Health

What to say to a teenager when they tell you they hate their body

The Butterfly Foundation says 1 in 4 teens have significant body image worries. Whether you’re dealing with a child, grandchild or friend, here’s what the foundation’s Manager of Education Services, Helen Bird, says you can do when a teenager hates their body.

By Citro partner nib and Helen Bird

Many teens struggle with their body image as they go through puberty and adjust to the changes in their appearance.  

Being a grandparent is all about knowing when to step in and support your kids and grandkids without overstepping.

If you’ve been around teenagers, you’ll know that some teens struggle with their body image (as many as 90%, according to this research) as they go through puberty and adjust to the changes in their appearance.  

The Butterfly Foundation 2022 Body Kind Youth Survey, supported by nib foundation, found that over 90% of young people aged 12-18 reported some level of body image concern, and 2 in 5 kids are either very or extremely concerned about their body image. Those reporting their gender as anything other than male reported a higher level of concern about their body image (>40% very or extremely concerned). 

Positive body image is associated with better self-esteem and mental health both during adolescence and later in life. Helen Bird, Manager of Education Services at the Butterfly Foundation shares her top tips for helping teenagers navigate body image concerns. 

Fostering positive body image is all in how you talk about things

“The home and family environment – and more specifically the messages children receive around body image, healthy eating and physical activity – is one of the most significant influences on a child’s developing self-esteem and body image,” says Helen. 

How parents and grandparents talk about their own or other people’s bodies, including the value they place on appearance, weight, shape and size, can all transfer to their children.

The good news is that many people recognise the important role they need to play in helping others receive healthy messaging about their bodies, eating habits and physical activity. “Family dynamics can even help buffer some of the really strong sociocultural influences on body image, including social media and peers,” explains Helen. 

Here’s some suggestions to help foster a body-positive relationship: 

Encourage your teen to talk to themselves the way they would to a friend – with kindness and respect. They wouldn’t say negative things to their friends, so why say it to themselves? 

Help them admire non-appearance-based qualities and strengths in others and themselves, such as curiosity, creativity and integrity.  

Celebrate diversity and acknowledge that all bodies are supposed to be different. Support your teen to accept their body more and compare themselves less. 

Be mindful of the language you use and reduce the commentary and narrative around appearance. 

Try to stay connected to your grandchild and understand their reality. Who and what is influencing their values and attitudes towards appearance, eating and physical activity? 

Keep lines of communication open and do your best to be available to talk when they are. 

What about the role of social media? 

Parents and grandparents play a vital role in supporting their child to navigate social media in a positive way – and understanding the various platforms is a great place to start. 

“This will help parents empower their children to choose what and who they see and follow, and to create a more diverse, positive and balanced feed,” explains Helen.  She also suggests the following: 

Establish boundaries early, set up safety measures and discuss all things social media upfront. Prevention is better than cure! But keep in mind that banning or heavily restricting social media may not be the best approach because it may then become a forbidden fruit. 

Encourage your teen to become aware of how being online makes them feel. Does it motivate and inspire them or lead to criticism and negative body comparisons? If it’s not making them feel good, suggest they take a break, unfollow, block or press mute. Fear of missing out (FOMO) is a very real thing for teens, so taking a break may be challenging. 

Help children challenge the messaging behind posts and the tricks used to create images so they develop a critical eye when looking at social media. 

Encourage your teen to ‘post’ themselves as a whole person, including their interests, hobbies and passions, rather than just body parts or appearances.  

What to do if your teen says they hate their body?  

In addition to creating a home environment that fosters positive body image, healthy eating and physical activity, parents should be aware of the warning signs of body image issues and intervene early. 

“It can sometimes be difficult to know if a young person’s attitudes and behaviours towards food, exercise or their body are typical or a sign of something more serious,” says Helen. 

The ‘warning signs’ will also look and sound different for each person. 

“Generally speaking, if your child has a preoccupation with eating, food, body shape or weight, and it’s negatively impacting their relationships, schoolwork, self-esteem, exercise behaviours or everyday life, these may be signs that they’re developing serious body-image concerns.” Other signs and symptoms to watch out for include: 

  • Being overly critical about their body size or shape and being worried or anxious if it changes 
  • Comparing their body and appearance to others more often 
  • Spending more time in front of the mirror or taking photos and looking for imperfections 
  • Weighing themselves frequently 
  • Changing the way they dress or their grooming behaviours (they may be either more or less focused on these) 
  • Avoiding activities because of how they feel about their body or appearance 
  • Exercising more often, compensating with exercise after eating, or feeling stressed or irritated if they can’t exercise or train 
  • Hiding food, eating in secret or linking food with guilt or shame.  

Getting help

“If you’re concerned about eating or exercise behaviours, their language or attitudes about their body weight or shape, or their mental health, it’s always better to seek support sooner rather than later,” advises Helen. “Know the signs and act early.” Although body image issues can be challenging, there’s lots of help available. Parents can seek support from: 

  • A GP who may provide a referral to a specialist
  • The Butterfly National Helpline by calling 1800 ED HOPE (1800 33 4673), chatting online or emailing support@butterfly.org.au – 7 days a week from 8am to midnight (AEST). Butterfly’s trained counsellors can provide initial guidance and advice as well as referral information for services and practitioners. 
  • The Butterfly website also contains plenty of helpful information and Butterfly’s Body Kind Families supported by nib foundation, has resources for fostering your own self-compassion, talking to your child and activities you can do with your young person to promote a positive body image. 

The information on this page is general information and should not be used to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease. Do not use the information found on this page as a substitute for professional health care advice. Any information you find on this page or on external sites which are linked to on this page should be verified with your professional healthcare provider.

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