The #1 question I get from the mums I work with is, “how can I help my daughter have a healthy body image?” It can be such a delicate challenge for those of us parenting pre/teen girls. I deeply empathize with both mums and daughters because a LOT is changing for both our girls and us.
Starting around 8-years old, our “little girl” begins what will be a metamorphosis into adolescence. To kickstart this, her brain starts sending signals to her body to begin to prepare for puberty. Before she even starts showing signs of puberty on the outside (breast changes, hair growth, periods), hundreds of small changes are happening within her body!
One important change that occurs in her body is the storage of subcutaneous body fat. This store is 100% necessary (fuel) for her growth and for the onset of her period to occur successfully. In other words: it is normal for your daughter to gain some weight in her pre-teens, usually around her tummy. It means her body is doing its job!
Having said that, all these changes – especially when they are sudden – and accompanied by the pressures of society for girls – can cause anxiety and body image issues in our girls.
Here are SIX ways we can start today to help her build body confidence and support her through this tumultuous (but also exciting) time in her development.
1. Focus on Health, NOT on weight
Give her lots of incentives to move her body and exercise! Dancing is an excellent one! (And adds many other benefits such as socializing, confidence and building vital interests before adolescence).
2. Focus on Actions, NOT on looks
There is excessive focus on girls’ bodies in society today. Girls get these messages everywhere they look: advertising, movies, youtube, inadvertent comments. The universal message is your value comes from what you look like. Which clearly isn’t healthy or sustainable.As mums, we can make a difference to this narrative. Let’s shift the focus to all the other wonderful things our girls DO and their capabilities.It’s okay every now and then to compliment her on how she looks but make sure you give much more focus to what she DOES and the qualities she shows as a human being (e.g. kindness, curiosity, determination, self-expression) over what she looks like.
3. Point out our body’s value
Our bodies allow us to achieve so much. And we have this body for life, so we need to take care of it and value all it does.
Remind your daughter of this. Think about how you talk about your own body too. So often, mothering our girls through pre-adolescence and adolescence can be a trigger for us, reminding us of our own struggles during this time in our own lives. It’s the perfect time for us to recognize that it may not be the same for her, and we can change the narrative and support we give her this time around.
Tell your daughter how your body has served you. Point out how hers serves her. Show respect in how you talk about it and treat it!
A beautiful activity to do with your daughter is to take some time out, grab a yoga mat and do my Body Appreciation Meditation for mums and daughters. So often, we go through our days (and much of our lives) neglecting our bodies, and this is 10 minutes dedicated to remembering all they do for us.
4. Educate her on Puberty
Our girls often feel overwhelmed and anxious when her body begins to change. Early puberty has actually been associated with increased eating disorder risk as girls are not ready for body changes. Having talks on puberty may feel awkward, but it is a great and important step in helping her psychologically prepare for these changes. Plus it builds trust with her and sends the message that you are someone she can rely on to help her and answer questions along the way.
There are so many great books and programs that you can watch or read with her. It can be helpful to read and re-familiarize yourself with the resources before giving them to her, as she may have questions for you!
Here are some of my favourite resources:
Amazing Me Education
Pippin Girl Magazine series for Mums & Daughters
Welcome to Your Period by Yumi Stynes and Dr Melissa Kang (Book)
What’s Happening to my Body by Lynda Madaras (Book)
Little Miss Period
Perhaps the biggest thing we can do for our daughter is to celebrate the changes that are happening and normalize them. We all go through it, and it really is remarkable that our bodies know what to do all by themselves to prepare and mature our bodies in this way.
5. Respect Diversity
Talk with your daughter about how all bodies aren’t supposed to look the same. Show them diversity in nature, like trees and animals – are they identical? No. Help them see how it is the same with people. We are all meant to be different, and trying to fit everybody into the same mould is unnatural and damaging. There are so many athletes and dancers who have diverse bodies and can do equally amazing things. Celebrate that!
6. Delay Social Media
Adding social media and a barrage of images of girls focused on being skinny at this vulnerable time is not helpful. Yet social media and phones are now being given to girls earlier and earlier, some as early as 7 years. Help your daughter build a strong base of confidence, self-regulation and skills BEFORE you sign her up!
Good luck, mama, you’ve got this!