Ask a Medcan psychologist: Talking body image with your teen

How do teens use social media to build up or break down self image?

Low self esteem and a negative body image can be real struggles for teenagers, especially in our era of social media where people can critique and comment with anonymity.

Dr. Susan Rosenkranz, a psychologist at Medcan, who works with children, youth, and families, addresses some commonly asked questions. Dr. Rosenkranz has a specific clinical and research focus on adolescent mental health.

How do we support our kids to have positive thoughts about their looks and bodies?

Even though kids can pull away from parents to some degree as they move into adolescence, parents are still important role models. It’s important for parents to provide an example of healthy behaviours through their language and actions. For example, how they talk about their own bodies and how they fuel their own bodies. Instead of extreme dieting or skipping meals, eat healthy, balanced meals. Exercise regularly. When talking about your eating or exercise habits, emphasize the mental and physical health benefits, rather than the impact on your appearance. Shifting your focus in this way can provide an important example for your teen to follow, and can provide balance to some of the appearance-focused messages they may receive from peers and the media.

Should parents initiate conversations about body image with their teens?

I think it’s important to be proactive on these issues, rather than waiting to see the red flags of a problem, especially since kids have a tendency to be more private as they become teenagers

Parents can find natural ways to open up conversations about body image – for example, if you are watching a show together and the topic arises in the storyline, or you hear a comment from your child about an actor’s body or appearance, you can use that as an opening to discuss those things.  Taking the opportunity when these natural openings to the conversation arise can be a more comfortable and effective way of addressing the issue than sitting down for a formal discussion. It can also free the youth up to feel more comfortable raising the issue with you when these kinds of discussion are naturally incorporated into the fabric of your family’s life. Parents can take a “wondering” stance to open up the discussion in a non-confrontational manner, validate their child’s perspective to help them feel heard and understood, and offer different perspectives.

How do you address the concept of the “perfect body”?

It’s important for parents to send the message that there is no “perfect body.” People come in all different shapes and sizes, and helping your child to think critically about what has formed his or her perceptions of “perfection” can help them recognize the ways in which this is artificially constructed, and changes over time and place. Also, helping your teen to shift out of the black and white thinking of “perfect” and “imperfect” can be important. Having rigid standards for how one must look is bound to set them up for dissatisfaction. Help your teen to think in a balanced way about all the different ways in which one can be beautiful, and to recognize the aspects of their own appearance that they like or feel proud of. It is important to take this a step further, though, and ensure that one’s body is recognized as only one aspect of a person, and that there are many other aspects of a person that are important – encourage your teen to balance their focus on their body with a focus on all the other things that make up who they are. Moreover, when focus is placed on the body, try to shift the focus beyond appearance – emphasize all the different capabilities of the body and what it allows you to do.

How do teens use social media to build up or break down self image?

People are fairly familiar with the challenges of traditional media related to body image, but social media offers some new challenges in this regard. One of the main issues is that so much of social media is focused on receiving external approval – how many likes you get on a photo, for example. When how you feel about your appearance, your friendships, your experiences becomes based on how others evaluate them, particularly for teens who are in the process of developing their sense of identity, it can have a big impact. Beyond this, the increased comfort in making harsh comments that comes with being behind a computer screen can lead to very negative, impactful experiences. And given that social media is now a part of daily life for many people, particularly for teens, many teens may be reluctant to pull away from it because of what they may miss out on, even when it is having negative effects.

What’s the best way for a parent to guide their teenager’s use of social media?

I encourage parents to be connected to their child’s use of social media – be your child’s friend on Facebook, follow them on Instagram. Parents should be aware of what their teen is posting and what they are being exposed to. Know that you may not be getting the full picture, but being connected to some degree allows you to have some awareness of what’s going on for your child in this domain. By being aware, you are in a better position to have conversations that can help your teen to develop skills to think critically about their social media use. Use these conversations to help your teen to recognize how the emphasis on external approval or disapproval in social media can affect them.

Parents can also encourage their children to shift their focus on social media away from appearance. Often an easy comment to make on a photo is about one’s appearance, but help your child to think of other things they could comment on – the experience being documented in the picture, for example. You can model this in your own use of social media. Instead of saying “you look great,” you might say “it looks like you’re having a great time.” Comments such as that can shift the focus away from appearance and on to experience.

Parents can also create all-family, offline time. This is when posting of photos is delayed until the activity is over. That’s because some teens will post a photo of an activity and spend the rest of the time focused on the social media reaction rather than being fully present and engaged with the family gathering or activity. To help your child experience the moment rather than focusing on how others see it on social media, encourage handing in phones. And that means the parents must put away their phones too!

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