Kids and body image: what every parent should know

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In collaboration with: Dr. Debra Katzman
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What does your child see when they look in the mirror? If they see "fat", "ugly" or "stupid", their negative body image can lead to a lifetime of low self-esteem and other issues. Here's how to help.

"Healthy adolescents care about how others see them," says Dr. Debra Katzman, the Medical Director of the Eating Disorders Program at The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. "And it's common for them to have some negative thoughts. But when a negative body image starts to disrupt their daily life, their relationships with family members and friends, or they become extremely moody or show unhealthy eating habits, then they need to seek professional help and support."

Another thing for parents to look for is their child's inability to let go of intense negative feelings about themselves. If they can't move on or let go, that could be a sign that they need more help than you can give them.

Reinforcing the positive

As parents, it's never too early to start reinforcing positive self-esteem and body image. That's true for both boys and girls. "A negative body image in girls usually involves their weight, shape and size. They may become obsessed with weight loss, even if they're at a healthy weight," explains Dr. Katzman. "Boys, on the other hand, may become obsessed with body building or muscle toning."

Even with young children, you can help instill a positive body image in your kids.

  • Talk about feelings. Ask your kids how they're feeling not just what they did at school that day. Over time, you may notice those intense negative feelings that just won't subside.
  • Be a healthy role model. "Kids notice their parents' eating attitudes and behaviours, and their daily activity," says Dr. Katzman. "So set a good example by demonstrating what healthy eating and exercise look like. Balance and moderation is key!"
  • Discuss puberty. In an age-appropriate manner, talk to your children about what to anticipate with respect to changes in body weight, shape and size, and feelings that come with the onset of puberty.
  • Create realistic images. "Help your children realize that not everybody should look the same," says Dr. Katzman. Give them a healthy respect for diversity by celebrating our differences.
  • Watch your language. "Stop making negative comments about yourself or other people's appearances," she advises.
  • Help kids understand media messages. "Help educate your kids about the media's portrayal of unrealistic body shapes and sizes for both men and women," she says.
  • Discourage dieting. If you are concerned about your child's weight, then see your healthcare professional. Discourage dieting of any kind without the consultation of a healthcare professional.
  • Speak up for all kids. "All adults — parents, coaches, teachers, camp counsellors — have the responsibility to ensure children are exposed to safe and healthy social environments," stresses Dr. Katzman. "If they witness or have concerns about teasing among children, parents have the responsibility to speak up so that all adults involved are aware of the situation and can do something about it."

Dr. Debra Katzman is the Head of the Division of Adolescent Medicine, and a Professor of Pediatrics in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Toronto, and the Medical Director of the Eating Disorders Program at The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto.

More Than Medication would like to thank Dr. Katzman for her valued contribution. Dr. Katzman was not compensated in any way for participating in the writing of this article.


  • Interview with Dr. Debra Katzman, Medical Director, Eating Disorders Program, The Hospital for Sick Children, website

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