When your little girl was, well, little, she thought you hung the moon. Which is why modeling a healthy body image was so important in the early years (for more on this type of indirect influence, see How to Help Your Daughter Love Her Body). But even if you carefully lay the groundwork for your child to have a positive relationship with her body, the teen years will throw everything out of whack. Her friends’ opinions trump yours. Still, your conversations at home matter—and tell Dad he’s not off the hook.
One 2013 study at the University of Minnesota found that even in families with normal-weight kids, about a third of both mothers and fathers frequently discussed weight and dieting. The teens whose dads chimed in were much more likely to form unhealthy habits, such as binge-eating, than were those whose dads were silent. “For many girls, Dad is the most influential male in their lives. If he seems overly concerned with how people look—even joking with mom about her weight—that can have a detrimental effect on how a girl thinks about her body,” says Ann Kearney-Cooke, Ph.D., a psychologist at the Cincinnati Psychotherapy Institute.
The trickiest thing about this time? Her body is changing in ways that can crack her confidence. (“Some girls going through puberty tend to gain weight first in their middles,” says Kearney-Cooke.) So pay attention, be present, and follow this advice.
Don’t blow her off. When your daughter does open up about hating her belly, don’t say, “Oh stop, you’re still so thin.” Listen with sympathy. “Explain how her body will continue changing for a few more years, but it will probably all settle in by 17 or 18,” says Kearney-Cooke. If you notice that she’s skipping meals or spending an excessive amount of time in front of the mirror (examining her waistline rather than pretending to have bangs), talk to your pediatrician and check out information on recognizing eating disorders, such as that at FEAST-ed.org.
Defuse hurtful words. Because appearance is such an explosive issue at this age, it becomes an easy weapon. When a kid in her class hurls out “thunder thighs” (that old gem), acknowledge that your child is hurt and upset. (See above, “Don’t blow her off.”) Then offer reassurance, says Markey: “You’re beautiful! I love you just the way you are. Just ignore them.” If she’s stuck on it (My thighs are fat!), ask what you can do together to make her feel better. “Make sure she has clothes that fit and that she feels good in. Help her find an activity that she loves. If she’s new to it and worried about looking silly, get lessons,” says Chadwick.
Limit the selfies. The teen years were hard enough before the scrutiny that comes with Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat. A recent psychological study conducted at American University, in Washington, D.C., found that the more time adolescent girls spent looking at photos of friends on Facebook, the worse they felt about their own bodies. Encourage your child to post pictures of artwork that she made or links to her favorite songs instead of endless posed shots, says Evelyn Meier, a coauthor of the study. Be a good example: Limit your own time (and selfies) on social media, too.
Watch TV with her, as painful as it can be to sit through hours of Jessie. Shows give you natural opportunities to talk about the pressure to look perfect, says Markey. Point out how much work the actors have to do behind the scenes to maintain those TV-ready looks or how the cast bears little resemblance to real-life people. “Kids are bombarded from all sides about how they’re not perfect—ads on TV for diet shakes and push-up bras,” says Markey. “You can counteract that by teaching an acceptance of all kinds of bodies.”
Watch out for your boys, too. They aren’t immune to body insecurities, although it’s rarely about being thinner. “Boys want that V-shape, with muscular shoulders and a slim waist,” says Kearney-Cooke, who says she is seeing more and more boys in her practice. A 2014 Harvard Medical School study found that boys who think that they’re too skinny, even when they’re a normal weight, are at an even greater risk for depression than boys who think they’re too heavy. And because there’s a stereotype that these are girl issues, boys are less likely to talk to their parents. Pay attention to how much he works out, and avoid teasing a slight kid about “bulking up.”