One of the most exciting things that can happen for children is entering a new phase of their growthful lives whether that be preteens (the early stages of social independence) or teenage years (growing independence and role models for society). Regardless of the significant developmental stage your children are entering as 2024 begins, one of the most important components of their confidence is the relationship they have with their bodies and how much their mind impacts that connection. For many, starting the New Year comes with a lot of excitement related to the anticipation of what adventures are on the horizon. However, one of the most challenging aspects of taking on a new level of independence as a teenager or preteen is understanding that you are now in much more control of the decisions you make about the care of your body and mind. Therefore, with a lot of added social pressure and exposure to a variety of often unrealistic images online, mealtime can be very stressful, anxiety provoking, and create struggles with their self-confidence.
Often times regardless of the data provided to certain people from their Pediatricians that indicate a healthy body size and shape, preteens and teenagers have a skewed version of their own reality and can start to engage in extremely unhealthy eating patterns and a disconnect with the relationship they may have with their body. It is not about the “right” body type, it is about “the right body type for you.” One of the most important conversations you can have with your children prior to High School is one that focuses on a healthy body image. A formal discussion is crucial and not one while you are at a red light, but more so where you know they feel your support, your understanding, and your guidance to what is healthy.
Without hyper-focusing on body image, it is important to acknowledge that I have seen children as young as five years old tell me that they are not happy with how their body looks leading them to wear excessively loose clothing, not happy when they have to be in the pool in front of others, and the raving thoughts that emerge when they are viewing images online. If children that young are making these comments, it is clear the education and information on healthy relationships with their bodies can start as early as Kindergarten and continue well beyond High School. Our adolescents need to know what they put in their bodies will have a direct influence on how they think, feel, and concentrate. If they have a diet of too much sugar, they may have much higher levels of Anxiety and mood dysregulation because of the high sugar content in the food they are eating. If they are not burning off the excess sugar they are eating through some form of routine exercise and activity, they can often experience a series of highs and lows throughout the day due to disproportionate amounts of sugar.
Regardless of what grade your adolescent is currently in, body-esteem (i.e., how they feel about their bodies) and self-confidence present themselves in a variety of ways at all ages (even as adults). Every teenager has different dietary needs to maximize what their body can digest and metabolize without challenges. However, the key is to be sensible and help your teenagers see that they can be involved in the process to maximize how their bodies can feel.
Help your teenager build their confidence and knowledge with healthy eating by establishing what their options are for breakfast, lunch or dinner each school day. Reward them for packing their lunch and eating breakfast. Instead of using their time to worry about not feeling right about their bodies, use that time to eat a well-balanced breakfast to start the metabolism immediately upon wakeup so that the body can feel nourished, loved, and cared for, rather than ignored until dinner time! Even though at times, teenagers will start taking on part-time jobs and thus have their own funds at their disposal, discuss with them the value of having Coke, Pepsi, Red Bulls, Monster drinks, ketchup chips, and a wagon wheel for lunch. Let them know that Froot Loops, Fruit by the Foot, and Fruit Juice boxes are not fruits. Help your children see which options are best for them. We nourish our friendships and family relationships by caring for one another, spending intentional time with these people in our lives leading to healthier relationships, why not do the same with your body and the relationship you could have, short-term and long-term? Regardless of the stage of life, remember, as long as your offspring are living in your house, you are likely still buying the groceries, help them become confident shoppers with you and decide with your teenagers what goes into the cart and on your shelf at home.
The more aware and confident teenagers can become with what they are putting in their bodies, the more likely they are to become happier with how they feel about what they ingest and how they feel about themselves. Moreover, the more willing they are to put forth the effort to maintain a healthy body by balancing what they are eating they are likely more willing to engage in physical activity to help create that balance. Regardless of what their intention is for exercise or the VERY early stages of weight training, it is important not to focus on the numbers, as we want to try and stay away from any early and unnecessary calorie/carbohydrate/fat content/mount of lifting power counting and remain focused on a healthy understanding of what will help them reach their overall fitness goals. However, if you start to notice your preteen and teenager focused on counting calories or obsessing over numbers when they exercise, address it yesterday. A select number of resources that can help with this are: The Body Image Workbook for Teens: Activities to Help Girls Develop a Healthy Body Image in an Image-Obsessed World by: Julia Taylor & Melissa Atkins Wardy, Body Image for Teen Boys by: Michael G. Smith, Raising a Healthy, Happy Eater: A Parent’s Handbook: A Stage-by-Stage Guide to Setting Your Child on the Path to Adventurous Eating by: Nimali Fernando & Melanie Potock and Body Image for Teens by: Erin Smith.
Regardless of the age of your preteens and teenagers, identifying the importance of following a balanced diet and the ability for them to see a healthy body type and image when they look in the mirror each day is crucial to equip them with the psychological benefits of mealtime and healthy exercise or physical activity. Starting the year off right and remaining consistent will likely help contribute to finishing the year the same way; more confident, happier, and purposeful when focused on mealtime and the internal dialogue they have with themselves about their bodies. Whether your preteen or teenager is involved in competitive athletics or dance or not, it does not matter, what matters most is that they pay closest attention to a healthy view of themselves and not to rely on perceived healthy images, regardless of gender. Revisit this topic throughout the year with your preteen or teenager so that both of you are on the same page with what is healthy and with what will maintain their consistency with how confident they can feel about what they see in the mirror.