Guest post: “Four in 10 children admit to worrying about their body image”
Action for Children’s mental health support worker Kirstie Donaghey writes about how social pressures are affecting children
Mental health support worker
Posted on: Fri 19-Jul-19 15:29:41
(4 comments )
Children today are experiencing worse childhoods than their parents or grandparents – that's the message from leading children’s charity Action for Children. To mark its 150th birthday this week the charity surveyed children, parents and grandparents – and all three generations believe childhoods are getting worse.
One of the reasons behind this growing crisis for our children is the unprecedented social pressures they face – including the need to ‘fit in’ and how they feel about the way they look. Four in 10 children admit to worrying about their body image and almost 60% of girls wish there was less pressure around their appearance.
Here Action for Children’s mental health support worker Kirstie Donaghey reveals some of the issues she sees in schools every day.
‘Modern culture is affecting children in ways previous generations haven’t had to deal with. Over a quarter of young people (29%) are worried about their own mental health as the world we live in bombards us with adverts and articles about things that will ‘make us better'. TV, papers, magazines and most of all social media, are sending out a clear message to all of us that we should be prettier, thinner, more toned, have a flatter tummy, thicker hair, longer eyelashes. The list is never-ending and contributing to a generation of children buckling under the weight of social pressures.
I’m a practitioner for a mental wellbeing programme called The Blues. As a team we go into secondary schools and undertake a six-week programme with those teens that have identified as needing extra help with their mental health. We give them tools and tips to help them deal with issues from anxiety, to school pressures and, to a heartbreakingly large number, their struggles with their body image. So often we hear the same phrase repeated over and over again - ‘I’m not good enough’. They seem to have an expectation of themselves and of their peers to look a certain way which just wasn’t there for their parents and grandparents. We know that two-thirds of parents (60%) and grandparents (62%) feel that childhoods today are worse with many telling us that they felt that there is too much pressure to look a certain way and fit in, blaming this particularly on social media.
They seem to have an expectation of themselves and of their peers to look a certain way which just wasn't there for their parents and grandparents.
If we stop for a break in our sessions and hand out drinks and snacks we often get children (mostly young girls) who will say ‘No thanks, I’m on a diet.’ This has such a negative impact that they start to believe eating one piece of chocolate or cake makes them ‘bad’.
And I do think that generally there is more pressure on girls than on boys. Girls are bombarded with ads for beauty products, fashion lines and music videos that are all aimed at girls rather than boys. Although young men are under pressure too, they can find it more difficult to talk about their body image and looks.
Half of the young people we spoke to for our survey felt that less pressure around their physical appearance would result in a better childhood for them. This negativity can have a detrimental impact over time on a teen’s mood, self-esteem and how they perceive themselves. They may become withdrawn and isolated, stop doing hobbies they once enjoyed and their behaviour at home and at school can be affected.
As a parent, you know your child best and there will be signs that your child is worrying about the way they look. Keep an eye on their eating habits - whether it is them restricting what they eat or if they are eating too much. Are they constantly comparing themselves to others or spending excessive time looking in the mirror? Over-exercising or wearing clothes that are too big or baggy are also warning signs. In really extreme circumstances some children can also self-harm.
So what can you do if you see these red flags? Relationships at home can change in these circumstances and, although it can be difficult for some parents or carers to understand the pressures young people are under, it is so important to talk. If you think your child is worrying about the way they look, try to explore with them why. Giving them the opportunity to talk about their feelings will help your child feel better about the situation. When they do open up to you, listen without judgement and they’ll be more likely to trust and reach out to you again.
And remember that children learn from copying the world around them - whatever age they are. Lead by example and try not to judge yourself, or others. Encourage healthy eating and regular exercise - both vital for our physical and mental wellbeing. And if you’re really worried then don’t hesitate to make an appointment to see your GP who will be able to talk you through ways they can help.'
By Kirstie Donaghey
The other side of the coin is what percentage of those worried about "body image" are overweight?
We constantly hear about the population being overweight and massive drives for healthy eating, Removing sugar from drinks and cereal.
Where's the line between being responsible for your own body and worrying about body image?
They worry about what’s healthy or not because the diet that most people eat is nothing like what they see recommended in healthy eating lessons.
They worry about weight becuase they are weighed in year 1 and year 6 and because of news stories about obesity rates.
They compare their appearance with others but sadly now find themselves lacking becuase instead of comparing to twenty or so girls and feeling ok, they are compairing themselves to the workds top models and the most liked instagram posts.
However, I work in this field and mothers and fathers dieting and talking too much about dieting, over exercising or being very critical of their own bodies (while saying ‘this is just for me, you don’t need to worry’) is a really big factor. Of course being critical about their childrens weight also crops up. Body acceptance needs to be modelled and lived by your most important role models.
It’s a fine line, I agree. And I can understand how 10/11 year olds who are weighed, told they’re overweight can go the other way by the time they’re 12/13
Hello, I am also a young persons mental health practitioner
A couple of months ago I was travelling on a train home from Oxford, across the carriage were two teenage girls, they caught my attention as they were chatting and laughing loudly and re-examining their purchases. One of the girls took a selfie, which they both dismissed as ‘bad’ so they carried on taking photo after photo trying to get that ‘good’ one. In fact, they spent the rest of the ninety-minute journey deleting photos and sharing how they wished they looked. The young person’s mental health practitioner in me wanted to sit with them and help them have a more positive view of themselves, the mum in me wanted to give them a hug and tell them they are beautiful young girls and they don’t need to worry what others think.
Unfortunately, this scenario is happening every day, young people, girls and boys, are finding it harder and harder to live up to this ‘perfect body image’ portrayed everywhere in the media. We hear so much about the alarming number of young people struggling with their mental health and there is an obvious connection between low self-esteem and mental health; if we see ourselves in a negative way we think in a negative way.
A colleague of mine recently asked me for advice as her seven year old daughter had said she was not as pretty as the other girls in her class and the sad fact is that younger children are experiencing similar thoughts and feelings.
As the adults and role models in children and young people’s lives we can help and support them to feel more positive about themselves. Children will benefit if they know from an early age to respect people of all body types and that everyone is valued no matter how they look.
It is so important to have open age-appropriate conversations with our children, this will build foundations for good communications throughout their childhood.
Always emphasise all your child’s qualities – you are so kind is just as important as you have lovely eyes.
Promote healthy diet, exercise and good sleep routines – talk about how a healthier lifestyle helps us to feel better and will not only be good for our fitness but for our hair, skin and posture. Do it together as a family or invite a friend round for fitness and fun session.
Talk openly about well-being and how that can sometimes make us critical about ourselves. Encourage children to do things they enjoy and praise them to reinforce the message that we feel better when we do things that lift our mood.
Use praise and encouragement about general things like school work, helping at home, being kind to siblings to raise self-esteem. If we feel better about ourselves we are more likely to be less critical of how we look.
Try hard not to dismiss their worries with phrases like ‘but your beautiful’ (not easy I know) as this may make them feel you’re not listening or that their feelings don’t count.
Encourage them not to compare themselves to images in the media, show them the many celebrities who have shared their stories and no-make-up, no air brush photos of themselves to support positive body image.
Ask them what they would tell a friend who was feeling down about how they look; we are good at being kind to others but find it hard to say nice things about ourselves.
Encourage them to spend time with people who make them feel more positive.
The focus, for ourselves and for young people, should be on feeling better, healthier and happier rather than looking better.
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