According to a study in the “American Journal of Preventive Medicine,” overweight teens often turn to extreme measures for weight control, which can really backfire. In addition, teasing can have negative consequences on children struggling to shed pounds. Relationship and family therapist Argie Allen shares advice on how parents can help their kids when dealing with weight issues or body image. Much of the obsession with body image is a result of our quick-fix society, which focuses more on the external than the internal. The stigma attached to our bodies and how we look has negative consequences for children, who will often engage in self-destructive behaviors to look like what they consider is the ideal body image.
It's interesting that the study linked teasing and the pressure to lose weight to an increased risk in obesity and binge-eating five years later. The study shows that girls who were teased were twice as likely to be overweight five years later when compared to other girls in the study — and 1.5 times more likely to binge-eat and try purging, abusing laxatives, diet pills and diuretics. The focus of teasing being correlated with obesity and eating disorders has not been a strong focus in the past. This void in the research may be due to the industry's focus on concentration than any other eating disorders and the contributing factors such as anorexia or bulimia.
Parents of daughters in particular should not be surprised about the outcome of this article. Many adolescent concerns that impact self-esteem have not been adequately addressed through research. This study reveals that weight problems often stem from low self-esteem, body dissatisfaction and risky eating behaviors. But many adults have not dealt with their own internal negative messages about their bodies and often project those insecurities onto their children. Whether that's from making unfair comparisons or by only focusing on diets and weight loss as opposed to overall health, nutrition and well-being. Parents should look at their own histories as teenagers and make sure that they're not repeating history by overlooking behaviors at home that could be negatively impacting the health and well-being of their child.
Here are some steps parents can take to help their teens:
- When it comes to teasing, minimize the impact
Often parents, other adults and guardians minimize the impact that teasing has on children. The more a person hears a message about themselves, either negative or positive, the higher the potential for that message to become that person's reality. It's important for the adults in the child's world to create opportunities to have safe dialogue about teasing experiences. These conversations are necessary for children who may need to process being teased. By normalizing those experiences the child will not internalize, which could lead to self-destructive behaviors such as eating disorders.
- Never compare any child to slimmer siblings or friends
Never make destructive comparisons of children; this can be internally detrimental to your child's psychological well-being. While competition between siblings is natural, it is unhealthy to set up conflict between siblings or peers over body image and physical appearance. These kinds of judgments are ineffective ways to motivate children and usually do more harm than good.
- Practice role-plays to build self-esteem
Parents can coach their children to deal with bullies and teasers by practicing role-plays. These teach healthy responses that empower rather than dis-empower. By helping children to be reflective and responsive versus reactive to teasing, they'll learn to externalize the injury in a healthy way versus internalizing it in an unhealthy way. This also allows children to come up with creative ways to view themselves as valuable, worthy and special versus common attributes such as body image and facial features.