Your Child's Body Image

Body image is the way your child feels about his or her body and physical appearance. Your child may like some things about his or her body but not others. Your child's thoughts and feelings may change over time. Body image problems can be mild or severe. A severe body image problem can lead to long-term problems such as anorexia. A healthy body image is an important part of self-esteem (thinking he or she is valuable).

When may body image problems start?

Body image problems are most common during adolescence but can affect children of all ages. You may start to notice your child focus more on his or her appearance right before adolescence. This is when he or she may start to become self-conscious or feel awkward. Your child may dye his or her hair often, get new piercings, or use heavy makeup. He or she may start dressing differently than before. These are all ways your child can explore his or her body image.

What increases my child's risk for body image problems?

  • A parent who is overly concerned about his or her own body image
  • A parent who makes negative comments about the child's appearance
  • Pressure from friends or classmates to look a certain way
  • Being teased about appearance
  • A desire to fit in with members of a certain group
  • TV, Internet, or magazine images of people your child thinks he or she should look like
  • Physical signs of development happen in friends before they happen to your child
  • Changes from puberty, such as acne, extra fat, or a growth spurt that make your child feel self-conscious
  • Gender identity that is different from his or her birth sex

What are the signs and symptoms of body image problems?

Some parts of a person's appearance will change over time. This may make negative thoughts temporary. Signs and symptoms that continue or become worse may be a sign of a more serious body image problem. Any of the following can become a long-term problem:

  • Critical thoughts about his or her body or appearance
  • A need to ask other people about how he or she looks
  • Not believing someone who compliments how he or she looks
  • A need to look in the mirror often, or not wanting to look in the mirror at all
  • Spending long periods of time getting dressed, or working on hair or makeup but still not being satisfied
  • Seeing something in the mirror that is different from what people say they see
  • Not wanting to be seen in public because of a fear that others have negative thoughts about his or her appearance
  • A need to eat very little or to count every calorie eaten
  • Use of diet pills, smoking cigarettes, or exercising too much to increase weight loss

What can I do to help my child develop a healthy body image?

  • Be patient. A focus on body image is common, especially during adolescence. Your child may have a hard time forming self-esteem that is not tied to physical appearance. Set limits for your child, such as the amount of time spent working on hair or makeup. Your child needs to know what is allowed for piercings or certain types of clothing.
  • Be a good role model. Do not criticize your own appearance. Do not make comments about being on a diet or needing to lose weight. Set an example for your child by maintaining a healthy weight, eating healthy foods, and exercising regularly.
  • Listen to your child. Encourage your child to talk about any body image problems. It may be helpful to tell your child how you felt about your body when you were that age. Ask for more information on gender identity if this is causing your child to have body image problems.
  • Tell your child what you like about him or her. Focus on qualities that are separate from appearance. For example, your child may be creative or have a good sense of humor. It is okay to compliment something physical about your child, but do not focus on appearance.
  • Explain how puberty affects growth. Children tend to gain weight and grow quickly during puberty. Your child may think his or her arms or legs are too long or nose is too big. Explain that these are normal changes that will become balanced when puberty ends. Your child's healthcare provider may be able to suggest ways your child can control acne or other problems during puberty.
  • Do not compare your child to another child. Do not make comments that make your child feel different. For example, do not tell your child that losing weight should be easy because a sibling is slender.

What can I do to help my child build a strong, healthy body?

  • Do not focus on changes you think your child needs to make. For example, your child's healthcare provider can tell you if your child's weight is in a healthy range. You can help by encouraging healthy foods and exercise to help reach or maintain a healthy weight.
  • Do not put your child on a diet. Your child's healthcare provider can help you create a safe weight loss plan if your child does need to lose weight. Your child needs a variety of foods every day to get the nutrition he or she needs. Offer your child healthy foods and snacks. Help your child make healthy food choices. Do not punish him or her for eating something that is not part of the meal plan. Talk about the decision and explain what would have been a healthier choice.

Help your child get more activity. Encourage at least 1 hour of physical activity each day. Your child may enjoy activity more if the whole family participates together.

  • Limit your child's screen time. Screen time is the amount of television, computer, smart phone, and video game time your child has each day. It is important to limit screen time. This helps your child get enough sleep, physical activity, and social interaction each day. Your child's pediatrician can help you create a screen time plan. The daily limit is usually 1 hour for children 2 to 5 years. The daily limit is usually 2 hours for children 6 years or older. You can also set limits on the kinds of devices your child can use, and where he or she can use them. Keep the plan where your child and anyone who takes care of him or her can see it. Create a plan for each child in your family. You can also go to for more help creating a plan.
  • Talk to your child about not smoking. Adolescents may become interested in smoking. This may be a way of fitting in with members of a group or controlling his or her weight. Talk to your child about the dangers of smoking. Explain that e-cigarettes and smokeless tobacco products also contain nicotine and should not be used. Set firm rules that your child is not allowed to use any form of tobacco.

Call 911 if:

  • Your child tries to harm himself or herself, or does something to cause harm.

When should I seek immediate care?

  • Your child's heart is beating fast.
  • Your child fainted.

When should I contact my child's healthcare provider?

  • You have questions or concerns about your child's condition or care.