and none of the bodies actually look like their body? And so the message they’re implicitly getting is that this is the right body type or a particular body type that we’re aiming to have.

And we don’t want that. We want them to be consuming material. Promotes a wide range of body types, um, and a wide range of body activit. . So I think really thinking about what is the messaging that they’re getting through the media that they’re consuming is important. Then how would you change that? You know?

Do you literally have that conversation with them, honey? Why have you got all bikini clad size six people on your feed? Yeah, you could certainly do that. I think, you know, I’ve encouraged throughout what we’ve been talking about, having open communication and discussing the impact with your child, and so I think.

Just talking to them about, you know, who are you following and how are you choosing who you’re following? And when you look at the material in your feet, how do you feel afterwards? Do you feel uplifted? Do you feel good about yourself? Do you feel good about your life or do you feel something different?

And. Really talking to them about if you’re not feeling good about yourself, is that the best thing to be looking at? Can we find a balance? And then maybe helping them to find some things that would be good to follow that are aligned with their interests, but maybe have a better balance of perspective.

What about if we ourselves have. Struggled our whole life with our own body image and food related issues. I know it can be a real issue where we don’t wanna pass it onto our children. What are some strategies that we can prevent our kids inheriting these traits? Yeah, I think this is really challenging.

As I said, we live in a world where, Everybody is talking about their latest diet. Everybody is having conversations that are aligned towards developing negative body image, and so it’s not surprising that many people in our society would be having some of these struggles and challenges with food and their own body image.

I think there’s a couple of things that I would. One is to start off with really orienting yourself towards your values as a parent. So when we’re having a struggle ourselves, one of the things that can help to anchor us or ground us in how we might want to make changes to what we are saying or what we are thinking or what we are doing is if we have a really strong reason for why it’s important to make those change.

Something that’s more important to us than how uncomfortable it is to think or talk differently. So if you can really kind of get a clear picture of what is it that you want for your children, how do you want them to feel about their body? How, what kind of relationship do you want them to have with food?

If you can get a really clear picture of that, um, that will help to ground you in any changes that you might need to make. And then it’s about, I think, just. Trying to make small changes over time, at least in your own awareness of what you’re saying and doing. So you might still be thinking some of those things internally because that takes a lot of work to change, But you can become more aware of when you say things that might be unhelpful, that your children will hear and be really conscious of proactively saying things that are more helpful.

And if you find that this is really challenging for you and it’s important for you to. Be promoting and modeling healthy body image and healthy relationship with food for your kids. Then I would suggest also arranging to speak with a psychologist to help you to overcome some of those things so that you can be a good model for your children.

Yeah, I a hundred percent agree with you because I think that whole prevention is better than cure approach. You know, so much of this is innate where we don’t even realize that we’re doing it. So, you know, starting to be aware of those moments where you do check yourself in the mirror. Or make a little slight comment, you don’t realize that Elephant is, is listening in the background.

For a mom out there who is worried about her child’s body image, what is one final strategy that she can go home and implement today to help her child with their body image? Yeah, I think that if we had to pick just one thing, I would say start by talking positively about what their body is doing for.

So the example I gave of that before was, you know, I love your hugs, your strong arms hug me really tight, and it makes me feel really special. So really thinking about the, the language that we use to talk to our child about their body is going to be the, the first thing that I would recommend implementing.

We know that children internalize the language that they hear from their parents. Um, so as they become older, You might hear your children say things that you’ve said or you might hear yourself say things that your parents said and realize that, Oh, I sound like my mother, or I sound like my father.

Those things become internalized, and so we really want the positive focus on the function of their body to be what they’re internalizing about their own body. I love. So we are focusing on what our bodies can do, not what they look like, and we are asking lots of curious questions. Amy, thank you so much.

My pleasure. Thank you for having me.


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