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Majority of teens and preteens self-conscious about appearance, poll suggests

“We found that negative messages were getting even to the younger children,” the study's coauthor said.
Some parents may be inadvertently sending their kids the wrong message by complaining about their own external appearance, obsessing about weight, wrinkles or even the odd unexpected pimple.
Some parents may be inadvertently sending their kids the wrong message by complaining about their own external appearance, obsessing about weight, wrinkles or even the odd unexpected pimple.Rebecca Nelson / Getty Images

The majority of teens and preteens are self-conscious about their appearance, a new national poll suggests.

Nearly two thirds of parents who responded to the poll said their child was insecure about some aspect of their appearance, while one in five said their teen avoided certain situations, like being photographed, because they feel too self-conscious, according to the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health at University of Michigan Health.

For the most part, the findings in teens weren’t surprising, said the report’s coauthor Dr. Susan Woolford, an associate professor and co-director for the Mott Poll at the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital. What did surprise Woolford was that body image issues showed up in younger kids, too, she said. 

“We found that negative messages were getting even to the younger children,” Woolford said. “One would hope that it would be possible to enjoy childhood without a negative body image.”

Negative body images can have a broader consequences. “We do know that having a poor self-image can affect self-esteem and can ultimately impact emotional well-being,” Woolford said.

One way parents can help is by telling children that who they are inside is much more important than how they look, Woolford said.

Some parents may be inadvertently sending their kids the wrong message by complaining about their own external appearance, obsessing about weight, wrinkles or even the odd unexpected pimple.

To take a closer look at how teens and preteens view their bodies, Woolford and her colleagues queried 1,653 parents who had a child between the ages 8 and 18 in April of this year.

The most common causes of a negative body image were: weight (31%), skin conditions such as acne (32%) and hair (27%). A smaller number of parents listed height (17%) and facial features (12%) as what their children were most insecure about. Nearly one in five parents of girls also said their child was self-conscious about their breasts.

Parents of teens were more likely than parents of younger children ages 8-12 to report their child had body image issues: 73% of teen girls and 69% of teen boys compared to 57% of younger girls and 49% of younger boys.

Poor body image can affect kids’ lives, the researchers found. Among parents who said their children were self-conscious about their looks, 27% said they felt it had a negative impact on their child’s self-esteem and 20% said it affected their child’s willingness to participate in activities, with 18% avoiding being photographed. Some parents (8%) said they had noticed their child restricting what they were eating because they felt self-conscious about their bodies.

Nearly one-third of parents (31%) said they had heard their child making negative comments about their own appearance.

One in three parents said their child had been treated unkindly because of their appearance: 28% by other children, 12% by strangers, 12% by other family members, 5% by teachers, and 5% by healthcare providers.

Social media was cited as a cause of the children’s self-consciousness, with twice as many parents blaming social media as those attributing the issue to in-person interactions.

The most common response of parents upon hearing about mean comments was to talk to their child about it. Some parents responded by keeping their child away from the person making the unkind comments (33%) and some said they spoke with the person (27%).

Parents need to realize that not all young people will talk about their body image issues openly, said Dr. Wendy Neal, medical director at the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center in New York. Parents need to pay attention to what their children are saying about their bodies, said Neal, who was not involved in the new study.

“Sometimes we can be preoccupied and busy and can miss the cues,” Neal said. “But it’s really important to listen and acknowledge their feelings and not to be dismissive of what young people are expressing.”

Neal advises parents to “reinforce the idea that beauty comes in many shapes and forms and no one look is ideal and that is OK. Also, it’s important that we talk about health rather than looks and weights.”

“We want to walk the talk,” Neal said. “We should encourage children to have healthy lifestyle behaviors and we should do that together with them. Modeling is really key.”

The numbers of kids with body image issues is likely higher than the study reported, said Joseph McGuire, a child psychologist and an associate professor of psychology and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins Medicine.

“Adolescents may not want to go to their parents,” he added. “They are going through a lot of bodily changes at that time in life and it may be hard for them to say they’re not comfortable about their bodies.”

When parents do suspect a problem, it’s best to bring up the subject in a positive way, said McGuire, who was not involved in the new research. “You might begin by asking, ‘what do you like about yourself,’” he said. “Or if you notice your child is wearing a lot of make-up, you could say, ‘I think you’re beautiful without that.’”

The signs of body self-consciousness may be different in boys, McGuire said. “Boys may engage in disruptive behaviors, may act like the class clown, to deflect. It’s a different coping strategy, but the same level of discomfort.”

If parents are concerned and don’t feel they can help their child, they shouldn’t hesitate to reach out to a therapist to get an evaluation, McGuire said. Related: