This article is brought to you in collaboration with KK Women's and Children's Hospital.
Believe it or not, research suggests that pre-school kids as young as three start forming an opinion about themselves. Globally, by the time they reach teenage years, at least 70% of children feel dissatisfied with the way they look.
Dr Chew Chu Shan Elaine, a Senior Consultant from the Adolescent Medicine Service, Department of Paediatrics, at KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital (KKH), has been specialising in paediatric medicine and adolescent health since 2011. She works closely with families, young children and adolescents managing obesity and eating disorders. We find out from her what parents should look out for and how to help children tackle body image and build self-confidence.
“Children with obesity have higher likelihood of having poor body image. Both conditions are increasingly common worldwide in the past few decades. In Singapore, concerns about body image tend to develop around the beginning of puberty with physical changes in the body.”
Traditionally, while we are inclined to associate poor body image with girls, boys suffer from it too, as both are subject to stereotypes of the “ideal body type”.
In addition, we could have neglected the extent to which these two factors influence kids’ self-perception.
1. Media and culture
In today’s landscape, both adults and children are inundated by ease of access and over-exposure to electronic devices and media. Pop culture, fashion trends, what’s in and what’s not… these are even more easily propagated by social media nowadays. Kids start being tech-savvy from very young, though unfortunately, it does not equate to them being discerning.
2. Adult & peer influence
From teachers, coaches, relatives to yes, even parents, all of us adults are being observed by kids. What we say, how we say it, and even our facial expressions and body language are not lost on the children who pick up things faster than we realise. Within sight, we can try to block or filter what our kids see in the media. Unfortunately, they can still find out things by interacting and comparing with peers at school or play.
The resulting negative effects should be taken seriously.
- Mentally… from anxiety, stress and depression to low self-esteem and self-confidence. Neglecting mental well-being adversely affects other aspects of life, such as socialising, willingness to participate in physical activities and even academic performance.
- Physically… eating disorders such as anorexia, binge-eating and bulimia often lead to severe weight gain or loss, and serious health problems. Some teens may also resort to dangerous methods to lose weight, such as obsessive dieting, taking pills or laxatives.
Dr Chew highlights, “In our area of work, we encounter teenagers who were previously overweight and subsequently developed eating disorders. They were frequently teased or bullied about their weight, by peers and even family members, resulting in poor body image with low self-esteem. Separately, teenagers who participate in competitive sports such as gymnastics and dance are also at higher risk of eating disorders and poor body image, as these activities tend to emphasise weight and body shape.”
“Fortunately, there are parents who noticed this in their teenage children and sought help early for eating disorders. Sport coaches also play a vital role in promoting healthy behaviours and positive body image. Often, getting help early from these parties can help children recover well, with lower chances of relapse.”
It is thus important to help our kids develop a positive body image from young, and help them build stronger self-confidence.
In school, a Character and Citizenship Education (CCE) curriculum equips students with age-appropriate knowledge and skills to help them build healthy self-esteem and positive self-identity.
At home, parents can start making a difference in these ways.1. Converse, converse, converse (and how best to do so)
- Teach: Educate kids about their body and guide them on taking good care of themselves. Let them know that teasing others about weight can hurt their feelings – just like we will not enjoy being teased - and every body size and shape should be respected.
- Talk: Instead of talking about exercising to lose weight and looking more attractive, get them interested in working out for a fitter and healthier body for life’s challenges or in signing up for sport events that have family or parent-child categories. Compliment kids on their positive actions and behaviours, such as when they share their toys or food with friends, instead of their physical appearance. Emphasise on what makes them special the way they are, or how their facial features take after parents – proof that the family shares a tight bond.
- Think: Instil the mindset that character and personality are more important than just physical appearance. Cultivate a love and taste for food – albeit healthy options – and not just eat mindlessly.
Photo 1: Dr Chew and her children having a family day out.
As a mother of two children, Dr Chew shares, “I use story books and online resources to initiate conversations with my older child, particularly in educating her about body changes around puberty and to promote a positive growth mindset. On a daily basis, I chat with my children about how their day went – this is a good way to validate their emotions and encourage them to be positive role models to their peers by placing less emphasis on appearance and more on abilities and skills.”
Photo 2: Dr Chew and her children enjoying the Christmas cheer one year
2. Moderate content
- Besides filtering content our kids see, join them in watching programmes or reading books, and make conversation over what you see. (You may like this booklist for kids.) Discuss how people onscreen are being portrayed, highlight positive character traits and behaviours, and welcome differences in physical appearances.
- Engage them further when they talk about trends and celebrities. Ask why they think the way they do, and take the opportunity to understand them better. If necessary, rectify misconception or when they express self-doubt.
3. Eat well and eat right… together
- Teach our kids about food and what is good for them.
- Give them a say in what they eat, and guide them to make the right choices.
- Set a good example by not skipping meals or making unhealthy food choices - remember, the kids are watching.
- Enjoy family meals together, at home or outside, and make this a fun and regular activity they look forward to.
4. Work out… as a family
- Complement physical activities in school by giving kids access to other sport they may be interested in. Better yet, join them! Check out what ActiveSG Academies and Clubs have to offer here.
- Bonding over physical activities is just as important as eating together - make outings and parent-child games part of family time. Find plenty of suggestions here.
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Lastly, Dr Chew reminds fellow parents, “Understandably, wider societal and media influences make it extra challenging for us to raise confident and healthy children. But remember, being a role model for our children through our own healthy behaviour and positive mindset is definitely one of the most important ways to help them.”