It can be a fraught topic for adults, let alone you and your teen. Posing the right questions can make you both feel more confident.

By Lisa Damour, PhD
Photo by Getty Images

We all want our kids to feel good about their size and shape (and hair and skin and elbow creases and pinkie toes), but we don’t want to give them the idea that how they appear on the outside is more important than who they are on the inside. Navigating this tricky topic thoughtfully can help your kids spend less time wondering if they’re attractive enough and more time building healthy relationships with their bodies. 

Follow Their Lead

The most successful conversations with teenagers happen when they open the door to a topic, not when parents come knocking with unsolicited advice. So when your teen “casually” brings up dieting, weight or appearance, seize the moment. If your daughter gets halfway through dinner and stops to ask, “Should I finish this?” point out that she should pay attention to her internal cues instead of body insecurities. Consider responding with “Are you still hungry?” or “Do you feel like you’ve had enough?” The aim is to help teens reflect on their own opinions and impressions rather than what anybody else might think.

If your teen tries on new jeans and wonders out loud if they “look like they’re supposed to,” grab the chance to ask how he or she thinks jeans are supposed to look on a person. (Believe me, it’s sure to be different from how you think jeans should look!) Boys might worry that their legs seem skinny; girls might agonize over a too-big backside (or, depending on the current teen style trends, a too-small one). Try asking, “How do you want them to fit?” or “Is there something about them that’s bothering you?” Resist the temptation to offer empty reassurance—“They look great!” Instead, capitalize on the moment to learn more about how your kid feels about their appearance.

Raise a Critical Consumer

An adult family friend said something to me when I was in high school that has been helpful to this day. She had stopped by our house and found me paging through a fashion magazine. “You know,” she said matter-of-factly as she pointed to a stunning model, “looking good is her job.” I had known that, at some level, but her comment still changed my thinking. It reminded me that the woman I was admiring had been dealt a rare genetic hand and now spent her days cultivating and maintaining her appearance for a living. If you and your kid are watching TV, with its preternaturally good-looking actors, or you pass by as they’re flipping through a magazine filled with digitally perfected images, it may be helpful to say, “Most people don’t look like that—not even the actors or models themselves. And even though I know only one body type shows up over and over again in the media, I’m here to tell you that there really is more than one way to look good.” 

Of course, most teenagers now spend much more time looking at social media than at magazines. But if you think it would feel better for teens to judge themselves against their classmates instead of professional models, think again. Kids posting on social often take dozens of pictures—at different angles, with different lighting/facial expressions/outfits/filters—and then select only the very most flattering ones to share. 

As parents, it’s our job to remind teens that no photograph accurately represents how someone appears in real life. The next time you notice your teen scrolling through Instagram, encourage skepticism. Ask, “Is that what he really looks like?” or “How much time do you think she spent making that picture?” Don’t worry if you get an eyeroll in response—that’s a win. An eyeroll lets you know your message was received.

Shift the Focus 

There are lots of ways for young people to feel good about their bodies that don’t have to do with their exteriors. Studies show that girls who participate in sports have higher body esteem than girls who don’t—and not just because they might look and be more fit. Body positivity is linked to the development of athletic skills. A teenager can take real pride in mastering how to dribble a soccer ball. And it feels great to make the pass that becomes a game-winning goal. (Something to keep in mind: Even though research tells us that overall, adolescent girls are more likely than boys to feel unhappy about their physiques, our sons can suffer from body image concerns too.) And apart from the boost provided by sports, exercising on its own contributes to building a good relationship with one’s body. It can provide a mental reset after a stressful day and release endorphins that trigger positive emotions. 

Another way to help teens feel good about their bodies without emphasizing appearance is to celebrate the many physical feel-good moments that brighten daily life. Teens love the smell of a great shampoo and soak up cuddles from the family dog or the comfort of a favorite pair of fuzzy slippers. As parents, we should always be on the lookout for ways to get our teenagers to appreciate how their bodies feel, not just how they look.

Model a Healthy Attitude 

Kids notice how we talk about and treat our own bodies, so it’s important to tune in to the messages we’re sending. Tweens sometimes say things like “I hate my thighs!” or “I need to lose weight” because it sounds, to them, like a grown-up thing to say. But it’s all too easy to go from saying it to actually believing it. So, however you may feel about your own body—and, to be sure, plenty of adult women struggle to maintain a positive body image themselves—talk kindly about your appearance, both for your own sake and your teen’s. Frame conversations about eating and exercise in terms of taking great care of yourself rather than focusing on trying to look a certain way. If your New Year’s resolutions include going on a diet or upping your workouts, let your teenager know that you’re hoping to feel better/stronger/more energetic, not that you’re striving to shed unwanted pounds. 

One note, though: If you’re truly overweight, be honest about that—the fact that it’s a health risk to be drastically above your ideal weight is also a legitimate message for teens to hear—and be upbeat about the approach you’re taking. Be upbeat about your teen’s activities too: When your 15-year-old has spent the afternoon on the couch playing video games, point out that they’re not giving their body the exercise it deserves and that will help them sleep better at night (which, you might point out, would make them even better at those video games!). Or when they tell you they’ve decided that snacks are now no bueno, point out that eating nutritious food throughout the day will give them a steady stream of energy.  

Conversations about body image aren’t easy, but the good news is that family life comes with constant opportunities to learn more about how your teens feel about themselves and how they’re coping with the crazy heap of cultural pressures to look a certain way. When we encourage our kids to become comfortable with their bodies, we help them develop the lifelong healthy relationship with their appearance we all want—and deserve. 

About our expert

Psychologist Lisa Damour, PhD, lives in Shaker Heights, OH, with her husband and their two daughters. She is the author of Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions Into Adulthood and the forthcoming Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls.