What's one of the biggest influencers on a child's sense of self? The answer might surprise you.
From peer pressure to bullying to the desire to fit in, it’s easy for tweens and teens to fall victim to issues with their self-image. And what many parents may not realize is what they say about themselves can have as much of an impact on their child’s self-esteem as what goes on at school. In the crucial years of adolescence, children are coming to terms with their body image—and how parents behave with regards to their own physical appearance can drastically impact what their children see when they look at themselves.
Nix negative self-talk.
There are few adults who haven’t looked in the mirror and made a negative remark about muffin tops or thunder thighs, or who haven’t announced that they need to hit the gym more often. However, experts say that hearing Mom or Dad make negative comments about themselves—especially when it comes to their bodies or physical appearance—might have unintended serious effects on their son or daughter’s self-image.
“Self-esteem is the way you think about yourself, and the foundation for that is built at a young age…and highly influenced by parents and family members,” explains Risa Simpson-Davis, a licensed clinical social worker in Chester who specializes in working with teenagers, couples, and families. “Teens and tweens will always model what their parents do, and if Mom and Dad are constantly putting themselves down, it’s definitely going to have a negative impact on their teens’ own sense of self.”
According to Simpson-Davis, the parent of the same gender as the child should be especially vigilant about what she says about herself in front of her teenager. A mother making negative remarks about how she looks in a dress can affect how her daughter thinks about her own body the next time she’s getting ready for a school dance, while a father putting himself down for missing out on a promotion at work is more likely to make his son feel inadequate the next time he doesn’t perform well on a test at school.
Instead, parents should try to reframe any negative feelings they may be having in a positive way to help teach teenagers to be kinder to themselves and feel more confident about who they are as individuals.
“Instead of saying, ‘I look fat in this outfit’ in front of a teenage girl who is already preoccupied with her appearance, Mom can say, ‘I’m not at my ideal weight right now, but I think this dress looks nice on me’ to teach her daughter that she doesn’t have to be perfect to look good,” Simpson-Davis explains. “Calling himself ‘stupid’ or announcing that he ‘can’t do anything right’ because his boss didn’t like his report will make his child feel the same way if he receives a poor grade on a test, so Dad should instead say, ‘I know I’m valued as an employee, and I’ll redo my report now that I understand what my boss needs from me.’”
However, that doesn’t mean that Mom’s struggles with body image or Dad's poking fun at a celebrity for putting on a few pounds can’t be detrimental to offspring of either sex in how they see themselves.
According to Barbara Reese, a licensed clinical social worker and director of The Women’s Therapy Service of Montclair, LLC, both boys and girls struggle with self-image as it relates to their bodies. “A lot of the negative self-talk I hear from teenagers revolves around their appearance, and they often say that it really does bother them when they hear their parents putting themselves down or making negative comments about the way they look,” she says.
Additional words of caution: “Teenagers shouldn’t have to feel the need to tell their parents that they love them just the way they are.” Realize that you might be inadvertently putting your child in that position with such talk about yourself.
Consider the bigger takeaway.
According to Dr. Debra Gill, a clinical psychologist practicing in Livingston who specializes in weight and eating disorders, parents putting themselves down can send even bigger messages to teenagers than the need to have an ideal body type. “Parents who act disgusted when they look at themselves in a mirror, or refuse to appear in photographs, may be demonstrating that they are objects to be judged for their appearance as opposed to people who are experiencing life.” Gill says. “A teenager can then adopt that negative language and that type of judgmental attitude as appropriate ways in which to relate to themselves.”
Parents should also be aware of how a female’s struggle with self-image or self-esteem might manifest differently compared with that of a male—and the role that Mom or Dad can play in how teenagers deal with negative thoughts about themselves.
According to Dr. Sam Pirozzi, a psychotherapist in private practice in Totowa, a 13-year-old girl might be more inclined to verbally express any negative feelings she might be having in terms of her self-image—for example, making negative comments about the way she looks in a bathing suit—while a boy of the same age is more likely to express his feelings through actions. For example, Dr. Pirozzi says some teens may seek outlets for escape or coping mechanisms that help them feel more in control, such as withdrawing into books or video games.
He says other warning signs to look out for might include children acting out, using humor to reassure others that everything is all right, or striving for perfection in all facets of their lives, from academics to athletics. “Parents’ knowledge of their child’s readiness to address change, and their ability to respect the child’s point of view, is very important,” Pirozzi says. “The goal is always to help your teens find themselves, and be happy with who they are by embracing their uniqueness and individual gifts.”
Be a positive role model.
Equally as important as the way parents talk about themselves is how they behave in front of their teenagers. According to Reese, a parent who opts to remain in a career that makes her unhappy, or who maintains unhealthy relationships with people who make him feel poorly about himself, can send seriously negative signals to a teenager about her own sense of self-worth. “Parents are always role models for teenagers in how they treat themselves and each other…and that includes how they stand up for themselves,” Reese cautions.
“When Mom or Dad remains in a negative situation because they don’t feel confident enough to make a change in their life, such as seeking a new employment opportunity, that can be projected onto teenagers…who then feel as though they aren’t good enough to set goals or pursue their own happiness.”
When it comes to helping a teenager feel worthwhile as a person and comfortable in his own skin, parents should also be wary about making comparisons, such as those between siblings. “I’ve found that the source of a lot of low self-esteem occurs when teenagers feel the need to compare themselves to somebody else,” Reese says.
Likewise, parents should actively steer their kids away from comparing themselves to others. “So much of today’s society is based on the competition to be ‘attractive enough’ or ‘rich enough,’ and that’s why it’s especially important for parents not to compare themselves to anyone else, and to actively intervene when they catch their teens comparing themselves to a sibling, a friend, or even a celebrity,” she adds.
When a parent beats himself up over making a mistake, it can signal to a teenager that she should feel pressure to be perfect. Inquiring what questions were missed on a big test—as opposed to celebrating a grade of an A-minus—can have a similar impact on a teenager’s self-image. “If parents can learn to be compassionate towards themselves when they make a mistake, teenagers will follow suit,” Gill explains. “It’s important for teens to embrace the idea of accepting their imperfections and general fallibility that comes with being human, and parents can demonstrate that through compassion and self-acceptance—and even humor—when it comes to their own mistakes.”
It all comes down to respect.
According to Simpson-Davis, perhaps the most important way for parents to model a healthy, positive self-image for their teens lies in the way they communicate with each other. Readily offering compliments, praise, and respect will demonstrate to teens the proper way to relate to themselves. “Sometimes just knowing how to accept a compliment from your spouse goes a long way in helping your teen understand how to feel good about herself,” she adds.
The way parents speak to each other is also a significant factor in how teenagers see themselves and relate to others as they develop relationships throughout their lives. “Parents have to be careful not to label themselves or each other, and make an effort to demonstrate and practice forgiveness so that teenagers know that everybody makes mistakes…and it’s okay not to be perfect,” Simpson-Davis concludes. ·
Jennifer L. Nelson is an NJ-based freelance writer who specializes in writing about health, fitness, parenting, and lifestyle issues.